For a brief, intense period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of female artists known as the Madame Binh Graphics Collective ( MBGC ) flourished in New York City. Recognized for its vibrant graphic style, militant politics and propagandist imagery, the collective produced hundreds of posters, prints and murals before eventually dissolving amid a flurry of protests, FBI raids and jail sentences.
Lesbian artist and professor Mary Patten details the rise and fall of the fringe collective in her new book, Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective ( 84 pages, Half Letter Press, $13 ) .
A founding member of the collective, Patten interweaves personal anecdotes ( "I remember going to bed under rows of 18"x24" posters, inhaling the fumes from drying mineral spirits/xylene as I dozed off" ) with historical context to create a holistic picture of a political movement.
Readers who aren't familiar with the time period get primers in chapters on literary influences, graphic movements and political predecessors; while full-page graphics serve as lively examples of the collective's work.
"In these days when cultural activism seems less than powerful," Lucy Lippard writes in the preface, "we can learn a great deal from those times, about the endless contradictions we could not escape, about art world successes that were actually failures, and political failures that were actually successes."
Patten recently sat down with Windy City Times to discuss her writing style, spending time on Rikers Island and more.
Windy City Times: In the book, you hop between a first-person style where you share personal stories, to a more professorial tone where you talk about art in context. Why did you decide to go with both tones?
Mary Patten: [ My publisher ] talked about it being a memoir of sorts. I'm not really interested in that kind of privileging of a singular experience, but I think [ the book ] does have to cross back and forth because I'm not an outsider. I was an author of these events. At the same time, I'm critical about our history. It's not like, 'Everyone needs to know this; we're so great'.
In a very short period of time, we produced a huge number [ of pieces ] . I mean, we lived this crazy way where we didn't sleep, and we worked these really crappy jobs and were burning the midnight oil all the time. We took on so many projects, and we produced a lotranging from very simple, direct black-and-white Xerox kinds of things to very elaborate multicolored prints that were most often used to raise money to promote different struggles that we were in solidarity with.
Some of what we did I think was quite good. Some of what we did was really fraught and weak graphically. It suffered from art by committee in a way.
WCT: What do you mean by that?
MP: In the beginning there was a level of autonomy in our art. One particular person would have an idea for something and develop a sketch. The rest of us would contribute to try to make the design the best possible, and we'd all assist in the production. We weren't interested in making a collective style or brand or way of drawing or dealing with design. There was kind of a multiplicity of approaches in terms of design that allowed everybody to really push their own particular creative vision.
As time went on, there was less and less freedom. We were part of this larger project that had this revolutionary agenda that was ever escalating, where really we thought we needed to become like soldiers. We did weapons training; we did karate. There's this level of political urgency and emergency that kind of squashed that space and freedom that's necessary for art making.
With art by committee, you can't produce anything because everybody has a different opinion or some external voice comes in, maybe from the larger organization. The creative field becomes more and more hemmed in.
WCT: The group ended up kind of naturally dissolving after several of you were arrested at an anti-apartheid protest in 1982. You spent a year in Rikers Island; what was that like?
MP: That's where some really interesting stuff started to happen again. Even though it's lousy to be in jail, and we were monitored all the time, the three of us who were in the graphics collective were constantly making stuff. It was a way to spend time; it was a way to be friends with other women in the jail. They'd say, "Oh, you know how to draw? Would you draw a picture of my daughter for me? I'll give you cigarettes." We were very loved. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Did you have access to supplies, then?
MP: We really didn't, until this older, retired art teacher read about us. She contacted the jail and said she'd like to set up a little art class where she'd bring in materials and allow us to draw. It was kind of an amazing thing, but we had a little difficulty with her because we wanted to bring other women from the jail to these art classes. She was a little bit like, 'Well, I don't know. I know who [ you ] are. I can recognize [ you ] .' We thought she couldn't deal with women who were prostitutes or drug addicts, who were all our friends in there.
We were allowed colored pencils and paper. Margot did this amazing collage that I still have in my apartment. She used cut-up magazines. We were not allowed to use glue for some reason, but she used toothpaste. Glue was contraband.
It was really good for us to be jail. For me, it was, at least. I don't want to idealize it or romanticize it, but it gave us a little bit of space from the relentless [ political movements ] .
Revolution as an Eternal Dream: the Exemplary Failure of the Madame Binh Graphics Collective ( $13 ) is available from Half Letter Press at www.halfletterpress.com/store.
Patten is a visual artist, video-maker, writer and educator who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She's spent the last 27 years in Chicago organizing with ACT UP and other groups.