Carls create visual representations of political thought and action

Learn how a political science course equipped students to read images and create artwork inspired by contemporary and historical political action.

Mileana Borowski ’25 7 February 2024 Posted In:
Red, blue and yellow student artwork hanging in Hasenstab. Photo taken at an angle.
Photos by Thomas Pree ’24Photo:

During the first half of Spring Term 2023, Carleton students in POSC 214: Visual Representations of Political Thought and Action collaborated with professional artists to engage with political issues of the past and present. Six weeks of intensive studies, experimentation, and hard work culminated in an art piece now displayed in Hasenstab Hall.

This course from Barbara Allen, James Woodward Strong Professor of Political Science and the Liberal Arts, teaches students how to read—not words, but images.

Building upon the understanding that “visual media offer an alternative method of framing political ideas and events,” students learned how graphics found in texts such as film, posters, and even statistical tables can have a profound impact on enlightening or misleading the viewer. Beginning the term with discussions on core political documents such as the Federalist Papers and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” those conversations eventually translated into student-made graphics capturing the core themes of these documents. 

The students’ images spanned a variety of subjects, either remaining faithful to the principles and propositions found in the documents, or using the documents as a jumping-off point to address contemporary issues. After each student came up with their own graphic, they formed groups and combined their ideas. This resulted in four main visuals—one from each group—which were then further refined to create the final piece for the class.

Students’ creations were honed by readings on visual theory and graphic representation, and live feedback from Jesse Willenbring and Bevin McNamara. Willenbring is a visual artist with a BFA and MFA from Hunter College, experienced in freelance design and production art. Through his background, Willenbring was able to assist students in bringing together and polishing their political graphics. McNamara has a BA in film and television and an MS in digital imaging and design from New York University and works as a film director. McNamara utilized her knowledge to support students in archiving their project in film.

The final installation focused on four primary concepts in engaged art and politics:

  • Visual grid systems and their ability to allude to (or resist) structures of authority 
  • Appropriation techniques and their effects on how value is created and assigned by an active public
  • Collaboration and individual choice/response (responsibility and authority)
  • The action–history nexus (who is authorized tells what story)
Red, blue and yellow collages behind a stair rail

Installation day was an energetic blur of ripping paper, excited chatter, and brushes dripping with wheat paste, a blend of flour and water commonly used by activists for flyposting. Students’ graphics were printed out to be cut up and ripped apart. These cut and ripped images were then pasted to a series of three wooden boards—one yellow, one red, and one blue—along with a painted black wall in the Weitz Center for Creativity, which the class used as the backdrop for their display. Willenbring had previously painted all the boards and the wall with depictions of minimalistic tree branches and a white grid pattern. Working in tandem, students overlapped, intertwined, and even completely covered their own ripped-up images to create a bright collage of political ideologies.

Students turned finally to the process of archiving their experience. Having filmed snippets of the actual installation process and with the students having produced detailed records of their artistic evolution from first draft to final graphic, each team crafted a short film capturing their experience. Through their archival work, students specifically focused on the difference between the event of having produced an installation and the narrative that tells the story of that production.

The installation was originally displayed in the second floor of the Weitz Center for Creativity and is now a more permanent installation in the north stairwell of Hasenstab Hall.