Book review: We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998

work-with-youThis book is in bookshops now.

A cursory glance through We Will Work With You suggests it might be a somewhat light-hearted accompaniment to last year’s exhibition of the Wellington Media Collective’s (WMC’s) work at the Adam Art Gallery. But the colourful poster plates with their catchy slogans and designs belie the activism at work. Indeed, this title works in the same way as the WMC’s best campaigns, capturing readers’ attention with expert aesthetics, and then demanding an engagement with far more serious and complex socio-political concerns.

We Will Work With You is about the two decades in which the non-profit WMC operated, providing media, design, marketing and advertising support to a myriad of local organisations and causes. The WMC were careful about the way their working relationships were defined, and to ensure that projects operated collaboratively with mutual opportunities for learning, rather than the client service model adopted by many groups today. Their mission statement? We will work with you, not for you.

Eclectically arranged, We Will Work With You comprises two plate sections of the WMC’s posters, separated and book-ended with essays about the WMC’s social, design and activist history.

Polly Cantlon’s essay Design Democracy is particularly fascinating for anyone interested in the use of design as a means of political dissent, and she ends it with the most pertinent question posed in the book, ‘don’t we need another Wellington Media Collective today?’

The present moment is as turbulent a time for New Zealand as the revolutions of the last 40 years, and it’s worth considering the value of such a group to keep pace with the changing technologies and economic factors affecting all parts of society. And yet, with mass access to computers and social media, today’s political activists are arguably more engaged than ever, as the Arab Spring and worldwide occupation movement have attested to. Perhaps, with the reinvigoration of grassroots community organisations, we are moving closer to a shared learning environment once more.

Three short essays at the back of the book are easy to miss in this treasure trove, but worthwhile digging out to understand the WMC’s work in an international context, alongside other political histories such as Cuba’s which have played out through poster design. The inclusion of more first-person accounts might have brought the bold history of the WMC to even greater life, but it’s nonetheless an engrossing and visually appealing read, certain to intrigue anyone with an interest in design or New Zealand history.

Reviewed by Caitlin Sinclair

We Will Work With You: Wellington Media Collective 1978-1998
Edited by Mark Derby, Jennifer Rouse and Ian Wedde
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN: 9780864738837