In March 2015, just two months before the General Election, the town of Bedford saw ten of the its central commercial advertising billboards replaced with hard-hitting political cartoons. Called Bedford Voices, these cartoons were in fact a new artwork, which presented the ideals of seven Bedford charities, and community groups who wanted their voices to be heard by the people.
It was a collaborative project between two artists, a leading national political cartoonist and a top London advertising agency. Commissioned by Bedford Creative Arts its aim was to harness the power of billboard advertising and further the concept of public art, made even more poignant as the country geared up to the general election.
Former Royal College of Art graduates Dash MacDonald and Demetrios Kargotis were invited to use their experience of social experiment and intervention to develop a concept that takes inspiration from activists who transform public space. Through research of the political poster and the use of techniques, mechanisms and satirical cartoon to sell ideas, they worked with eight community groups in a series of workshops, teaching them how to employ these skills in developing their own ideal message.
Professional cartoonist Patrick Blower, known for his work with the Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard and the Guardian came on board to develop the message through hard-hitting images. The advertising agency McGarryBowen then provided expertise on writing slogans and how best to display the artworks, fitting with standardised billboard advertising conventions.
The groups involved included the Bedford and District Cerebral Palsy Society’s powerful image of someone with a neurological condition shouting to Westminster through a megaphone constructed from a rolled-up ballot paper “Talk to me not my mum!” Carers in Bedfordshire’s billboard depicted ‘Britain’s Forgotten Army’ with an illustration of a group of carers from all backgrounds marching. The Multi-Heritage Organisation showed a mother holding her child yet casting a shadow of a suicide bomber with the slogan ‘I’m a mother not an extremist.’ Other groups included TransBedford, whose image highlighted the ongoing lack of education on the issue of Transgender, plus Faith Community Church, Queens Park Community Orchard, The Shed Bedford, a men’s support group, and a community urban radio station In2Beats.
Dash MacDonald of artists DashnDem explains how they developed the project:
“We were interested in the political poster and how it has played a key role in how political parties ‘speak’ to the people throughout the 20th century and now still, and how we could enable community groups to voice what they wanted to say using the language and techniques of the political poster. We saw this project as an exciting collaborative experiment in the run up to the 2015 UK General Election.”
Following an open call, Bedford Creative Arts selected eight groups to take part in workshops, with a brief to imagine ideas of a Utopia based on issues important to them. From 16 March- 12 April 2015, the cartoons were exhibited across Bedford town centre at various locations. The public were invited on a walking tour where they could view the various works and local MPs and councillors gathered for a hustings event to discuss the issues raised by the billboards.
Patrick Blower, the former Guardian cartoonist who collaborated on the project, describes one of his favourite billboards:
“One of my personal favourites is the Multi-Heritage Organisation where I saw the idea and execution almost simultaneously and it came together well. It was also layered in meaning; depicting a Muslim woman that should be looked at as an individual and not with the prejudiced preconception that she is a terrorist. This also ties into recent events where, as an art form, the cartoon has been very much under the spotlight regarding the right to freedom of speech.”
Kevin Chesters, Executive Planning Director at London advertising agency McGarryBowen, who also collaborated on the project, explains the power of advertising in the project:
“Years of experience have taught us the best ads are the ones that talk to people about what they care about. This project was helping turn the wishes of people in a town like Bedford, essentially the UK Election in microcosm, into simple, powerful messages.”
“We wanted to give a voice to some of the different communities in Bedford who may not always be heard. This commission has given the opportunity to explore, discuss and co-produce a people’s policies as an artwork for all to experience, posing powerful questions and thought-provoking messages that should get people talking and engaging.” Dawn Giles, CEO, Bedford Creative Arts.