Rebeca Méndez is an artist, designer, professor of design media arts and director of the CounterForce lab at UCLA. She’s also an activist who frequently advocates for a sustainable future, and in this presidential election year she’s had her sights set on the November election. As part of the League of Women Voters’ and the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ effort to empower the women’s vote, Méndez created an art poster called, “There is More Space For Change And Growth.”
UCLA Newsroom spoke with Méndez about this work, the superpower of design and how we might begin to move forward from the divisiveness of the past few years.
How does your design for the AIGA poster contribute to focusing everyone’s voice and attention on voting?
For me, it feels like we are finally accepting that no, we are not all free. There are injustices being done to women and the female, the physical feminine body, still continues to be affected by colonialism. It is in this body that I feel the constant fight for a full sense of agency.
I have the image of a torso, which is vulnerable and strong. It is in that body where I hold all the wounds of the injustices that are done to women and I am also fully present with great agency to be able to be transformed. I have transformability, and therefore I will never stay quiet. I will continue to fight for myself, for all women. This work focuses on that specific moment of, yes, I understand my reality, but no, you will never keep me quiet, you will never stop me from transforming.
How do you square the sentiment of disobedience and dissatisfaction with civic participation, with the act of voting, especially for younger people? How can you get them excited to work within a system that they disagree with?
Well I think that you can see, when you look at the erosion of voting rights, that your vote matters to the people in charge. So, what I would recommend for the youth is to not have such a myopic view. It’s not as if all of these votes are just toward Biden or Trump. All these efforts are toward the survival of democracy in your country. Everyone needs to have a voice with passion and conviction and say, “No, we will not surrender democracy.” Your voice needs to be reflected in the presidency, yes, but also the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court, local elections, in all of these institutions.
What is the role of art and design as a tool to cross the virtual gap, when we can’t register to vote at our libraries or at the DMV? How can design be used to reach people in COVID times?
Information, communication, inspiration. First and foremost, we can clearly say this is what we need to do, this is why we need to do it, and this is how we need to do it. Even for example, with AIGA, you go there and there are links for everywhere you need to go. You are directed toward action. With art and design, we have the ability to tackle complex systems and simplify them so that everyone can understand. We can make them accessible to everyone, and tailor the words and design according to who wants it.
In a way, it is a kind of superpower of designers and artists, that through our mastering of words and images, we are able to tell stories. We are able to convey complex issues in a simple way, which helps us change minds. When you are able to have someone understand you, you have the ability to change someone’s mind, therefore you have the ability to change behavior. And I think that that ability is a superpower. Movements, strong symbolic systems that have been constructed by designers and artists have caused horrendous deaths but also have saved lives. Think of the map that directs someone to escape a building during an earthquake. It can be as simple as that.
In terms of stories, think about Christianity. That is a story told in the most compelling way. The story is surrounded by visuals, by scenes that you can imagine, but so is the Nazi movement. It is graphic, symbolic, powerful and it can be used for something disastrous and awful, but it has the power to convey an idea and move minds, to effect positive change. We need to use this superpower in the face of the climate crisis, and social and racial inequities. As makers and storytellers, we have the capacity to contribute to and change the conversation around a host of issues, including immigration, gender, the environment, and racial and social justice. And now that includes this moment as well, in which we need to protect democracy.
You’ve previously worked on monuments, which are a crucial way that we bring history into our modern lives. What are the ways in which we can best protect our history from becoming warped?
The current generation of college students has so much power, because they have the internet and all the knowledge that there is to know. But what I believe that they are missing out on is the way in which my generation accrued its knowledge, and that is by listening intently to our elders. I think that the power of a monument is when you immerse yourself in memory. You are surrounded by people that are just like you, honoring something or someone, and there is a certain unspoken connection that arises from that commonality. You are having an embodied experience that embeds itself in your rational mind, but also in all of your senses and therefore creates a deeper memory. Being present with all of your senses helps us to codify that which might otherwise remain in your rational mind.
This is why the protests are so important. When we “protest” just by liking something on the internet, it’s not enough. We must be in the streets to actually change the course of this very dark time in our democracy. Again, we look to the history, to Argentina and Spain, where it was people in the streets who actually toppled the government that was destroying their democracy and eroding their civil rights. These protests become living monuments to our human rights.
Creating a community and thinking collectively is the only way forward for us to preserve our democracy. When you are isolated, you begin to feel powerless, but you are not. The power of your voice for protecting human rights is rooted in brotherhood, in sisterhood, in being human with others, not by ourselves.