Over the weekend of 14th – 15th March, a truly innovative and exciting art project was unveiled across Bedford to give charities and community groups the chance to get their message across in a very, very, very big way.
The town of Bedford, which is one of the most cosmopolitan outside of London and a marginal seat in this year’s election, has commercial advertising billboards replaced with hard-hitting political cartoons encapsulating and distilling the ideals of various of the town’s charities and community groups.
The collaborative art project #BedfordVoices, which runs until April 12th, has seen two artists, a leading national political cartoonist and a top London advertising agency harness the power of billboard advertising and further the concept of public art, made even more poignant as we gear up to this year’s general election.
Bedford Creative Arts (BCA) (www.bedfordcreativearts.org.uk) commissioned former Royal College of Art graduates Dash MacDonald and Demetrios Kargolis (www.DashnDem.com) to use their experience of social experiment and intervention to develop a concept that takes inspiration from activists who transform public space. Through research of the political poster and the use of techniques, mechanisms and satirical cartoon to sell ideas, they worked with 8 community groups in a series of workshops, teaching them how to employ these skills in developing their own ideal message. Professional cartoonist Patrick Blower (www.patrickblower.com), known for his work with the Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard and the Guardian came on board to develop the message through hard-hitting images. The advertising agency McGarryBowen (www.mcgarrybowen.com) then provided expertise on writing slogans and how best to display the artworks, fitting with standardised billboard advertising conventions.
The groups involved include the Bedford and District Cerebral Palsy Society which sees an image of someone with the neurological condition shouting to Westminster through a megaphone constructed from a rolled-up ballot paper “Talk to me not my mum!”, Carers in Bedfordshire, which is depicted as ‘Britain’s Forgotten Army’ with an illustration of a group of carers from all backgrounds marching, and for The Multi-Heritage Organisation; a mother holding her child yet casting a shadow of a suicide bomber with the slogan ‘I’m a mother not an extremist.’ Other groups include TransBedford, which image highlights the ongoing lack of education on the issue of Transgender, Faith Community Church, Queens Park Community Orchard, The Shed Bedford, a men’s support group, and a community urban radio station In2Beats.
Dash MacDonald is one half of DashnDem, an artistic partnership whose work is exhibited internationally, explains:
“We are interested in the political poster and how it has played a key role in how political parties ‘speak’ to the people throughout the 20th century and now still, and how we can enable community groups to voice what they want to say using the language and techniques of the political poster. Specifically, the project draws from the historic use of satire and symbolic imagery to sell ideas. We see this project as an exciting collaborative experiment combining techniques from advertising and political cartoons to communicate the group’s message with grit and wit, as an alternative political in the run up to the 2015 UK General Election.
The process has seen fantasy election pledges written and performed in workshops with the groups condensed by ad agency McGarryBowen into emotive and impactful headlines expressing their desires for the future. These were then translated into arresting images by political cartoonist Patrick Blower with aim to create something that really works on a billboard.”
BCA selected eight groups to be represented, following an open call, to take part in workshops with a brief to imagine ideas of Utopia based on issues and values important to them. From 16 March- 12 April 2015, the cartoons will be exhibited across Bedford town centre at various locations and the public will be invited to a series of ‘walking tours’ where they can view the various works and discuss its ideas.
“We wanted to give a voice to some of the different communities in Bedford who may not always be heard”, says Dawn Giles, Chief Executive of BCA. “This commission has given the opportunity to explore, discuss and co-produce a people’s policies as an artwork for all to experience, posing powerful questions and thought-provoking messages that should get people talking and engaging.”
Patrick Blower, who also created the ground-breaking political animated cartoon feature, Livedraw, that ran on Guardian Online between 2009 –11, explains why cartoon became the most effective way of conveying these messages:
“At a time when the power of political cartoons is highly topical following the Charlie Hebdo affair this has been a really exciting commission working alongside artists and the ad agency, bringing together our three areas of expertise in a unique collaboration with cartoon at the forefront. As a cartoonist, I work predominantly with newspapers and magazines where there are quite rigid and formal rules but also where you can incorporate detail and know the reader will have time to digest and think about the picture and message. So creating for a billboard meant coming up with something that was instantly ‘gettable’ which was an exciting challenge.
“The joy of cartoons is that they can reach people in ways other mediums can’t, through strong simplified lines and recognized conventions that allow you to get around difficulties in representation. For these designs I used bright colours to make the visuals striking and punchy. One of my personal favourites is the Multi-Heritage Organisation where I saw the idea and execution almost simultaneously and it came together well. It was also layered in meaning; depicting a Muslim woman that should be looked at as an individual and not with the prejudiced preconception that she is a terrorist. This also ties into recent events where, as an art form, the cartoon has been very much under the spotlight regarding the right to freedom of speech.”
Kevin Chesters, Executive Planning Director at McGarryBowen, a London-based advertising agency who have worked on campaigns such as Marriott and United Airlines, explains the power of the ad and the opportunity for these community groups as this time:
“Advertising is going to play a key role in this election. Right now, all the campaigns seem to be focused on what politicians want to say rather than what people want to hear. Years of experience have taught us the best ads are the ones that talk to people about what they care about. That’s why we were really proud at mcgarrybowen to get involved in this project. This was helping turn the wishes of people in a town like Bedford, essentially the UK Election in microcosm, into simple, powerful messages. The people have spoken so let’s hope the candidates are listening. For their sake”