JWT & Human Rights Watch: Burma

ADC’s Designism award explores the responsibilities of creatives to drive social and political change through their work. This year, a creative team at JWT drew attention to their creative counterparts in Burma who are imprisoned for their art and expression by installing a model prison in Grand Central Station with bars made out of pens for passersby to remove and use to sign a petition. The following interview with Andrew Clarke, executive creative director of JWT, would no doubt result in his imprisonment if he lived in Burma.

Could you give us some background on the situation in Burma?

There’s a lot of different reasons as to why we’re involved in this, but the basic problem is that like many countries around the world (China included) there are people like you and I – they’re not political people, they’re not criminals, they’re just everyday people – that are imprisioned for voicing their basic human rights on the repression in Burma. These people range from journalists, artists, students, comedians, doctors, pretty much anyone that should be allowed to talk freely but aren’t allowed to.

There’s probably over 2000, and it’s random as to how long they’re imprisoned. Sometimes they’re imprisoned and given seven years and then out of nowhere they’re given another ten. It’s very random as to how it’s allocated. The normal excuse is just that they’ve disrupted law and order, that’s what they’re told and then they’re locked away.

And what is Human Rights Watch trying to accomplish?

Basically Human Rights Watch stands for freedom of speech. Of course it stands for lots of things – it doesn’t believe in execution either – but it actively, constantly, continuously tries to get those people released by lobbying other governments around the world to get support. And lobbying the Burmese government as well and getting attention to the situation.

There are many bad situations around the world and this is just one. There’s probably thousands that they deal with. But they’ve chosen this particular one, and they’ve been very focused: 2100 Prisoners for 2010 was their campaign, so it was a very focused thing. They never give up, they’re continuously on the case so to speak.

Andrew Clarke

Are they a standing client or did they approach you for just this project?

Well we found each other really – it goes back to mutual beliefs in what art can do. They were like-minded. If you look at their site and look at what they do throughout the year, a lot of it is art-based and film-based. They have a film-festival in May at Lincoln Center and they believe like JWT does that art can make a difference in this world. So we came across each other and this is our first project with them. We hope to do more things with them.

Talk about the project itself: how did your team approach the problem?

The problem was there already, the campaign 2100 Prisoners for 2010 was already a line that Human Rights Watch had thought of, so really the job was to try to bring as much attention to it as possible. Like all charitable organizations they don’t have bucketloads of money, and media spend in magazines is high, newspaper is high, television is high, digital is high.

The first thing they knew they had to do was approach it in a very simple way to attract as many people as possible about spending a bucketload of cash. That’s how they came about the idea of an installation of some kind. It’s good because it was financially controllable and allowed us to put it in a place where we get a lot of traffic: Grand Central Station.

So to answer your question, they purposely ignored television and the printed medium in particular.

How did you prototype the piece? Did you test it in house before installation?

We did do a prototype of one small section. I think [the full piece is] 200 cells with 2000 pens, so I think we did a section of 40-50 pens and just made sure it was going to look as we thought it was going to look. We did a prototype using polyboard of one cell in three dimensions. We built in the studio here a one-cell three dimensional with the pens with the photographs inside of the prisoners and literally just held it agaist a light-box.

We looked at it and said, well that’s going to work. Then we went forward and did just a small section and said, that’s going to work too, and we knew that it was going to work as a piece of art. I think that we also knew that all it would really take was for one person to take that pen out, and then it would just set the ball rolling. It was just intuition and instinct that made us sure that people would want to do it.

Well it worked really well. It was installed in the gallery and people came through and took the pens.

That’s good! This is why we put it in the ADC, because anywhere it goes it just spreads the word. Even if ten people interact with that thing I guarantee that 50 people find out through them. It’s all getting attention on the cause.

Were you there when people first started to interact with it?

Yeah, I was there pretty much all day give or take an hour. In truth, I think with something like that you need to start if off with talking into microphones rather loudly. That attracts people naturally anyways.

In the beginning a few monks talked about the situation and the head of Human Rights Watch and myself spoke awhile, and that attracted a crowd. Then we literally just formed a queue. There was only probably a little down-time mid-morning when it went quiet after the rush-hour, but after that it was a continuous flow through, and we had various events going on throughout the day: speakers, performance art – it was a continuous thing that pulled people in.

So there was a whole production surrounding the piece.

Yeah, it was carefully [done] – this is the great thing about Human Rights Watch. Obviously we’re great marketers, but all these organizations know how to do these kinds of things, know how to get people interested. So we had performance art and a schedule. It started at 7:30 in the morning and finished at 6 o’clock at night.

How does it feel to win an award for a such a great cause?

Obviously it feel really good and I think everybody wants to be a winner. I can honestly say that for myself and the team the ADC Cube is something that I’ve never actually won [laughs], or been involved in – so that was a great thing for us.

The award is fantastic, but the cause is needless to say the most important thing. If art can be recognized to help a cause and to make a difference then I think that’s almost perfect outside of the world of marketing everyday products like we do for a living. It is one of the very few businesses in the world that can actually use its creativity to make a difference.

To be honest to you, it’s very difficult for me to compare the award with the cause, because I think the award’s fantastic and everyone at JWT is just massively buzzed by winning at ADC. But there are people locked away in Burma that do what I do, and you do. The main difference is that we’ve used our creative freedom to help them, because they can’t.

The great thing actually is that because it has won the award, it’s got the cause noticed even more – that ultimately has to be the goal. The Designism award I thought was particularly a great idea. And I think that funny enough it’s interesting that you just about picked D&AD too, because they invented the white pencil this year and are doing it next year. I think it’s great to have the Art Directors Club – the original award show – get it first. So it was a great honor to win it, I believe for the first time.

Do you feel a connection to the political prisoners as an artist?

Absolutely we do – there are so many great causes in the world, so many people that need help, but there is something in the connection to someone. A creative writer in this very minute is sitting in a cell in Burma and can’t do anything. The fact that you can write about this because you’re a creative writer or involved in the creative industry and that we can actually do something for them, it almost feels like we’re doing it together with them in a strange way. There is definitely a connection with this particular cause and event that we’ve done that is probably different to perhaps some organizations we get involved in.

Because it’s about creative freedom itself.

Exactly, and to me that’s an angle. Another thing as well is if you’re talking about a blog [like this one], I’ve got to tell you there’s a good amount of people that are imprisoned in Burma just for blogging. We can write blogs and have opinions and everything, but these people just blogged and were imprisoned.

You have this call to action: The power to free Burma’s political prisoners is in your hands.

I don’t think Human Rights Watch had the tagline, that was unique to this particular cause. We wanted to write something on the pen – because we all have truckloads of pens hanging around the house – if people dropped it on the train or just left it, we wanted to have a message on the pen and the website was on the pen too.

There were two expression that I thought were particularly powerful, one was on the pen, the other was “Please do touch this exhibition.” Often the idea with creativity is that you turn things on their heads, and the idea that you can touch it I thought was great. But yes, those messages were unique to this campaign.

And are you or JWT involved in similar art-making-a-difference campaigns?

We plan to work with Human Rights Watch moving forward, whether there’s more work on this or something else. We’ve got the olympics coming up in 2012 and there’s all sorts of problems involved in that one. And JWT does work for the Ad Council and NYC Cares – Serving the Underserved.

What’s you experience been like at JWT.

In London we’re very creative-team focused. Two people sit in an office and work together, and probably have been working together for many many years. I think what’s great about JWT New York is we are an open plan. We do have creatives, art directors, writers (people now a day don’t really like to be referred to as art directors or writers, they just liked to be called creative people or content people).

It’s a very open and fluid process that we have. People work with different people. We have our day-to-day clients that we have teams on, but we also like to do projects like this, just to keep people excited and interested in things outside of the world that we’re stuck in. It’s a very fluid place to work, and the actual atmosphere in the offices themselves I find very accommodating when it comes to creative thinking.

And what’s next for you?

You came on the call earlier and told us about the 90 year history of ADC, and I think nowadays we’re more into doing things outside the traditional work – we just shot a documentary and there’s a few other things in the pipeline.

If people are really interested in the Burma issue where should they go?

Human Rights Watch: hrw.org