Who still cares about posters?
Eye Magazine, Fall 2008
Perrottet compared the proliferating display of advertising messages to “an occupying army taking possession of the urban environment.”
“We don’t use glue!” exclaims Albert Asseraf, French strategy director of one of the most prominent providers of advertising display structures. His employer, Jean-Claude Decaux, owns close to a million locations for posters and billboards worldwide -- yet glue is simply not part of his company’s equation. It’s too tacky, too sticky, too gooey.
Not only that: glue presupposes that there are walls on which to affix posters. But walls belong to people, and people are irrational and greedy. So JCDecaux came up with an alternative to walls. The giant media company proposes specially designed props euphemistically called “urban furniture”. And you wouldn’t want glue all over furniture, would you?
Most posters today don’t require glue because, metaphorically speaking, they no longer need to stick in our mind. Giant flash cards -- whether digital images or backlit transparencies, framed playbills or rolling advertisements -- they only act as mnemonic devices. Egging us on as we go, they prompt us to stay involved so that we can contribute to the economy.
Vincent Perrottet, who is one of the organizers of the international Chaumont poster competition, compares this proliferating display of advertising messages around cities to “an occupying army taking possession of the urban environment”. His metaphor is not inaccurate.
JCDecaux, like its competitors Cemusa, CBS Outdoor, and Clear Channel, negotiates aggressively with municipalities, shopping malls, and airports to implant its products in as many locations as possible. Symptomatic is a recent contract with the Office of the Mayor in Paris that gave JCDecaux a ten-year exclusivity on urban furniture in exchange for installing and operating Velib’, the much-acclaimed citywide bike rental system.
Bus shelters, newsstands, public toilets, revolving kiosks, information booths, flag poles, map stands, public announcement monitors, park benches, and trash bins are among the other freebies available to town halls willing to make similar Faustian deals with media entrepreneurs.
While Perrottet complains about the fact that “we find our way among the thousand of signs around town, without seeing them, without ‘reading’ them”, Asseraf applauds this state of affairs. According to studies sponsored by JCDecaux, “there does not seem to be a big difference in terms of impact between fixed posters and rotating images”.
In other words, in a same display window, it is just as efficient to show a rolling sequence of three posters than to showcase a “glued” picture. Why rent the space to one client when you could maximize it, and charge the same amount to three advertisers?
Meanwhile, the designers of posters have gotten into the habit of showing their work “unglued” as well. On their websites, they display their posters handheld, like precious trophies rather than useful surfaces.
The artwork is shot on location, in the middle of a studio, in a backyard, or in a living room, seldom in a public space or in front of walls. Three-dimensional objects, these proudly displayed broadsheets cast a shadow on the person acting as their easel and whose only visible body parts, fingers, forearms, and sometimes legs, give a sense of scale. Like the sandwich-board advertisements worn by roving peddlers in the 19th century, the loose posters feel remarkably accessible and their message is humanized by the comforting presence of their author.
Yet, detached form the walls that used to be their raison d’être, posters spotted on websites, singled-out on design blogs, or selected for international competitions, give the impression of being self-indulgent exercises. At least that was how an American illustrator friend of mine reacted when I dragged her to the Chaumont Festival de l’Affiche last Spring and bullied her into looking at the latest crop of jury-selected international posters, 127 handsome specimens displayed in a former military installation tucked behind the Chaumont train station.
She could not have been less enthusiastic. “They look like limited-edition prints designed primarily to celebrate the talent of their authors”, she commented. In particular, she objected to the fact that nowhere in the show was the commercial dimension of the posters ever mentioned. “It’s too easy”, she added. “Anyone can design a great-looking poster. But what about a great-looking poster that also sells? Now, that’s an art”.
Attributing her pro-business bias to the fact that she was American, I smugly declared that, in Europe at least, commercial success was not the only criteria to measure the merit of a work of art.
And so it may be, she said, but nonetheless held her ground. We argued during the three-hour ride back to Paris by rail, and by the time we said goodbye Gare du Nord, she almost had me convinced that no one cares about posters anymore, save for the people designing them.
Catalysts for action
There is apparently no shortage of people eager to invest time and talent on a 60 cm x 90 cm surface. Worldwide, poster competitions are more popular than ever. “It’s almost obscene”, comments Perrottet, “We received more than 2,000 posters last year. It feels like the last hurrah, as if artists and printers, aware that posters are about to become anachronistic, are taking advantage of their know-how and equipment, while they still can”.
The Warsaw International Poster Biennale received more than 3,000 submissions this year. And the world over, posters competitions are used routinely to raise money, promote causes, and draw attention to issues. They are held by design organizations, like the AIGA, whose “Get Out the Vote” poster initiative hopes to demonstrate the value of design, but also by sundries of do-gooders, like the National Organization for Women Foundation, with its “Love Your Body” poster competition, the World Summit’s “Agenda 21” poster competition aimed at school children, or the “Don’t Panic” poster competition sponsored by an online publication of the same name.
As catalysts for action, posters are still relevant, it seems. They work on a symbolic level, perceived by the public at large to be artistic outlets for some untapped creative energy waiting to be released.
The recent Barack Obama poster, designed by Sheppard Fairey, is a not-so-subtle reference to the Che Guevara poster. Unusual, though, is the way it has captured the public’s imagination. Co-opted by the fans of the presidential candidate, it has acquired a life of its own. It is an example of an image that transcends its original purpose by being affixed to walls, tapped to windows, stuck on containers, pasted on concrete pilings, or nailed to the sides of barns. Because of its omnipresence, it has become a vehicle for much more than its message of Change, Hope, or Progress. It has become the expression of some unspecified collective ideal.
For Brian Collins, a US authority on design and brand, and a frequent speaker on the topic, the ubiquity of a poster is not all there is to it. He measures its effectiveness by whether or not people steal it.
Proving his point, recent posters distributed in an art school to announce one of his forthcoming talks had been ripped off bulletin boards by the time he showed up. “I knew that to attract students our poster had to be provocative”, he says, “so I invited the youngest intern on my staff to design something personal -- that he would love, but that I would hate. That was my brief! I promised him that we would print whatever he designed as long as the time and place were readable."
One of the few posters selected by the I.D. Annual Design Review, it was indeed remarkably unlike anything anyone from a brand agency would endorse for a client. "People love it or despise it. Which was precisely the point of my talk." In designing a poster, Collins explains, you must ask yourself ‘to what end?’ The answer should include ‘to disrupt expectations, to create street energy, and to telegraph your thought -- instantly.’
Creating street energy is what the “occupying armies” of posters, deployed by companies like JCDecaux, are intent on doing. It is not a new idea. Old photographs of London, Berlin, or Paris, taken at the beginning of the 20th century, show the omnipresence of advertising images on the walls these cities. Back then, the rule of thumb was that posters publicizing products should be displayed repetitiously, to suggest abundance, while posters promoting concerts or theatrical productions should be presented as unique specimens, to emphasize the exclusive character of their offering.
One could argue that one of the reasons my American friend felt that the Chaumont posters were self-indulgent was the fact that they were presented out of context, disconnected from the urban environment that is, historically, an integral part of their identity. Had she experienced the same posters in situ, pasted on walls, she may not have made the same disparaging comments.
To evaluate posters, better than a gallery setup is probably flickr.com. Last time I checked, the key words “posters in Amsterdam” typed in the flickr search box yielded no less than 1,447 results -- a dizzying slide show that demonstrated the vitality of this art form in the Netherlands. Many of the posters popping up on my screen were the finest examples of Dutch graphic excellence, whether they advertised cultural events or commercial products. Typographically and pictorially, they were displaying a consistent level of inventiveness and professionalism. The fact that they had enticed so many amateur photographers was proof enough of their relevance and appeal.
A majority of posters seemed to have been hastily slapped down on walls or kiosks. But, oddly enough, the wrinkled paper and the transient nature of these installations gave the images more credibility. Contrasting with the gritty urban environment in which they were seen, they looked pristine. Fueled by a tradition that has put its graphic design culture at the service of public institutions, the Dutch posters are still a fresh and vibrant addition to everyday street life.
In contrast, type “posters in Zürich” in the flickr search box, and you’d be lucky to get 100 entries, all but a few generated by conventional advertising agencies. Unlike Dutch posters, Swiss posters have not fared well in the last decades. Quality is not the issue. In fact, more Swiss posters have been selected at Chaumont than posters from any other countries, the Netherlands included. But these fine pieces of artwork seldom get posted in the streets.
According to Martin Lötscher, who wrote the introduction to an exhibition featuring the work of graphic designers from Zürich (also at Chaumont), the problem stems from an excess of talent and a glut of over-qualified professionals. “Considered too strong-minded by the advertising industry… many [Swiss] graphic artists with time on their hands have, over the past 15 years, turned their back on working in the graphic service industry.” The award-winning Swiss posters are either self-commissioned art projects, or are designed for small institutions that cannot afford a large outdoors distribution.
Heartening though, is the fact that every city seems to have its own, idiosyncratic, street poster culture. Above ground, Paris is indeed “occupied” by commercial advertisers who have little use for good design. If you go down into the métro, though, you are likely to come across some great posters by the likes of Philippe Apeloig, Alex Jourdan, Malte Martin, or Michel Quarez (in the pedestrian passages, not on the walls of the stations themselves, where billboards are uniformly appalling).
While London can take pride in its rich Underground poster history, New York boasts giant billboards painted directly on brick walls, but has very few posters to brag about -- the cost of putting up the smallest announcement is prohibitive, even on the numerous palisades surrounding construction sites.
Seattle is home to a telephone-pole poster culture that is as uncanny as the city itself: Smaller home-made posters, advertising art performances, weekend festivals, or rooms for rent, are stapled directly on wooden poles. These colorful leaflets, layered haphazardly, morph into each other, often forming a crusty coating as thick as tree bark.
The most original city in this respect is probably Sao Paulo, where all posters, billboards, and outdoors signs have recently been banned. The ghostly display structures, now stripped of their panels, are but skeletal vestiges of a time when Sao Paulo’s main landmarks where oversized advertising messages. According to visitors familiar with the city before and after the ban, the metropolis that has emerged looks and feels much more human -- its blank walls now tempting canvases for street artists with a vernacular sensibility.
Antidote to alienation
Still, a nagging question remained: why do people care about some types of posters and not about others? Is it just a matter or circumstances? To find out once and for all, I decided to study the selection of posters from the last five years of the Chaumont Festival. What made them special? Could I identify what these winning posters had in common?
I do not speak Polish, Dutch, Flemish, German, Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, or Russian. Neither did the editors of the Chaumont catalogues, whose captions did not translated any of the information on the posters. Scrutinizing the reproductions with a magnifying glass, I spotted the same word over and over: teatro, teater, teatru, teatr… about as often as muzej, museo, musen, or muzeum. Adding up all the entries for theaters, concerts, museums, conferences, and festivals, I calculated that more than three-quarters of the posters selected had been done for cultural institutions. Depending on the years, the number of posters addressing a public interest issue or supporting a social cause would vary. Not surprisingly, considering the bias of the Chaumont Festival organizers, examples of work done by advertising agencies were sorely missing.
Deciphering the content of the posters was strenuous at first, but about 300 posters into the process, I got the hang of it and was able to tell, at a glance, without scrutinizing the small type anymore, what was going on. It was easy: as a rule, theater playbills were about ten times more interesting, more gripping, and more moving than posters promoting festivals, conferences, museum exhibitions, or gallery shows.
It was shocking. I had assumed that all cultural institutions were essentially the same -- that they all brought out the best in graphic designers -- and suddenly I had to challenge this notion.
I perused the website of the Warsaw poster biennale going back all the way to 1966, to see if I could spot a similar trend, and sure enough, the majority of gold medals in the culture and arts category were awarded for theater posters, with Jan Lenica, Henryk Tomaszewski, Waldemar Swierzy, Gerhard Lienemeyer, Wiktor Sadowski, Ikko Tanaka, and Paula Scher, among the stars. In fact, the playbills were closer in spirit to the ideological posters addressing social issues than to other cultural posters in their category. Under close inspection, museums and festivals posters, though engaging, were hard to tell apart from the advertising posters rewarded by the Warsaw jury.
Something Vincent Perrottet had told me came back to mind. “It is extremely difficult to design a good poster, one of the reasons being that it’s rare to have a great client. The best clients are small theaters. That’s why French graphic designers do their best work for theatrical institutions.”
The operative word here is “small”. Small theater and dance companies, with looser chains of command, are more likely to treat graphic designers as artists and give them a free hand. Whatever the reason, there seems to be enough artistically-minded theater directors in France to maintain a tradition of excellence in this domain.
But it is more than a local phenomenon. Beginning with Jules Chéret and Alphonse Mucha in France, the Beggarstaffs, Audrey Beardsley, and Frederick Walker in England, or Adolfo Hohenstein in Italy, live performances have always stimulated the audacity of poster artists. Paul Colin’s cabaret posters in Paris, the Polish Cyrk posters of the 1960s, by Lenica, Tomaszewski, or Cieslewicz, and the San Francisco psychedelic concert posters of Victor Moscoso, just to name a few, support this hypothesis.
Theater posters reflect the thespian culture and use similar means of communication. They relate to viewers the way stage actors and live performers relate to their audience. Spectators watching a play are not simply entertained, they participate by witnessing the drama as it enfolds, in real time, in front of their very eyes. Likewise, theater posters: for the most part, they speak to the conscience of viewers, acknowledging the humanity in all of us. The best of them can bring about an emotional release comparable to a catharsis.
Examples abound: Grapus’s 1977 Un cœur sous une soutane, for the theater of the Salamandre, in Tourcoing, featuring the back of the head of a priest, his ears colored red by shame; Niklaus Troxler’s purple and yellow 1978 Jazz concert poster, for the John Pullen Quartet, that transposed the keyboard into an American flag, with the hands of the black pianist tickling the ivories with such soulful intensity, you can almost hear the melody; Paula Scher’s 2002 playbill for Fucking A, a play by Suzan-Lori Parks about abortion, a graphic translation of the rage and pain women seldom dare to share with others.
Such posters, if you look at them carefully, will “stick” to you, becoming part of your visual memory forever. When viewed by many people, they provide a social “glue” that transforms the urban environment into the setting for a collective cultural experience, one that can be an antidote to the boredom and the alienation generated by an excess of bland advertising messages.
1/4 - Selected for the Chaumont Festival 2008: a poster by Atelier Bundi
2/4 - Two posters by Atelier BLVDR for Geneva's ThéÃ¢tre St-Gervais
3/4 -Two Euorpean posters: left, by Sebastien Cremers; right, by Ronald Curchod
4/4 - Two U.S. posters: left, by Shepard Fairey; right, by Paula Scher