Pandemic Objects: Government Letter

May 15, 2020

Sports Banger No.10 Downing Street Letters Competition

If you’re reading this in the UK, you’re one of the 30 million households that received a letter from the Prime Minister about the coronavirus crisis. Maybe you read it feeling strangely connected to others across the country, knowing they have read the same words, or perhaps having seen its content reported elsewhere it went straight in the recycling. Some of you may have responded to London-based fashion label Sports Banger’s straightforward call on social media, “if you’ve received a letter, design a poster”. The rules were simple: you must be under 16 years old, draw straight onto the letter itself and “no digital”.

A submission from @rise._.graffiti, age 14.
A submission from @rise._.graffiti, age 14. Image courtesy of Sportsbanger

The tools for the competition – pencils, pens, crayon – are deliberately ubiquitous and re-appropriation of the letter is in true bootlegging style of fashion designer Sports Banger. The label is known for its subversion and appropriation of branding through an interrogation of British pop culture, class and politics. The defaced letters-cum-posters came flooding in, from toddlers as young as 17 months to teenagers. In total, 203 posters were submitted; the entries ranged from sweet and heartwarming, to wonderfully puerile and acerbic. Many of the posters illustrated messages of love and support for the NHS or advice such as “wash your hands”. One colourful submission by a 7 year-old featured drawings of birds with smiling faces (not beaks) and the text “I can hear the birds”. Some feature the familiar rainbow that can be seen in windows of residential streets across the country. Others responded directly to the author of the letter and were more critical of the government’s approach, with calls to “fund the NHS” and “we need more PPE”.

A submission from Ozzy, age 3 and ¾
A submission from Ozzy, age 3 and ¾. Image courtesy of Sportsbanger

In ordinary times a government letter is a one-way communication. This intervention subverts that notion through questioning its motive, turning it into a medium of dialogue, criticism and in some cases, protest. “Little anarchists spreading joy”, is how Jonny Banger, the designer behind the label, describes the response to his competition, “I couldn’t be happier using my platform to give the kids a voice”. Rather than the letter being a top-down mechanism, its function has been transformed through this intervention into a tool for debate and discussion. Jonny Banger has received proud messages from parents whose children submitted designs saying they “discussed the welfare state, NHS and taxes […] and the task formed part of their home schooling. This has been one task they all managed to enjoy”.

A submission from Lorelei, age 7
A submission from Lorelei, age 7. Image courtesy of Sportsbanger

Amidst this global pandemic, where we are infinitely connected and receive minute-by-minute live updates on the status of the crisis, it felt oddly analogue to receive post from No 10 Downing Street. Government transmissions are often how we record important moments in history, we may look back on this letter as the turning point when the government caught up with the national mood on the pandemic. Perhaps this modest yet poignant response to the government’s actions from the youngest in society is one way we will record their voice in the extreme circumstances of enforced home-schooling and restricted time outdoors.

The idea for the competition came to Jonny Banger when someone, on receiving their NHS t-shirt the same day as receiving the Prime Minister’s letter posted, “one of these is going in the bin”. The NHS x Nike bootleg t-shirt was originally designed in 2015 in support of junior doctors strike, the re-issue raised £100,000 in three drops of the t-shirt, each selling out within an hour.

All sales of the NHS x Nike bootleg (t-shirts are £21.99) go towards providing healthy food and fresh juices round the clock to ICU teams at five hospitals across London.

Example of the NHS x Nike bootleg t-shirt
Example of the NHS x Nike bootleg t-shirt. Image courtesy of Sportsbanger

Support for the NHS has united the country during this crisis; our love for the NHS is a force that has galvanised everyone during lockdown. For Jonny Banger, “being a bootlegger means do what you want. Start where you are, use what you got, do what you can.” In many ways, the perfect mantra for getting through this strange time.

This article was originally written on 20 April 2020

Further reading

Related objects from the collections

Corbyn T-shirt by Bristol Street Wear

Corbyn T-shirt
Corbyn T-shirt, Bristol Street Wear, 2017, Bristol, England.  Museum no. CD.294-2017. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This t-shirt designed by Bristol Street Wear was released on 9 May 2017 to coincide with the 2017 election. The bootleg design combines the former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s surname with the Nike Swoosh, created in 1971 by Carolyn Davidson. The t-shirt was not officially endorsed by the Labour party nor Jeremy Corbyn himself, but became core to Labour’s social media campaign in 2017 which had the highest youth turnout at a general election in 25 years.

Poster, The New National Theater Is Yours by Tom Phillips

Poster, The New National Theater Is Yours’, by Tom Phillips, 1976, England. Museum no. S.35-1994. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tom Phillips’ chance encounter with a secondhand book led to a 50-year work in progress: A Humument. Since 1966 he has reworked pages from W. H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document with painting, collage and cut-up techniques, remaking each and every page of the book as an artwork. A Humument has become a touchstone of Phillips’s oeuvre, the technique was applied to this inaugural poster advertising the new National Theatre in 1976.

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