LC Visiting Artist Lecture: Josh Macphee

By Julia Stevens /// Staff Writer

If we don’t know where we’ve been, then we don’t know where we’re going to go.” “Future and past are sanitized by the present.” “There is only now.”

These are just a few insightful statements delivered by Brooklyn-based designer, artist, activist and archivist Josh MacPhee. In 1998, he founded Just Seeds, an eminent cooperative network of politically driven poster artists. Since then he has been instrumental to art and print culture.

MacPhee’s projects take an innovative approach to addressing the notion of important historical figures being forgotten. One of his ongoing projects consists of designing and distributing posters, each of which features a different ignored member of history, such as Malcolm X. These posters are both incorporated into the curriculum of public education and posted in urban settings, displaying a truly innovative approach to illegal street art. According to MacPhee, people write their own history, so it is up to them to prevent historical figures from being disregarded.

Another project involved some clear tape, a box fan and a whole lot of plastic. These materials were constructed to create the “ghost” of Liberty Street Church, a historic site in the fight to abolish slavery. The black Presbyterian church was demolished because the town of Troy, NY did not consider it monumental enough. MacPhee and his collaborators wanted to open these residents’ eyes to their town’s rich history that they had chosen to ignore. They created an inflated plastic ghost-like figure at the former site of the church. On this, they projected video footage of the church’s pastor, Henry Highland Garnet. Garnet was an incredibly progressive black man who managed to escape slavery, but his radical stance led him and his church to be forgotten. The project’s context and unique construction made for an extremely powerful installation.

 We are so used to thinking that art is a direct reflection of the artist’s deep interpersonal experience, and often forget that art can be about issues in the world at large. MacPhee addresses this by sharing his artistic voice through the showcase of the missing voices of those forgotten. In doing this, MacPhee works to change society’s realities of the monolithic present.

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