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"ANTI-WAR & INTERNATIONALIST CULTURAL WORKERS"

SHOCK BATTALION was a controversial activist artist collective founded in the summer of 1982 by Los Angeles based visual artist Mark Vallen. Born of the desire to confront the tidal wave of conservatism sweeping the United States, Shock Battalion placed itself at the vanguard of cultural resistance to the so-called Reagan "revolution." In the seven years of its existence, the Battalion produced dozens of beautiful silkscreen street posters and offset litho flyers, performed two multi-media anti-war slide shows, acted out provocative guerrilla street theatre, produced a monthly radio show on KPFK (L.A's Pacifica Station), and mounted an important international anti-war art exhibition held during the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.

Concurrent to the late 1970's rightward sweep in mainstream US politics and culture, a new rebellious youth movement bubbled beneath the surface. Mark Vallen met Tim Strawn and Charlene Hassencahl in the turbulent LA punk rock underground... and soon they were all working together, the three becoming the core members of Shock Battalion. The aesthetics that imbued the Battalion were the same that galvanized the punk movement. Angry and confrontational, full of rage at an apathetic society and a refusal to accept "business as usual," an early Shock Battalion tract put it this way:

"All art is political, it cannot stand above or beyond the world crisis without automatically supporting the status quo. The massacre of the innocent continues world-wide, as does the arms race. Can the arts turn a blind eye without taking sides? We don't believe the role of art should be that of papering over the cracks of a dying regime. We view the arts as a liberating force which can uplift, inspire and show the way to a world at last inhabitable. Cultural work is our practical plan of action for changing this world."

Poster by Hassencahl
The poster, "El Salvador will Win!"
"El Salvador will Win" Poster by Vallen

Both Charlene Hassencahl and Mark Vallen had fine art backgrounds and were skilled professional artists whose efforts helped to reintroduced the poster into the realm of political struggle. The very first poster of the 1980's specifically designed to be posted on the streets of Los Angeles was Vallen's full color silk screen poster,
El Salvador Vencera!
(El Salvador will Win!). The duo of Vallen and Hassencahl produced dozens of colorful silk screen posters as well as many black and white xerox flyer images.
Much of Shock Battalion's work focused upon the bloody war unleashed in Central America by the Reagan administration, but other topics became the target for the Battalion's fire brand aesthetic. The arms race, homelessness, police brutality, the oppression of women, US support for apartheid in South Africa, all became issues that the Battalion addressed.

In 1985 the Reagan administration was openly supporting the white racist apartheid regime in South Africa while the people's hero, Nelson Mandela, languished in prison. People all across the US reacted to this outrage by becoming active in the movement for a free South Africa. The Battalion played a key role in this massive outcry for freedom by producing colorful anti-apartheid posters, flyers and banners that were used in street demonstrations, protests in front of South African embassies, student occupations of universities, and other forms of protest. The bold artistic vision of Shock Battalion was finally affirmed with the liberation of Nelson Mandela, the total defeat of apartheid and the victory of the South African freedom struggle.

Shock Battalion strove for a visual art that was both anti-elitist and democratic. The realm of the gallery and museum was shunned in favor of the street, workplace, and school, which were perceived as being much more appropriate exhibition spaces. The group even rejected the appellation of "artist" preferring instead to be called "cultural workers." Many Shock Battalion creations were printed as multiples and given away at no cost.... artworks were found posted to street corner walls and lamp posts, exhibited in coffee houses and bookstores, and carried as placards in virtually every demonstration in LA.

The poster, "Free South Africa."
"Free South Africa" by Vallen
Poster by Hassencahl
 

In an open letter to grass roots activist organizations written in the early 1980's, Shock Battalion posed the question: "What role does art have in a movement for social change? We live in an environment of visual images carefully constructed to support the status quo, from the posters on every street corner advertising the latest blood drenched Hollywood war films, to Madison Avenue advertising art that seduces with promises of power, excitement, fun and adventure. We are bludgeoned with the visual messages of war hysteria both subtle and overt. What can be offered to counter this onslaught.... this culturcide? It is not enough simply to hold a protest march, we must build a contentious culture. It is imperative that artists have their rightful place in the opposition. They have the vision and communication skills to help capture the imagination of the people."

The Shock Battalion Cultural Workers set the pace for guerrilla art in Los Angeles during the storm and stress of the 1980's. Its members created profound works of unparalleled immediacy and vigor, artworks whose impact is still being felt to this day. While the group never saw the vision of its "transformed society" implemented (the group disbanded in 1987 though Vallen still remains an active artist), many important changes have occurred in the world since Shock Battalion's demise. The group's legacy should be that other individuals step forward in times of crisis and embrace the ideals embodied in Shock Battalion's statement of purpose:

"Art has the ability to uplift, empower, motivate and educate. If we are to have a different social order other than the one we are presently miserable under, if we are to become participants and not just observers, creators and not mere consumers, then culture must be allowed to come from the bottom up, not the other way around."

 
The "Free South Africa" poster is available for purchase in the Works for Sale
area of this website.
www.art-for-a-change.com is owned and operated by Mark Vallen . All text by Mark Vallen.