Susan Yelavich | Interviews

A Sign of Resistance; A Symbol of Hope

As Polish citizens gathered to protest a bill that signals a national shift away from democracy, thousands of them brandished, clung to, wore, and waved  one simple graphic designed by Luka Rayski: a poster saying “Konstytucja”, which means “constitution” in Polish. Colored to emphasize the “ty” (“you”) and “ja” (“me”), these eleven letters on a field of gray spoke volumes about the desires and values of these Polish people.

Mateusz Halawa, Head of Social Sciences and Humanities at the School of Form in Poland, helped lead the production and distribution of the poster. Halawa spoke with Susan Yelavich, Associate Professor and Director of the MA Design Studies program at Parsons, about how his team went from thinking they’d have to print posters on an office printer, to securing a print partner, to distributing a car full of posters—now distributed around the world. When it comes to making changes to the democratic process, it’s all about scale. But movements often start small, and in the same way—with you and me.

Susan Yelavich: How long have you been involved in the judiciary protest movement?

Mateusz Halawa: On Thursday, July 20, I went to a mass protest in front of the Presidential Palace. There, I saw a group of people carrying blurry printouts of the KONSTYTUCJA poster. They must have taken it from the internet as a low-res jpg. I’m close friends with Luka Rayski, the author, and Marianna Grzywaczewska and Edgar Bąk, who a year earlier had started the initiative called Demokracja Ilustrowana (Democracy Illustrated), commissioning designs about modern forms of patriotism, including from Luka. That poster was not designed for this occasion.

The next day, a group of friends and I sat at a cafe, and worked our contacts to raise some funds and find a printer. We had hoped to print maybe 500 to 700 copies to distribute. We were anticipating printing posters on our office laser printers, so Edgar Bąk changed the background to gray from its original black (with permission of the author):

Everyone who saw the poster loved it and we quickly raised money and found a professional offset print shop, whose owner fell in love with the idea the moment we sent the file. He paused all of his own commercial work to expedite our printing and waved off our budget concerns. By Friday evening, I had picked up 7000 professionally printed posters. Larger batches followed through the week.

SY: How you get the posters to the protesters?

MH: On Friday night there was a big demonstration at the senate. We were a bit surprised that we had printed so many posters so quickly and we had no coherent strategy for circulation. I took my car full of posters to the senate and brought about 800 to a women’s group heading the protest. Our approach was to observe what happened next. We were concerned about littering (that people would use it as a flyer, look at it and drop on the ground — the protest was in a park in front of the senate). No such thing happened. Protesters were eager to hold the poster, and complimented the design. The printer really upped the quality so it was a nice artifact, on stiff paper, and with the word “Constitution” on it, some held it with respect. We started to notice other ways it was carried: a clenched fist in the air waving it; women holding it to their clothing with hair clips, men attaching it to their shirts by pulling a button through the paper, young parents attaching it to baby carriages. People kept asking for more, and so we kept on raising funds and printing more. Soon, we started to encourage people to take a bunch and distribute the posters themselves, and post them in common spaces of buildings, at work, on front doors.

Photo: Demokracja Ilustrowana

Soon, we decided to put the design online; that’s mostly how it got to other cities outside of Poland (we even have pictures of the poster at a protest in front of the Polish embassy in Tokyo). The poster was made available here and we let it have a free CC0 license, so people could remix it. It has been downloaded more than 13,000 times. People have made stickers, t-shirts, and bags.

Through NGOs, we also put it on screens in Warsaw’s trams and buses and on large visual screens on the Swietokrzyska subway station and at one of the busiest intersections of Warsaw. All of this was free and through goodwill.

Photo: Demokracja Ilustrowana

In Wrocław, someone liked the poster so much that they painted it themselves.

Photo: Demokracja Ilustrowana

SY: The design of the poster bears a little resemblance to an eye chart, but that wasn’t its rationale, was it?

MH: I never made this connection with Luka’s poster, but it’s funny you should say that, because among the posters done for Demokracja Ilustrowana there’s one based precisely on this concept, and it’s by none other than Mieczysław Wasilewski, one of the doyens of the Polish poster school, and who happens to be Luka’s stepfather!

Mieczysław Wasilewski for Demokracja Ilustrowana

SY: How did you and Luka meet?

MH: We go back to college years, when I was studying sociology and Luka was in the Academy of Fine Arts. We also both lived in New York for extended periods of time, as Fulbright scholars, hanging out and taking the L together (I was at New School for Social Research’s Anthropology program; Luka was doing an MFA at Parsons). For years, he read my stuff and I looked at his, but this was the first time we actually collaborated!

SY: What is the mood among the protesters?

MH: It has been shifting. I have seen people holding this poster against police barricades and angrily shouting “Disgrace!” at senators at 3 a.m. in the morning, and I have seen people holding it along with candles in a quiet vigil in front of the Supreme Court. It can be used to mobilize anger and to express gratitude, as some did to the president who vetoed a portion of the proposed preposterous reform.

SY: Has this poster made a difference in your mind?

MH: I think the protests themselves made a difference, energizing young people who weren’t politically active before, and sending a powerful signal. What was interesting to me about those two weeks was the amazing outpouring of grassroots lay and professional graphic design; these were very visual protests. Luka’s poster was arguably the most visible and its effect has been quite significant. It offers a visual sign for people to use however they please, and the key idea is very inclusive. While we have documented backlash and attempts to destroy or deface the poster, the beauty is in its simplicity and the fact that it’s tough to disagree with: constitution—you—me).

I’d like to share a quote from Jan Kubik, an anthropologist who works on Eastern Europe at University College London, author of the book The Power of Symbols Against the Symbols of Power). He wrote on his Facebook:
“Cosmopolitanism, liberalism, civil society, respect for law, separation of powers are not easily symbolized in aesthetically attractive and emotionally winning forms. Yes, there is the “Ode to Joy,” recently much heard in the streets of Warsaw (a hymn of transnational identity), there is the EU flag, but not much more.

This changed during this most recent Polish revolt. A poster that has recently appeared in the streets all around the country offers a “civic” symbol of anti-PiS resistance. It simply says “Constitution.” The artist (Luka Rayski) emphasizes two clusters of letters inside of the word: Ty (You) and Ja (I). Pure genius. The Constitution is not an abstract thing, “a sort of a small book” (as Kaczyński has recently called it), but a document that is vitally important to you and me, as it has something to say about us as individuals and as a collective. We are “in” the Constitution; there is a dimension of our relationship that needs to be regulated by this document and we are all for it, enthusiastically. […]

Finally, we have a powerfully emotive visualization of the significance of the rule of law. In Poland, everywhere.”

Photo: Demokracja Ilustrowana

Posted in: Graphic Design, Politics

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