Category: Prints - Posters

Siqueiros: A Print Dialogue

For those unable to attend the September 18, 2010, panel discussion, A PRINT DIALOGUE: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, this web log will provide coverage of the event, including photos and a rush transcript of the proceedings. Readers can look forward to these updates in the days following the panel discussion. The image used in this short notice is the official public invitation postcard and poster being distributed for the event.

Invitation card to Siqueiros panel discussion

No Human Being is Illegal

 No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Offset Poster. 19.5" x 22" inches.

My No Human Being is Illegal artwork was originally published as a bilingual poster in 1988.

The print helped to popularize the slogan, which has become a catchphrase of today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights.

To oppose the rising tide of discrimination aimed at the undocumented in the U.S., from Arizona’s racist SB1070 anti-immigrant law, to efforts by members of the U.S. Congress to overturn the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (which guarantees citizenship to children born on U.S. soil), I republished my poster in August of 2010, and it is now once again available for distribution and purchase.

The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

My bilingual street poster was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the United States. In the 1980s Central America was convulsed by war, revolution, and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the United States, only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Despite well documented evidence that the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala were actively engaged in the extrajudicial killings of tens of thousands of civilians, the U.S. government denied political asylum to the overwhelming majority of Central Americans who applied for it. Less than 3% percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking asylum in the U.S. were granted that status in 1984.

No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Detail.

"No Human Being Is Illegal" - Mark Vallen © Detail.

Today, economic warfare is driving Mexican immigrants to the U.S. On January 1, 1994, the governments of the United States, Mexico, and Canada, signed the so-called “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty that has brought great wealth to financial elites while impoverishing workers in all three countries.

When U.S. manufacturing plants moved to Mexico, where low wages and weak environmental laws assured super profits for U.S. corporations, American workers lost millions of good paying industrial jobs that provided decent benefits. Furthermore, employers were able to drive down the wages of American workers, eliminate their benefits, and undo workplace protections, by threatening to move operations to Mexico. While big business continues to export American jobs to Mexico, Mexican workers earn no more than they did before the passage of NAFTA. This begs the question, if capital can move freely across borders, then why not workers?

Another important aspect to the NAFTA debacle is that Mexico is the birthplace of corn. Scientific evidence has established that teocintle - the forerunner of today’s corn - was first cultivated some 7,000 years ago in Central Mexico. Corn is interwoven into Mexico’s unique national character and distinctive history. Until just recently more than 60 percent of cultivated land in Mexico was planted with corn, and some 18 million Mexican campesinos made a living by growing it - that is, until NAFTA. Cheap corn produced by U.S. corporate agribusiness has been flooding Mexico, and millions of Mexican farmers, unable to compete with the imported tariff-free corn, have lost their farms and livelihood. This has caused serious economic and social dislocation within Mexico, and the crisis is one of the root causes for undocumented Mexican laborers entering the U.S. for work.

When running for president in 2008, Senator Obama won the support of large sectors of American workers by promising to renegotiate NAFTA. His supposed position was that the treaty “did not have enforceable labor agreements and environmental agreements.” His official campaign booklet, Blueprint for Change, declared that “Obama believes that NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people. Obama will work with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to fix NAFTA so that it works for the American workers.” After winning the presidency Mr. Obama has done nothing about NAFTA, but he has turned his eye to the U.S./Mexico border.

No Human Being Is Illegal - Mark Vallen ©. Detail.

"Ningun Ser Humano Es Ilegal" - Mark Vallen © Detail.

Senator Obama captured the Latino vote by promising to move towards implementing “comprehensive immigration reform” during his first year in office. As president, he announced to the press on April 28, 2010, that he was taking immigration reform off his agenda of major priorities, saying “I don’t want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn’t solve the problem.”

He went on to say, “If you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people coming in, not playing by the rules, that’s a problem, and the federal government has been abdicating on its responsibilities for a very long time on this issue.” In a widely circulated news article by Associated Press writer Suzanne Gamboa, Obama made it clear that Democratic Congressional lawmakers lacked the “appetite” to deal with immigration reform while facing elections in November. Mr. Obama’s alleged immigration reform plans were dead in the water, and as Suzanne Gamboa put it - “sounding the death knell was Obama himself.”

On July 26, 2010, the Washington Post reported that “the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants.” The paper revealed that under Obama, deportations of the undocumented have gone up 25 percent higher than under the Bush administration. The paper went on to postulate that Obama was hoping “to entice Republicans” into supporting a yet to be formulated immigration reform plan. The increased deportations by Mr. Obama should not be viewed in isolation. Earlier this month he signed a $600 million dollar bill that pays for an extra 1,500 Border Patrol officers, agents that will supplement the president’s deployment of 1,200 U.S. National Guard soldiers to the U.S.-Mexico border. Obama has sent the largest number of soldiers, 524, to the State of Arizona, where the racist anti-immigrant law known as SB 1070 took effect on July 29, 2010.

In a further militarization of the border, Obama has deployed unarmed “Predator drone” surveillance vehicles to the region; the same type of remote control aircraft the president routinely uses to conduct “targeted killings” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration states the drones are currently “able to cover the southwest border from the El Centro sector in California all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, providing critical aerial surveillance assistance to personal on the ground.” The Christian Science Monitor reported the White House will have six drones in operation along the border by the beginning of next year.

It is for all of the above reasons that I decided to reprint my No Human Being Is Illegal poster.

Levi Artists: Lay Down Your Brushes

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

"Face It, You're A Man: Wear the Pants" - Dockers ad designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Draftfcb.

I was startled when printmaker Doug Minkler of Berkeley, California informed me that Levi Strauss & Co., one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the world, was operating an art printmaking workshop in San Francisco.

Minkler, a longtime artist and social activist, was chagrined that the corporate leviathan was whitewashing its poor labor practices by “branding” itself a champion of working people - and using the arts to do so.

This story really begins in 2003, when Levi Strauss & Co. closed the last of its U.S. manufacturing plants, eliminating thousands of good paying jobs for American workers. The company has since moved its manufacturing operations to nations like Mexico, Haiti, Bangladesh, China, and Cambodia, where wages are extremely low and workers easily exploited.

Now, through the efforts of ad firms and PR agencies, Levi Strauss & Co. is promoting itself as a conglomerate that is “a catalyst for change,” and the free printmaking workshop in San Francisco has been part of the marketing campaign. On August 26, 2010, Doug Minkler published an open letter to the arts community titled, Lay Down Your Brushes, entreating artists to reconsider their relationship to Levi Strauss, and to corporate support of the arts in general. The text of Minkler’s dispatch follows:

“Levi Strauss & Co., Wal-Mart’s largest worldwide strategic partner, is just finishing a two-month long advertising event in San Francisco via their Levi’s Free Printing Workshop. Artists from as far as Sacramento and the East Bay have made their way to the workshop to be part of the giant Levi Strauss advertisement campaign. The colorful and talented artists are not printing Levi’s logos, rather, they are printing their own art work. Most of the artists, especially the activists, would never consider creating advertising for the corporate giant, but somehow they have been seduced into helping Levi Strauss.

Some justify their advertising support by working on projects that will benefit non profits, others claim they have not been duped because they are addressing social justice issues on Levi’s tab.  A Levi’s workshop exhibit of well known activist artists titled ‘Mission Icons In Time Of Change‘ emerged from the Free Print Workshop in order to raise much needed funds for Plaza Adelante, a Mission self-help center for lower and middle class Latino families. So, what could be wrong with artists and the community finally getting a piece of the corporate pie?  I fear a lot.

Artists who accepted the free printing are tacitly saying to both the Levi Strauss corporation and the public that ‘Levi Strauss can use us for cleansing their reputation - their exploitative corporate labor and marketing practices are okay with us. Give us free printing and we will help you sell jeans and a false benevolent image.’ Levi’s co-optation of the artists’ positive image is accomplished by masking corporate advertisement with the legitimizing appearance of involvement in social justice efforts.

In Levi’s cloaked sales campaign, artists are kept far removed from the crass tactics involved in sales, consequently, artists are lulled into thinking that they have not compromised their principles. For the corporation, it is a ‘win win’ situation, but for the non-commercial artist, the ‘For Sale’ jacket they now wear is a problem.

I believe a more critical look at Levi Strauss & Co. is in order before more artists enter into a casual (or not so casual) relationship with this corporate giant.

1.  Levi Strauss & Co. is a worldwide corporation organized into three geographic divisions:  Levi Strauss Americas (LSA), based in the San Francisco headquarters; Levi Strauss Europe, Middle East and Africa (LSEMA), based in Brussels; and Asia Pacific Division (APD), based in Singapore.

2.  By the 1990s, the Levi brand, facing competition from other brands and cheaper products from overseas, began accelerating the pace of its U.S. factory closures and its use of offshore subcontracting agreements.  In 1991, Levi Strauss faced a scandal involving six subsidiary factories on the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, where some 3% of Levi’s jeans sold annually with the Made in the U.S.A. label were shown to have been made by Chinese laborers under what the United States Department of Labor called ’slave like’ conditions.  Today, Levi jeans are made overseas.  Cited for sub-minimum wages, seven-day work weeks with 12-hour shifts, poor living conditions and other indignities, Tan Holdings Corporation, Levi Strauss’ Marianas subcontractor, was forced to pay what were then the largest fines in U.S. labor history, distributing more than $9 million in restitution to some 1,200 employees.

3.  The activist group Fuerza Unida (United Force) was formed following the January 1990 closure of a plant in San Antonio, Texas, in which 1,150 seamstresses (primarily Hispanic women), some of whom had worked for Levi Strauss for decades, saw their jobs exported to Costa Rica. During the mid and late 1990s, Fuerza Unida picketed the Levi Strauss headquarters in San Francisco and staged hunger strikes and sit-ins in protest of the company’s labor policies (The above three historical facts about Levi Strauss were resourced from Wikipedia.)

If Levi’s labor practices are not enough reason for you to end your association with them, possibly their recent sexist, homophobic DOCKERS campaign encouraging men to ‘Wear the Pants‘ and welcoming people to ‘MAN Francisco’ will, or their ‘All Asses Are Not Created Equal‘ ad emphasizing variation in butt sizes but continuing to bombard women with images of the unattainable Barbie shape will, or perhaps their ever increasing sexualization of younger and younger girls via their skin tight low rider jeans will, or all of the above will.

In the 90’s, I taught printmaking in the mission at New College of California. One day my class was asked by the administration to create a poster for SF Poetry Week. The first question the students asked me was who were the sponsors? When I informed them that the sponsors were Levi Strauss, Nestle’s and New College, they not only refused the job, but produced protest posters against their college’s involvement. Next, they produced a series of posters that exposed Levi’s U.S. plant closures, their off-shore labor practices and Nestle’s deadly infant formula peddling. These images were either wheat-pasted in San Francisco or hung in the coffee shops in which the poetry events occurred. My refusal to stifle their anger and sense of justice eventually cost me my job.

I am not surprised by Levi’s latest marketing ploy. What I am surprised and disappointed about is how easily such a large number of artists were seduced. To my fellow artists, who oppose the capitalist/corporate model of production and who became artists for reasons other than money, I recommend that you re-evaluate your association with this corporate sponsor and then withdraw your participation.”

Something that author Naomi Klein wrote of in her book, No Logos, seems pertinent to this discussion. Klein noted the omnipresent corporate branding pervading every aspect of life in the U.S., to the point where “walking, talking, life-sized Tommy Hilfiger dolls, mummified in fully branded Tommy worlds,” can be found in all corners of the nation. Klein wrote that the conglomerates behind the marketable brands were less “the disseminators of goods or services than as collective hallucinations.” Artists working at the Levi print shop were aiding - whether they realized it or not - the corporate objective of controlling all public space.

When the Supreme Court voted in January 2010 to strike down restrictions barring corporations from showering political candidates with infinite amounts of money, a substantial number of Americans understood the decision as corruptive to the democratic process. But how is corporate patronage of elected officials all that different from big money sponsorship of the nation’s arts and culture? That is the question one needs to ask when considering the Levi-sponsored printmaking workshop.

The spectacle of Levi Strauss & Co. as a benevolent, socially responsible, and altruistic “corporate citizen” reminds me of a talk given by radical Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. His 2009 lecture, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, examines how charitable giving has become “the basic constituent” of today’s capitalist economy. Žižek contends that “In today’s capitalism, more and more, the tendency is to bring the two dimensions (charity and commerce) together in one and the same cluster, so that when you buy something - your anti-consumerist duty to do something for others, for the environment, and so on, is already included into it. If you think I’m exaggerating you have them around the corner, walk into any Starbucks Coffee, and you will see how they explicitly tell you, I quote their campaign; ‘It’s not just what you are buying - it’s what you are buying into.’ (….) You don’t just buy a coffee, you buy - in the very consumerist act - you buy your redemption from being only a consumerist.”

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

"We Are All Workers" - Ad campaign designed for Levi Strauss & Co. by ad firm, Wieden+Kennedy.

British artist Andrew Park has brilliantly animated Žižek’s incisive lecture for the British Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA). The First as Tragedy, Then as Farce animation is not only enthralling to watch, it offers an essential critical assessment of the type of “cultural capitalism” now being implemented at the Levi Strauss & Co. print workshop.

I have to mention the “We Are All Workers” marketing campaign launched by Levi’s for its new line of “work wear.” With the U.S. economy at a standstill, unemployment at levels not seen since the Great Depression, and millions of Americans losing their homes, Levi’s is promoting its expensive fashion line with proletarian sensibilities. Poster advertisements displaying slogans like “Everybody’s Work Is Equally Important,” “This Country Was Not Built By Men In Suits,” “Ready To Work,” and “We Are All Workers,” have appeared on city walls all across the United States.

But we are not all workers. Certainly those business executives that made the decision to close every Levis manufacturing plant in the U.S. are not workers, nor were their decisions made in the interests of working people.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s “Wear the Pants” and “All Asses Were Not Created Equal” campaigns were created by Draftfcb, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world, a firm that handles global conglomerates like Boeing, Dow, and Lilly. The “We Are All Workers” campaign was designed for Levi Strauss by the Wieden+Kennedy ad firm. Perhaps the two should be combined for a new “truth in advertising” marketing campaign - “We Are All Asses.”

Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts

Canto General - David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1968. Lithograph. 23.5 x 41 inches. This is print number 4 from the suite of lithographs created as illustrations for Pablo Neruda's epic poem, "Canto General."

"Canto General" - David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1968. Signed lithograph. 23.5 x 41 inches. This is print number 4 from the suite of lithographs created as illustrations for Pablo Neruda's epic poem, "Canto General."

On Saturday, September 18, 2010, I will be speaking about David Alfaro Siqueiros at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock California, during a panel discussion sponsored by the Autry National Center of Los Angeles and the José Vera Gallery of L.A.

Titled A Print Dialogue: Siqueiros & The Graphic Arts, the round-table talk will be moderated by Cynthia McMullen - Senior Curator for the Museum of Latin American Art, with fellow panelists including artists Wayne Healy and Luis Ituarte. Art historian Catha Paquette and curator Lynn LaBate, who collaborated on the Autry’s momentous exhibit Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied (which opens at the Autry on Sept. 24, 2010) will also appear as panelists.

The focus of the panel discussion at the Center for the Arts will be Siqueiros “as a print maker and graphic artist advancing a populist political agenda.” Known primarily for his monumental works of public art, Siqueiros in fact produced a number of lithographs, woodcuts, silkscreens, and mono-prints. He saw in printmaking the same capacity for revolutionary art as he did in the gigantic wall paintings that he and his compañeros in the Mexican Muralist Movement created. In my presentation I will spotlight a number of Siqueiros’ prints, the stories behind their creation, and why these socially conscious prints continue to resonate in today’s world. The panel discussion is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

Later that same evening the public is invited to attend a 7:30 p.m. reception at the nearby José Vera Gallery for Confronting Revolution: A Siqueiros Aesthetic, the gallery’s showing of prints by Siqueiros that includes his remarkable suite of ten lithographs titled Canto General (General Song). Created in collaboration with the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, the prints were published as illustrations in a special 1968 art book edition of Neruda’s classic 1950 Canto General, an epic work of poetry detailing the history of Latin America. The exhibit runs at the José Vera Gallery from September 4 until October 27, 2010.

In the days subsequent to the Sept. 18th panel discussion, I will post a full assessment of the event (with photos), along with additional details concerning the prints displayed at the José Vera Gallery. The Center for the Arts is located at 2225 Colorado Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90041-1142 (map). Phone: 323-226-1617. The José Vera Gallery is located at 2012 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, 90041 (map). Phone: 323-258-5050.

[ UPDATE: Lecturer and author Gregorio Luke, was originally scheduled to moderate the panel discussion. Mr. Luke had to cancel his appearance in order to lecture in China on behalf of the Mexican government.]