The Daily Heller: Integrating Message and Method

By Steven Heller
July 7th, 2023

Signal flew under my radar. I have seen one or two issues but hadn’t realized until the latest edition (edited by Alec Dunn and Josh MacPhee) how exceptional it is as a gateway to little and unknown polemical graphic material. “From the beginning of Signal, we have maintained an open-handed approach to political art,” write the editors. In this issue alone I learned about an under-reported slave rebellion reenactment, a vital proto-underground politico-cultural magazine’s stunning covers, the legacy of books published supporting the Black Panthers from around the globe, plus more novel content. Designed by Dunn and MacPhee (who also co-founded the Interference Archive), the digest size and full-color printing of Signal contributes to an entire package that, for a scholarly journal, is refreshingly accessible.

“We chose the title Signal for its obvious metaphorical implication: A signal is something concise and directed, a pointed communication that spurs action,” the editors add, “but signal is also a verb, an idea in motion.”

The magazine combines a lot of disparate political events, philosophies, artifacts and time periods. MacPhee admits it is not easy to compile and edit, but Signal:08 has come together as they hoped it would.

One of the most distinctive stories is MacPhee’s interview with activist artist Dread Scott, who for years has been raising awareness of what his namesake stood for. (Dred Scott was a former slave living in a non-slave state, who unsuccessfully sued for freedom for his wife and their two daughters in the Dred Scott v. Sandford Supreme Court case of 1857, known as the “Dred Scott decision.”)

Over nine days in November 2019, the artist Scott recruited Black and indigenous men and women wearing period clothing and carrying muskets to recreate the German Coast Uprising of 1811 outside of New Orleans. Called the “Slave Rebellion Reenactment” (taking a page from popular Civil War historical reenactments), Scott and 400 descendants of enslaved people marched 26 miles over two days. The action vividly raised the shroud that had hung over this forgotten fact of history. Choreographing the event took six years for Scott to arrange. MacPhee’s interview is thorough and illuminating.

In an issue filled with fresh knowledge, most surprising was this story on children’s book author/illustrator Vera Williams, who for me was sadly unknown. For 10 years she was the cover artist of the socially radical, “non-communist” Liberation magazine. Williams was schooled at the Bauhaus-related Black Mountain school, directed by Josef and Anni Albers. She was a “red diaper” baby, whose Jewish parents were involved with labor and civil rights causes after World War II and throughout the McCarthy-era Red Scare.

Dunn does an excellent job of capturing the period during which the “old Left” was an umbrella for social justice. The milieu included the visual and performance artists John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauchenberg, Jasper Johns, Julian Beck and others. Born out of Resistance, a strikingly graphic magazine that I have studied, Liberation and Williams work on it left me in awe. Liberation‘s editorial was equally, if not more, impressive, featuring the first publication of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” as well as writing by social critic and reformer Paul Goodman and The Catholic Worker publisher Dorothy Day (influential thinkers of the ’50s and ’60s).

Williams’ graphic approach was sometimes polemical yet not in a social realist manner. Often it was downright abstract yet always representing issues of import in nuanced ways (reminding me somewhat of Lorraine Schneider’s “War is Not Healthy …” print that became an icon of the anti–Vietnam War movement).

Williams’ last Liberation cover was published in 1966, closing out a 10-year run. The magazine continued until 1977 (featuring at least one cover by Robert Grossman), and Williams went on to work with the War Resisters League (WRL), which helped fund this germinal protest magazine.

A feature on “Writing for the Revolution: Publishing and Designing Black Power” books is a unique contribution to the history of radical print, not only in the U.S. but distributed throughout the world. The most famous of these was Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Blank Panther leader and Peace and Freedom Party candidate for President of the United States. But coverage of other authors, including George Jackson, imprisoned in Soledad, CA; Stokley Carmichael, leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee); and Angela Davis (who remains active and outspoken today), add to the untold story of how Black Liberation ideas were spread through mainstream and alternative publishers.

For everyone interested in the expression, repression and expansion of politics through mass communications and design, all eight issues of Signal—and those to come—are invaluable resources. Posted inPublication DesignThe Daily Heller

Steven Heller

Steven Heller has written for PRINT since the 1980s. He is co-chair of SVA MFA Designer as Entrepreneur. The author, co-author and editor of over 200 books on design and popular culture, Heller is also the recipient of the Smithsonian Institution National Design Award for “Design Mind,” the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement and other honors. He was a senior art director at The New York Times for 33 years and a writer of obituaries and book review columnist for the newspaper, as well. His memoir, Growing Up Underground (Princeton Architectural Press) was published in 2022. Some of his recent essays are collected in For the Love of Design (Allworth Press).