Over the years, contributors to the political publication World War 3 Illustrated have created art and written about 1980’s guerilla war in Central America, the demonstrations that disrupted 1999 meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the ravages visited upon New Orleans in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina.
But the geographic entity that features most prominently in the history of the publication is the East Village. That is where the artists Seth Tobocman and Peter Kuper came up in 1980 with the title World War 3, which was based upon the idea that the United States has been involved since the Cold War in a nearly constant string of military conflicts. (Armed warfare and civil unrest are not the publication’s sole subjects: “WW3 also illuminates the war we wage on each other and sometimes the one taking place in our own brains,” its website notes.)
Mr. Tobocman, who has participated in exhibitions at ABC No Rio and the Museum of Modern Art, lives to this day in the East Village. So do several other World War 3 contributors like Mac McGill, Fly, and James Romberger. It comes as little surprise, then, that stories and images related to the neighborhood play a significant part in a World War 3 retrospective at Exit Art called Graphic Radicals that runs until Feb. 5
Although many of the people who write and draw for World War 3 call it a comic book, its subject matter is more sophisticated and complex than that term might suggest. The editors, who operate as members of a revolving board, have published a range of photographs, collages and written commentary, but World War 3 is best known for illustrations, many influenced by the social realism of the WPA-era artists or the jarringly confrontational style of the 1960’s No!art movement, as well as more recent work by R. Crumb, Harvey Pekar and Ben Katchor.
The backbone of the Exit Art show is the collection of 41 editions of World War 3 that have been published over the last three decades. The show also includes dozens of drawings, posters, fliers and paintings as well as photographs and video installations made by people associated with the publication.
Much of that material is related to the various forms of turbulence and change that took place in the East Village in the not so distant days when it was widely thought of as contested territory. As recently as the 1990’s the neighborhood was the scene of large and small battles over who had the right to occupy empty buildings, abandoned lots and sometimes even the neighborhood’s parks and sidewalks.
Among the items in the show are video clips showing clashes between police and East Village residents, fliers and posters created by artists there as political propaganda to promote rallies and demonstrations and sections of a graphic novel that describe life in the squats of Alphabet City.
Many of the artists and writers associated with World War 3 were participants in those events, as well as documentarians, recording the reality they saw in front of them. Few of them, however, subscribed to traditional tenets of journalistic detachment, and many of the narratives in the show, like Fly’s illustrations depicting the eviction of a squat on East Ninth Street and the bulldozing of the Esperanza Community Garden on East Seventh Street, combine an accurate eye for detail with an unmistakably partisan point of view.
Other pieces included in the show are even more direct in presenting a polemical perspective, acting as illustrated op-ed posters that comment on or complain about city policies or the behavior of police officers during the Tompkins Square melee of 1988. That event, in which demonstrators hurled bottles and officers attacked protesters and passerby alike was the subject of a special issue of World War 3.
Some of the most ephemeral yet affecting pieces in the show are fliers of the sort that were once wheat pasted to lampposts and telephone poles in the neighborhood and intended to spread messages. One, showing a photograph of the sort of armored personnel carrier used by police during the 1995 eviction of several squats on East 13th Street, reads “Lower East Side is Occupied Territory,” and “Defend the Squats.”
Another flier announces an “Anti-Gentrification Halloween Party” planned for Tompkins Square Park and scheduled to include an attempt to hex the Christodora, a one-time settlement house turned luxury residence that was often the focus of unwelcome attention from local activists in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The flier listed the several sponsors of that event, including the Let Them Eat Cake Brigade, The Committee in Solidarity with the Let Them Eat Cake Brigade and The Anarchist-Terrorist Conspiracy (Theory).
Then there are the stenciled images, like Mr. Tobocman’s “Unlock the Heart” and “Two Headed Monster” by Anton Van Dalen, which features what its creator sees as the twin scourges of addiction and development. Such images, using an uncomplicated format to communicate an emotionally complex idea, become symbols. And in some ways, perhaps, those spare images are the purest representation of the World War 3 aesthetic: simple, visceral and filled with feeling.
But it is not just the stencils that elicit sentiment. There is a well of emotion – idealism, anger, joy and the deep desire to live and resist – just below the surface of many of the pieces in the show. And for those drawings and cartoons and posters depicting the East Village’s past those feelings are tinged with a bit of longing. Looking at those works from the vantage of a safer, more sterile and more gentrified time it is easy to remember when the neighborhood was in the messy, imperfect and occasionally inspired process of trying to create its own future. And it is difficult, in some ways, not to wish for another chance at reinvention.