Unsuspecting students filed into class on Oct. 30 under the assumption they were simply having a joint session of their two classes — “Art in the Public Realm,” offered at the USC Roski School of Fine Arts, and “New Media for Social Change,” available at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. However, their professors and the staff of mtvU’s Stand In had a surprise for them.
About 20 minutes into class, a loud knock interrupted the discussion. Moments later, renowned street artist and designer Shepard Fairey entered the room to cheers and applause.
“We were wondering why there was a camera crew, but we thought they were filming the videos we were showing today,” said Emily Reinstein, a junior majoring in international relations. “When he walked in it all made sense. It was so cool.”
Stand In is an Emmy Award-nominated mtvU series in which renowned guests act as “professors for a day” in college classrooms.
Fairey was the ideal candidate for the special lecture. While “Art in the Public Realm” dissects dialogues of power and culture, prompting students to question the traditional boundaries of art practice, “New Media for Social Change” examines how digital tools can alter communities in an increasingly connected world.
Fairey came to class prepared. He kicked things off by presenting several examples of his works, including the famous “Obey” campaign, the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, a piece he made for victims of the 2011 Japanese tsunami called “Dark Wave/Rising Sun” and several others.
An illustrator who trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey explained the processes behind his works, which incorporate illustration, scanned layers and digital color adjustment. He also talked about his beginnings as a street artist, naming Barbara Kruger, the George Orwell novel “Nineteen eighty-four” and Russian Communist Party propaganda posters as a few of his primes sources of inspiration.
“Going to galleries and dealing with bureaucracy was not something I wanted to do, and I wanted to reach a larger audience with my work,” Fairey said. “Before the Internet, the most effective way to do that was to put work up on the street.”
Now, in addition to the street, Fairey uses the far-reaching scope of the Web and social media to disseminate his works — which, by and large, have a clear political and social agenda. However, he has no qualms about taking a stance.
“When people criticize [my work] as propaganda — which it absolutely is — to me that’s the beginning of the conversation, not the end,” he said. “I encourage people to question propaganda.”
As a treat, Fairey also presented a trailer for his latest project, a new mtvU television series called Rebel Music. Fairey, the show’s executive producer, explained its purpose: turning the spotlight on emerging musicians and artists in tumultuous areas of Afghanistan, Mexico, the Republic of Mali, Israel-Palestine and India.
“People are responding to social and political situations with art, both as a therapeutic process and as activism that feeds into the public consciousness,” Fairey said. “For every Clash, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Marley, there’s the next generation’s version.”
After the screening, Fairey fielded questions from students, who asked how he built his following, how he ethically navigates his trendiness, how the location of his art determines his process and various other inquiries. At the close of the lecture, Fairey left students with a stack of his stickers and the impetus to fight complacency and apathy through their own works.
“Considering all of the things we take for granted here in the United States, I think getting perspective will remind us to constantly shape our existence, our country, into what we believe in,” he said.
“You don’t want to squander that opportunity because there are people risking a lot more to create the art they want to create.”