V&A displays protest art by climate change activists Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an exciting movement. This progressive collective, calling for urgent action on climate change through acts of non-violent civil disobedience and disruption, has grown into an international force. XR’s first public action was in October 2018, when it urged the UK government to declare an ecological emergency and commit to reducing emissions to net-zero by 2025. Now there are some 363 XR groups active in 59 countries – all with a unified message. XR makes a visual statement wherever they appear thanks to the Art Group, an XR coalition of graphic designers and artists responsible for formulating a visual language that is powerful and works on a global scale.

Now, the V&A in London has acquired a series of XR protest artwork to explore how design, strong graphics and illustration, as well as the use of colour have contributed to the success of this explosive movement. On display in the Rapid Response Collecting gallery, are a collection of symbols and flags including the brilliant ‘extinction symbol’. Originally created in 2011 by the street artist ESP, it has since been adopted by XR featuring a circle to represent earth and a stylised hourglass to signify the end of time. 

The strong graphic impact of the extinction symbol, alongside a clear set of design principles, have ensured that their acts of rebellion are immediately recognisable,’ says Corinna Gardner, senior curator of design and digital at the V&A, who feels design has been a critical component of the group’s success. ‘Punchy colours, woodblock prints, and carefully worded slogans available for download empower members of the public to produce their own creative responses that collectively amplify the XR’s call to action.’

XR’s graphics are characterised by four core design elements: the use of the extinction symbol, the XR logotype, and a colour-palette of 12 playful tones including ‘lemon’ yellow and ‘angry’ pink – influenced by pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi – and the fonts ‘FUCXED’. Theirs has been about balancing joy and anger and with a bold, tongue-in-cheek approach, juxtaposing imagery of the natural world with skulls and bones. Gardner says XR’s design approach stands in relation to earlier protest movements, namely the Suffragettes who encouraged the wearing of purple, green and white to visually communicate their cause.

The V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting programme enables the acquisition and immediate display of design objects that address questions of social, political, technological and economic change. Since 2014, the collection has grown to over thirty objects that chart the impact of contemporary design on the world today.

These latest objects are fascinating in that they collectively reveal how XR has harnessed the power of open-source design to develop a coherent and impactful visual identity. The rebellion to save this planet is a global protest and XR have shown that design can play a crucial role in amplifying the message. The group’s urgent visuals articulate hope, simultaneously outlining the grave consequences of climate change.

All images (c) Chris J Ratcliffe Getty Images for the V&A

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