Although he is deeply embroiled in a fair use lawsuit with the Associated Press, politically-charged artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey followed through with his scheduled Visions and Voices event Wednesday night, speaking to an overbooked Annenberg Auditorium about his role in art, culture and politics.
Most recognizable for his widely circulated Obama “Hope” posters during last year’s campaign season (the original photo from which the iconic image was created is at the center of his AP court case), Fairey’s work has always set out to blur the lines between politics and art.
After his infamous “Andre the Giant has a posse” stickers—which started spontaneously as an inside joke between skateboarding friends in 1989—garnered the attention of local media, Fairey became fascinated by the ability to incite a response through placing unfamiliar images in public space.
“This happy accident ended up becoming an obsession for me,” he told the crowd. “The more stickers that are out there, the more important it seems. The more important it seems, the more people want to know and then you’ve built something from nothing.”
So, grounding his interests in both the Sex Pistol’s conception of situationism (“people have become numb through repetition an they need unexpected spectacles to give them new perspective”) and Heidegger’s theory of phenomenology (“there are things that are unique that can reawaken one’s sense of wonder about their environment”), Fairey created a space where his “happy accident” could evolve into something more meaningful.
Naming his company Obey after an image repeated in an anti-capitalist B-movie, Fairey mass produced a line of posters, stickers and stencils that through hand exchange ended up on walls, overpasses and street signs worldwide.
“People follow the path of least resistance and are obedient just not to rock the boat. But when they’re confronted with the direct command to obey, it’s very unsettling,” Fairey said. “I am exposing it to inspire action.”
Throughout the conversation—which was lead by professor of American studies and ethnicity Sarah Banet-Weiser—Fairey scrolled through a slideshow of his works and spoke candidly about many of the pieces, even those (such as one portraying George W. Bush as a vampire) that might be viewed as immature.
“It’s a bit juvenile, I’ll admit, but that can be cathartic when you’re depressed about what’s going on,” Fairey said.
After eight years of frustration with the Bush administration, Fairey channeled his anger into support for Barack Obama during the 2008 elections. And although his very vocal endorsements for the former Illinois governor might have seemed overzealous, Fairey acknowledges that Obama is not the cure-all that the “Hope” posters idealized.
“He’s just a foot in the door—a step in the right direction,” Fairey said.
But a presidential victory is not enough to quell Fairey’s overtly propaganda designs and some of his recent works focus on issues such as stopping global warming and creating immigration reform.
“I’m still disappointed in us,” Fairey said. “Idiots are controlling the conversation. Glenn Beck has an audience and that makes me want to kill myself.”
When the floor finally opened for questions from the audience, a student wearing an Obey Giant T-shirt stood at the microphone and noted that Fairey recently complicated his ongoing lawsuit with the AP by admitting to lying about which photo he used for the “Hope” poster. The student’s question created palpable tension in the room: “What was your motivation behind not giving the truth initially?”
Without hesitation or insincerity, Fairey admitted to the wrongdoing.
“It’s going to be something I regret for the rest of my life,” Fairey said. “I did something dastardly that I shouldn’t have done. I’m an honest person and it was a very difficult confluence of circumstances that led me to make a very bad decision.”
He then explained the historical context of fair use laws (which he claims are on his side regardless of which photo he used) and was starting to describe other technicalities when his wife, Amanda, interrupted him from the front row.
“Wrap it up,” she said.
Then, in a moment of spontaneity similar to the one that created his initial Andre the Giant stickers, Fairey responded to his wife’s concerns.
“It’s okay,” Fairey said. “These principles are available online. You can go on Google like I did to get the image.”