Modernism Redux

Architecture, Eastern Europe

In October 1993, Charles Jencks, the leading advocate of architectural postmodernism, was guest of honour at an international conference and exhibition on ‘Post-Modernism and National Cultures’ which was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This event coincided with the Yeltsin coup, which culminated on October 3-4 with the fighting at the Ostankino TV Center, followed by the military assault on the Supreme Soviet building and its destruction by tank artillery. This was the final attempt by hard-liners to hold onto Soviet power. And, of course, it failed.

Jencks seized the moment. He issued a pronouncement entitled ‘Moscow, October 4 1993–10:10 AM Modernity Is Dead’ (an update of his famous declaration of the death of modern architecture at Pruitt-Igoe, a large housing project in St. Louis, Missouri).[1] Jencks wrote ‘reactionary modernists all over Russia know the game is up’ and that the ‘post-modern paradigm progresses cheerfully, death by death, marking thereof the more notable funerals with architectural ruins’.

 

Soviet Russia suffered Modernism and the modern paradigm more than any other country. With the exception of China, its forms of the brutal materialism were more systematic than elsewhere and its imposition of reductive rationalism and mechanism mind-set more thorough going. The utopian housing estates built as vertical concentration camps in heavyweight concrete were more ubiquitous, the secret police and mind control more pervasive.[2]

 

Now that the Soviet project – the paradigm of modernism – was fatally wounded, radical postmodernism – ‘ironic, dually-coded and resistant to reigning power’ – could enter the stage of history.[3]

In the event, rather than articulating resistance to power, as Jencks prophesied, architectural postmodernism in Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev’s Russia has largely served the cynicism and greed of the post-Soviet elites. Nevertheless, the idea that postmodernism not only coincided with the end of communist rule but that the two were somehow codependent was an attractive one and, in the early 1990s, this connection was often made. Jencks’ vision of postmodernism as being ‘resistant to reigning power’ seemed to be in accord with the image of revolution as a kind of playful overthrow of power – an image which was perhaps most closely associated with the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia rather than in the bloody street-fighting in Romania in the winter of 1989 or the long drawn-out negotiations between the opposition and the authorities in Poland which had taken place over a number of years.

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Dancing House photographed by Francisco Antunes (Flickr CC licence)

Prague’s Tančící dům (the Dancing House) was often proclaimed – in the architectural press in the West – as the first postcommunist landmark in Central Europe. A fashionably anthropomorphic pair of buildings clasped together, it was designed in 1992 by Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry with an interior by émigré Czech architect, Eva Jiřičná.[4] Widely reported around the world, it was seized as a symbol of the shift to the West, the creativity and the optimistic mood of Czech culture after the Velvet Revolution. It was even claimed by a writer in the New York Times as an index of democracy in the country.[5] In Jencks’ terms, the Dancing House might well be ‘dually-coded’ but it is hardly ‘resistant to power’. Funded by a Dutch investment bank and providing up-market apartments and a French restaurant, it seemed to illustrate the dramatic arrival of postmodernism and postcommunism in Central Eastern Europe. Here was a vivid example of what Fredric Jameson in 1991 called ‘the logic of late capitalism’.[6] Viewed in these terms, much of the rhetoric which accompanied the appearance of architectural postmodernism in Eastern Europe after 1989 was a kind of victor’s triumphalism.

Whilst postmodern design was widely understood as kind of arrival from the West after the Berlin Wall was breached, the ‘local’ appeal of postmodernism in East and Central Europe should not, however, be downplayed. There had been a sincere engagement with what can be called postmodernist aesthetics throughout the Bloc in the 1980s. This took various forms (even if the title postmodernism was not widely assumed) including paper architecture schemes in the Soviet Union which visualized impossible buildings, often offering powerful meditations on the historic and largely undervalued architectural forms of pre-revolutionary Russia.[7] 4368467286_a9c3707778_oIn their retrospection and nostalgia, the etchings of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin, for instance, offered a critique of the fetish made of the new in Soviet architecture. Their ‘Columbarium Architecturae (Museum of Disappearing Buildings)’ of 1984 depicts a memorial structure in which old buildings threatened with destruction are preserved like the ashes of the dead. Yet these buildings have not quite expired. They demand the careful attention of the viewer, whether the occupant of the building or the passerby. If a building is forgotten or overlooked, the massive ball in the centre of the structure swings into action to destroy it. This fantastic scheme, and others by the duo, is explicitly critical of the processes of modernisation which had swept old buildings from Soviet streets in the name of progress.

In Poland, the Roman Catholic church – a relatively wealthy and autonomous organization – commissioned architects to design new churches. Often these structures were given highly symbolic forms like arks, monumental crosses and unfinished ruins to deliver unmistakable messages about the failures of community and distortion of history under communist rule.[8] In Hungary, Imre Makovecz and a number of kindred spirits – architects as well as writers, academics – often working in the south of Hungary in Pécs, developed an archi­tectural philosophy and aesthetic in the 1970s which valued traditional materials and craftsmanship as well as highly expressive and symbolic forms which has come to be known as ‘Organic Architecture’. They established international reputations as instinctive ‘post-modernists’ behind the Iron Curtain who worked in opposition to orthodox state design. Makovecz’s colleague György Csete was, for example, singled out by Jencks in later editions of his 1977 book, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture.[9]

Czechoslovakia was relatively unfertile ground for the kinds of postmodern expressivity found in Poland and Hungary prior to 1989. sramkova-2-48074c83e7a5aArchitectural critics have found ‘hints’ of postmodernism in the glass clock-tower on Alena Šrámková’s ČKD building in Wenceslas Square in Prague (1974-83), for instance. But this is one of a small number of structures which have been awarded the label. By a curious twist of fate, Jencks’ The Language of Postmodern Architecture was, in fact, published in Czech in 1979 (as Jazyk postmoderní architektury), seven years before the first Soviet edition and nine years before the first Polish version. It was also reviewed in the specialist press.[10] Significantly, however, the Czech book was a samizdat publication (an illegal, unlicensed version initiated by Jiří Ševčík and others) in an edition of only 35 copies, whilst the Russian edition was issued by Storiizdat, the State Construction House, and the Polish book was widely and cheaply available in official bookstores.

In fact, Poland in the early 1980s was home to relatively open discussions of the failings of modern architecture and design, often focusing on the anomie and alienation produced by the mass housing schemes which had been erected in the 1960s and 1970s. Architects set themselves the task of ‘humanising’ the standard and industrial schemes which filled the environment. Occasionally, these criticisms were even directed at the state: during the rise of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in 1980, for instance, the All-Poland Council of Architects issued a statement which announced:

 

The disastrous state of housing in Poland is the result of the crisis the whole of society and the economy. Architecture is just a reflection of the collapse of human dignity that accompanies this crisis. … In the existing system, there is no central place for contact between an architect and inhabitant and, consequently, for social impact on the shape of our homes and cities. This economic model cannot solve the pressing problems of house building. We demand the creation of new economic mechanisms, and especially a market for local initiatives, restore law and the responsibilities of the householder, the architect and the contractor under the rule of law and their competence …[11]

 

This was an extraordinarily bold call: one which could not have been made elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc, particularly in Husák’s Czechoslovakia. Such was the central control over architecture and design that attempts to organize unofficial practices were met with a censorious response. The 1983 exhibition ‘Prostor, architektura, výtvarné umĕní’ (Space, Architecture and Fine Art) exhibition organized by Jiří T. Kotalík in Ostrava was closed down and copies of the catalogue pulped. The exhibitors’ interests (some of whom were concerned with existing dilapidated structures in the environment) were less threatening to the state than the independence of action and thought which the exhibition demonstrated. Circumspect announcements about the ‘crisis of modernism’ emerged in the late 1980s in the writings of critic and curator Milena Lamarová and the unofficial ‘Urbanita’ exhibitions in Prague’s Fragner Gallery.[12]

But perhaps the most forceful critique of Czechoslovak architectural design came earlier in the form of a movie, Věra Chytilová’s Panelstory (Prefab Story, 1979) a social satire presenting the chaotic lives of the inhabitants of a characteristically dull and unfinished panel-built housing estate. Shot using a hand held camera on a real housing estate, the film shares much with the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary form: this is unmistakably a real place and so are the experiences of the occupants. They testify to the failure of the estate’s design in their actions: when the water supply falters, for instance, a kettle has to be filled from the toilet cistern. And when a complaint is made by a tenant about the ‘horrible’ finish and ill-shaped spaces of her high-rise apartment, the official response, ‘It was designed that way’, comes with a shrug of the shoulders. Somehow Panelstory managed to get past the censors, though the film was very rarely screened.

Reviewing the state of Czech socmodernism a couple of years after the Velvet Revolution, curator Lamarová stressed what she saw as the impoverished state of both the design profession and its continued attachment to modernism: ‘While the [rest of the] world has experienced a strong wave of postmodernism since the early 1970s – first in architecture and thereafter in design and fashion – Czech design is still trying to conform to modernism in its drooping, postwar socialist form. A complex – formed by anxiety about copying foreign design from the West, and the general conservatism of a generation of designers, not to mention the characteristic bitterness of Czech industry and the total consumerisation of the skyline – continues to encourage meaningless proclamations about “functional” form …’.[13]

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 01.00.52Perhaps this sense of isolation and the exhaustion of the official design offices accounts for the enthusiastic and rapid embrace which was given to the Jencksian version of postmodernism in Czech culture in the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution. In April 1990, the Applied Arts Museum in Prague presented an exhibition entitled ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ (The Paths to Postmodernism) curated by Josef Kroutvor. The exhibition – focusing on architectural design, furniture, ceramics and graphics – placed a particular emphasis on the unofficial currents which had been gathering pace in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. In his introductory essay, Kroutvor linked the programmatic character of the avant-garde (effectively a synonym for modernism) with totalitarianism – much like Jencks.[14] He also played up the underground associations of postmodernism in socialist Czechoslovakia, stressing the pioneering role of critics Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík who had published some of their essays on postmodernism as samizdat; [15] the emergence of Atika in 1987, an independent design group who eschewed the shibboleths of economy, simplicity and manufacturability for ‘irony, fairy tales, the surreal and sensations brought to us by the media’ in their designs for furniture;[16] and on the resolutely impractical , ‘post-Cubist’ chairs and tables designed by the controversial and dissident artist, Milan Knížák, in the 1970s and 1980s. In this sense, ‘The Paths to Postmodernism’ accentuated the critical bona fides of postmodernism at a time when the style was being accused elsewhere of ‘pseudohistorical nostalgia, the fabricated traditions, the pandering to a nouveau-riche clientele, the populist rhetoric that often sounds more paternalistic than democratic, the abandonment of any social vision’.[17]

Too young to have exhibited in Kroutvor’s survey, Olgoj Chorchoj formed at the height of enthusiasm for postmodernism in Czech design. Conceived during a Vitra Design Museum Workshop in 1990, its founders, designers Michal Fronĕk and Jan Nĕmeček, were then students at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. The Academy was itself undergoing its own palace coup with a high proportion of the established professors being replaced by a new generation of artists and designers – selected by open election – who brought in new ideas about aesthetics as well as the role of the designer. Fronĕk and Nĕmeček were taught by Bořek Šípek, the émigré living in the Netherlands with an international reputation for high-end designs for famous brands.[18] Fronĕk and Nĕmeček recalled ‘Bořek Šípek came to our studio after the revolution … He opened up the world, and we went with him to Holland. Suddenly we saw that design could extend beyond its perceived boundaries as trade, to be a highly prestigious thing. It was said there that a designer should be a star. We saw that it was possible to make beautiful and affordable things. And that fame … is the means to ensure freedom and secure an existence.’[19]

Sexy MF copy

Sexy MF vase (1992)

Skoda

Škoda I and II tables (1997)

Both Olgoj Chorchoj’s fantastic name and the studio’s earliest designs seemed to suggest a kind animism in which ordinary objects – glassware, lamps and tables designed by the duo and made by small-scale Czech manufacturers and workshops – exhibited a kind of liveliness and exuberance. Undeniably practical, these objects downplayed utility in favour of humour and pleasure. The Sexy MF vase made in 1992 in the Rückl and Sons glassworks, for instance, invited its user to couple the two anthropomorphically-shaped parts. The ‘Mr XL Fingers’ desk, a vigorous sweep of veneered plywood from the same year, seems less like a piece of office furniture than a witty comment on power. Olgoj Chorchoj’s postmodern phase was relatively short-lived. By the mid 1990s, the duo’s designs for furniture eschewed ornament and symbolism in favour of an emphasis on the texture and visual effects of materials, as well as a restrained vocabulary of forms (though they maintain a taste for gently ironic titles). In fact, as the decade progressed, the Olgoj Chorchoj Studio established an international reputation for its skilled handling of materials, often by working closely with Czech workshops. The suggestive mass and void of the Škoda I and II tables (1997), as well precise geometries of their forms, was achieved by slicing through many layers of plywood using the cutting tables at the Škoda Factory in Pilsen. This technique produced a vivid and ‘natural’ effect of stripes through the timber blocks. To avoid wastage the tables were cut from panels in standard dimensions. Deriving their proportions and aesthetic effects from the process of making, the Škoda tables represent the kind of sophisticated modernism which has come to characterize upmarket Czech architectural and furniture design since the late 1990s (the same might be said of the group’s architectural designs in the new years of the century as well). In the light of the phenomenon’s loud dismissal of socmodernism in the first years after the Velvet Revolution, what is striking about so much Czech design in the last two decades has been what architectural critic Rostislav Švácha has described as its ‘austerity’.[20] For Švácha this is largely a matter of style rather than economy, not least because most of the neomodernist villas and minimalist furniture designs have been created for wealthy private clients or in limited editions.

Is this taste for minimalism simply a matter of the turn of the wheel of fashion after the expressive excesses of postmodernism? The answer to this question may well lie in the way in which the phenomenon of Czech modernism of the inter-war years itself has undergone a wholesale reassessment since the Velvet Revolution. And, in this history, Olgoj Chorchoj should be regarded not only as an interpreter of Czech modernism but as an agent in its revival. In 1993, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček restarted ‘Artěl’, a co-operative established in Prague in 1908 to produce modern applied art designed by artists and made in workshops by skilled craftsmen and women. More than a brand, Artěl’s founders imagined the cooperative as a community of makers (much in the manner of other design reform groups like the Wiener Werkstätte in Austria). The ceramic, glass and metal wares designed by Artěl members took a variety of forms including traditional folk arts (echoing growing Czech nationalist sentiment at the time) and the angular modernism of cubist designs. Vlastislav Hofman, for example, sought to realise a decorative Cubism by deforming traditional ceramic forms in a series of services and vases. The surfaces of these Artěl products were transformed with angled planes and trimmed edges.

Artěl thrived in the 1920s in the newly independent Czechoslovakia but was eventually forced to close in 1935 when it was no longer financially viable. Nevertheless, it formed an important chapter in a longer history of modernism in the Czech lands that also includes Družstevní práce (Cooperative Work), a publishing house with a large middle class readership founded in 1922 which opened a shop and gallery in Prague with the name Krásná jizba (Beautiful Household) five years later. Selling domestic products designed by associates of the cooperative including Ladislav Sutnar as well as other pragmatic modernists (in the early 1930s, for instance, it sold Bauhaus furniture[21]), Družstevní práce set out to demonstrate that the ways of living mapped out in Modern Movement blueprints were no longer distant avant-garde dreams: they were becoming part of middle class experience.[22] Other moments in this longer – though fragmented – narrative might also include the so called Brussels Style of the late 1950s and 1960s.[23] Pointing to the interwar roots of this festive expression of Czechoslovak modernism at the Brussels Expo in 1958, Fronĕk and Nĕmeček have said ‘It was an optimistic time here, and shaped by people who had grown up in a freer society. But certainly there was no celebrity, because the designs were not in production and were not associated with their creators. Brussels was obviously a very formal style. But design is not just about form: form is the last joyful activity, the icing on the cake, a place for emotion. But a good designer is able to prepare a place for emotion. Design is usually 80% rational, whilst 20% depends on the emotions.’[24]

Fronĕk and Nĕmeček’s decision to revive Artěl and reissue some of its distinctive products – including a clock and a bookshelf designed by Josef Gočár in 1913 as well as a 1912 table by Pavel Janák in the Czech cubist manner; and a modernist breakfast service designed by Ludvika Smrčková from 1931– was by no means an expression of nostalgia. Also issuing new contemporary designs, Artěl II was a statement of intent in the early years of the Czech Republic. Czech Cubism of the 1910s – little more than a dusty antiquarian interest on the part of scholars during the years of communist rule – was, like postmodernism, a ‘discovery’ which seemed to resonate with the postcommunist condition. Here was a local version of modern design which seemed to combine national distinction with an openness to foreign influence: it also connected the Havel’s republic with the Masaryk era, widely viewed as a kind of golden age of Czech modernity. Here too was a model of business which valued high production values and served middle class markets (both attractive features after what Lamarová called ‘the bitterness of Czech industry’ during the Husák years); and, of course, here was a business led by artists. Some even saw the living line of Czech modernism from the beginning of the twentieth century to its end as an expression of what architectural theorist Kenneth Frampton called ‘critical regionalism,’[25] an architecture of resistance against the impact of universal culture and placelessness: ‘There is every hope that this remarkable example of living culture, which was interrupted by the various prohibitions of totalitarian regimes’, wrote François Burkhardt, ‘has regained its freedom of expression and will find in its own tradition the idiom appropriate to its aspirations. Postmodernism, with its return to critical regionalism, may breathe new life into a movement which has earned the historical right to continue.’[26]

Burkhardt writing in 1992 was keen to stress the postmodernity of Czech Cubism not as a form of anti-modernism (in the manner, say, of the Organic Architects in Hungary) but as its extension: ‘To expand its horizons beyond the frontiers of modernism’, he wrote, ‘it has added the emotional dimension, which touches upon the new postmodern sensibility.’[27]

Mr Egg

Mr Egg (2001)

Olgoj Chorchoj’s designs – even when they approach the emphatic simplicity of Czech functionalism – might well be understood in exactly these terms. With their humorous and sometimes gently ironic titles (like the ‘Mr Egg’ set of drinking glasses for the Květná Glassworks, 2001), their designs often have a tender appearance (the ‘20%’ investment in emotion).

Czech postmodernism was a short-lived phenomenon, particularly when compared with the long interconnected chains of Czech modernism which have been so carefully sustained through museum exhibitions, the writings of historians and, of course, the actions of designers too. But it was perhaps a necessary phase for Olgoj Chorchoj as well as for others: it stimulated an understanding of the importance of both authorship and of emotion in design; and, above all, the value of the past, in this case the bourgeois tradition of modern design in Czechoslovakia which had been obscured by image of failure which attached to modernism in the 1970s and 1980s.

 

 

[1] Charles Jencks in Alexey Yurasovsky and Sophie Ovenden, eds., Post-SovietArt and Architecture (London, 1994) p. 11.

[2] Ibid, p. xx

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

[4] Joseph Giovannini, ‘Fred and Ginger dance in Prague; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vlado Milunic’ in Architecture vol. 86, no. 2 (February 1997) pp. 52-63; Laurie Wale, ‘The dancing building; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunić in Architect & Builder (January 1997) pp. 2-5; ‘Praga [Ginger and Fred: offices for Nationale Nederlanden, Prague]; Architects: Frank O Gehry & Associates, with Vladimir Milunic ‘ in Arquitectura Viva no. 52 (January/February 1997) pp 94-99; Robert Bevan, ‘Inside Fred and Ginger’ in Interiors for Architects & Designers (Spring 1997) pp. 24-27; Simonetta Carbonaro, ‘Der tanzende Palast: Frank O Gehry und seine Begegnung mit Vlado Milunic in Prag’ in Deutsche Bauzeitschrift, vol. 44, no. 9 (September 1996) pp. 93-97.

[5] ‘Mr. Gehry’s design was approved by 68 percent of the voters in a referendum held in 1993 after the Velvet Revolution, when voting became the unofficial national pastime’ wrote Timothy-Jack Ward in ‘The Towers In Prague That Swirl And Waltz’ in New York Times (1 February 1996).

[6] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London, 1991).

[7] See Alexander G. Rappaport, Paper Architecture. New Projects from the Soviet Union (New York, 1990).

[8] See Lidia Klein, ed., P1 Postmodernizm polski. Architektura i urbanistyka (Warsaw, 2013).

[9] Charles Jencks, The Language of Post-Modern Architecture (London, 1987) p. 159.

[10] Bořislav Babáček, Jiří Kučera, Jaroslav Ouřecký, ‘Jazyk postmoderní architektury’, Architektura ČSR XXXVII (1978) pp. 463-467.

[11] Statement of the All-Poland Council of Architects (Warsaw, November 1980) published in Architektura xxx

[12] See, for instance, Milena Lamarová, ‘Na vlně postmodernismu’ in Domov, 3 (1987) pp. 20-24.

[13] Milena Lamarová, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.

 

[14] Josef Kroutvor, untitled essay in the catalogue for the ‘Cesty k postmodernĕ’ exhibition at the Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum (Prague, 1990) unpaginated.

[15] See for instance, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, ‘Loučení s modernismem. Čtyři úvahy o nové malbě’ in Sborník památce Jiřího Padrty (samizdat), 1985, pp. 21–29 reproduced in Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, Texty (Prague, 2010) pp. 188–194.

[16] Milena Lamarová from the catalogue for the Studio Atika exhibition in Prague, 1989 reproduced in Dagmar Koudeliková and Anežka Šimková, eds.,  Atika 1987-1992. Emoce a forma (Olomouc, 2007) pp. 112-3

[17] Mary McLeod, ‘Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism’ in Assemblage, no. 8 (February 1989) p. 22.

[18] See Martina Pachmanová and Markéta Pražanová (eds.), Vysoká škola uměleckoprůmyslová v Praze, 1885–2005 (Prague, 2005) pp. 85-7.

[19] ‘Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) – http://www.lidovky.cz/olgoj-chorchoj-slava-je-prostredkem-ke-svobode-fqy-/design.aspx?c=A111207_000114_ln-bydleni_ter – accessed 31/3/16

[20] Rostislav Švácha, Czech Architecture and Its Austerity (Prague, 2004).

[21] Iva Janáková, ed., Ladislav Sutnar. Prague-New York. Design in Action, (Prague, 2003) p. 188.

[22] See Christopher Wilk, ed., Modernism. Designing a New World 1914-39 (London, 2006) pp 392-3.

[23] See Daniela Kramerová and Vanda Skálová, eds., Bruselský sen. Československá účast na Světové výstavě Expo 58 v Bruselu (Prague, 2008).

[24] Olgoj Chorchoj: Sláva je prostředkem ke svobodě’ in Lidové noviny (12 December 2011) http://www.lidovky.cz/olgoj-chorchoj-slava-je-prostredkem-ke-svobode-fqy-/design.aspx?c=A111207_000114_ln-bydleni_ter – accessed 31/3/16

[25] Kenneth Frampton ‘’Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance’ in Hal Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, 1983) pp 16-29.

[26] François Burkhardt, ‘Czech Cubism Today’ in Alexander von Vegesack, ed., Czech Cubism. Architecture, Furniture and Decorative Arts 1910-1925 (London, 1992) p. 105.

[27] Ibid, p. 96.

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The Poster Remediated

Design as Critique, Graphic Design

Extracts from a longer essay exploring the future of the poster which will be published in Warsaw in June 2016

 

In 1971 the Swiss graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann and the artist Shizuko Yoshikawa published a book surveying the history of the poster. Committed modernists, they concluded their catalogue of past designs with some reflections on the form’s future. They saw flashes of optimism in the foundation of the Warsaw International Poster Biennale in 1966 as well as the city’s Poster Museum two years later, and in the creation of the Deutsches Plakat Museum in Essen in 1971. Here was evidence of the poster’s “great importance as an economic, social, political and cultural means of communication.” Yet, at the same time Müller-Brockmann and Yoshikawa worried about its end:

 

It cannot be foreseen with certainty whether, or for how long, the poster will have a long-term future. Doubts regarding its prospects are justified when we consider the possible way of life of a post-industrial society, with almost unlimited new technical resources in an environment planned according to human resources. Some practical aids, which scientific and industrial production is placing, or will place, at our disposal in the near future: audiovisual communication by telephone: audiovisual communication with stores providing a survey of good available, automatic order and deliver in house; audiovisual communication with a neutral marketing advisory office; a newspaper delivered by home computer, independently of time, giving all desired marketing information by means of stereoscopic pictures; a home computer connected to a data bank of administrative associations and giving topical information regarding social, and political events …[1]

 

Reading their words today, it seems clear that, in outlining their vision of a future after the poster, Müller-Brockmann and Yoshikawa foresaw the Internet.

[…]

Such anxiety about the decline of the poster has proven, at least in terms of volume, to be premature. Advertising continues to fill the horizons of our towns and cities; elections and political protests still warrant the production of great waves of visual propaganda; and cinemas, galleries and theatres announce their programmes with graphic posters as they have always done. Occasional moratoriums on billboard advertising issued by cities in an ascetic mood – …– do little to reverse the flow. Moreover, the conventions which first governed the design of the modern posters in the age of Lautrec and Mucha, and, later, Müller-Brockmann too, are still intact today, at least when it comes to the output of professional graphic designers. “The values of a poster are first those of ‘appeal,’ and only second of information” wrote Susan Sontag in 1970: “The rules for giving information are subordinated to the rules which endow a message, any message, with impact: brevity, asymmetrical emphasis, condensation.” Arresting graphic images combined with punchy copy continue to demand our attention today. What has changed, however, is that the means by which these appeals are delivered. Digital billboards, interactive screens and even the phones in our pockets are increasingly the means by which poster messages are mediated. In 2014 The Guardian newspaper announced, for instance, that 2015 would be the year when the spend of advertisers on digital and online promotion in the UK would outstrip than on print buses, cinema, billboards, TV and radio combined.[2] Hollywood movies and upmarket television series are now promoted, for instance, with so called “motion posters” – not a trailer but an animation of elements of the promotional poster which lasts little more than a few seconds.

Four stills from the motion poster promoting “Bajirao Mastani”, a Bollywood movie 2015.

Four stills from the motion poster promoting “Bajirao Mastani”, a Bollywood movie 2015.

Letters ripple into life; actors strike a pose; lightning flashes overhead. Commissioned by movie studios and television broadcasters (or created by fans), these poster-format designs are easily posted and reblogged on social media. Many motion posters attempt to combine the wide-screen effects and intimate close-ups which characterise much cinema. Whether this constitutes a definition of the genre yet is too early to say: the motion poster is too new to have established a firm set of conventions (and in fact, like many trends on the Internet, it might turn out to be no more than a short-lived fad). Nevertheless, their desire for life is unmistakable. Not only do these posters come to life in your hand or on your desktop but they also want to escape the flat surface of the screen.

The desire for life in the poster can be traced back to its earliest days, or perhaps more precisely to the first movies at the beginning of the twentieth century. As the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin wrote in Einbahnstrasse (One-Way Street) in 1930:

 

Today the most real, the mercantile gaze into the heart of things is the advertisement. It abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes with things as a car, growing into gigantic proportions, careens at us out of a film screen. And just as the film does not present furniture and facades in completed forms for critical inspection, their insistent, jerky nearness alone being sensational, the genuine advertisement hurtles things at us with the tempo of a good film.[3]

 

Writing in Weimar Germany, Benjamin – who set himself the task of diagnosing modernity – stressed the shock effects of the modern media of film and advertising. In this, lay the modern poster’s disturbing liveliness. Today, new, more coercive forms of poster interaction are emerging. The fantasy of the “personalised” billboard which knows you and your tastes – vividly presented in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Minority Report” (2002) – is drawing closer. In 2012 the UK charity Plan UK created bus advertising which scanned a viewer’s face to select an ad according his or her gender. “Men and boys are denied the choice to view the full content” of the “Because I’m a Girl” campaign “in order to highlight the fact that women and girls across the world are denied choices and opportunities on a daily basis due to poverty and discrimination” explained the charity.[4] Similarly, in its #LookingForYou campaign, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, an animal charity in London, worked with an advertising agency and technologists in 2015 to combine leaflets with RFID chips with electronic billboards and digital displays at a shopping centre.

#LookingForYou, still from a film documenting the interactive billboard created by OgilvyOne UK for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, London, Date. Courtesy Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

#LookingForYou, still from a film documenting the interactive billboard created by OgilvyOne UK for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, London, Date. Courtesy Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

Holding a leaflet which he or she had picked up on arrival, a visitor was “followed” on his or her journey by an appealing looking dog which appears on every screen en route. Walk back pass the screen and the dog is still there, waiting for you. Here, the shock identified by Benjamin in Weimar Germany has been replaced by a more subtle – and in this case affective – form of interaction which, of course, raises many ethical questions about consent, and about the way in which data about our identities and movement is stored and used. To date, such attempts to customise advertising remain rare and, in fact, the charities concerned have made much of the technology to draw media attention to their good works. And, as the use of the hashtag in the name of the #LookingForYou project infers, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home wishes to share their work not hide it. Moreover, not all forms of interaction carry overtones of manipulation. The UK based company Novalia, for instance, specialises in the development of paper surfaces which offer interactions based on touch. Conductive inks, and electronics and small speakers hidden in a thin board allow a poster to become an drum kit which can be played. Another poster designs – like its “Sound of Taste” – connects with a smart phone. When the artwork, a flood of rich colours created by illustrator Billie Jean, is stroked, different chords are triggered and played out of the speakers on the phone. Commissioned by a spice retailer, Schwartz, the project aims to connect the senses. Such inventions might be dismissed as gimmicks, but Novalia’s achievement is not just to have produced an experimental prototype but to have worked out how to produce interactive posters in large numbers at relatively low cost.

Interactive poster created by 73andSunny and Novalia, for the second Google Impact Challenge, San Francisco, 2015.

Interactive poster created by 73andSunny and Novalia, for the second Google Impact Challenge, San Francisco, 2015.

The potential of this technology is considerable, a fact not lost on Google which worked with Novalia and a creative team from 72andSunny to design an interactive “voting” poster for the streets, bus stations and cafes of San Francisco in 2015 which invited passers-by to decide how money the wealthy business had set aside for non-profit schemes with social benefits in the area should be spent.[5]

 

The Mediation of the Media

What the appearance of motion posters illustrates is not that the poster has been has killed off by the screen but that poster effects have been subsumed into new media. Far from vanquishing the conventional poster – words and images printed on paper and pasted on the walls of our streets – the screen has consumed it with great appetite. Lively images accompanied by slogans on smart phones contain so many poster-like qualities that they might be best to see them as containers of all the histories of the poster. This is one face of what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, writing more than a decade ago, called “remediation”. Reflecting on the rapid transformation of the media in the 1990s, they argued that “digital visual media can best be understood through the ways in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print.” Old media are never entirely replaced: they persist but, necessarily, “refashion themselves to answer the challenges of new media”. In other words what is “new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media.”[6] Viewed in this way, a digital billboard promoting new fashion is a layered or “seriated” medium in the sense that its graphic components each have their own histories: a sans-serif letterforms might date from the beginning of the nineteenth century; the company’s logo was, perhaps, an invention of the 1960s; the lighting effects might owe much to the studio techniques of Hollywood photographers in the 1930s (who, in turn, had taken lessons from chiaroscuro painters); and so on.

Guess billboard, Venice, photographed by Stilltheone 1, 2009. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Guess billboard, Venice, photographed by Stilltheone 1, 2009. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

The deep penetration of digital technologies into all aspects of life may well constitute a fundamental transformation of our environment – perhaps even a revolution – but it is one phase in a longer and continual process of what Bolter and Grusin call the mediation of the media: “Each act of mediation depends on other acts of mediation. Media are continually commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other, and this process is integral to media. Media need each other in order to function as media at all”.[7]

The interdependence of different media both for the generation of meaning and for its distribution is well illustrated by “And Babies?”, a poster created by the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC) in New York in late 1969 to protest against American military involvement in Vietnam.[8]

Art Workers’ Coalition, “Q. And Babies? A. And Babies”, poster, 1969. Collection Poster Museum, Warsaw.

Art Workers’ Coalition, “Q. And Babies? A. And Babies”, poster, 1969. Collection Poster Museum, Warsaw.

The poster features words and an image which had already been widely reproduced in the US media before they were combined by the AWC. Eighteen months earlier, in March 1968, a troop of US soldiers had massacred the population of a Vietnamese village, known as My Lai (Song My).[9] The hundreds of people who died in this brutal episode had initially been described by a US army spokesman as a Vietcong unit. The evidence provided by the Army’s own photographer, Ron L. Haeberle, revealed, however, that men and women, old and young, were not only civilians but that they been killed indiscriminately. The images of the dead taken by Haeberle, as well as other shots of peasants recoiling from the menacing GIs, found their way into the American mass media. They were shown on major news broadcasts without commentary, such was their shocking force. CBS also televised an interview with Paul Meadlo, one of the soldier who had participated in the massacre. When asked by TV anchor Mike Wallace whether the soldiers had killed men, women and children, “yes” came the answer. When Wallace pressed again, asking “And Babies?”, Meadlo replied “And Babies.” The next day a full transcript of the interview was published in the New York Times.[10] This was at a time when American attitudes to the war were already changing. And for the anti-war movement, here was brutal evidence of indifference and violence done to the very people the USA was claiming to protect.

Securing official permission to use the photograph and with the endorsement of the Museum of Modern Art, the AWC – an alliance of politically-engaged artists– published “And Babies?”, laying Wallace and Meadlo’s words from the newspaper transcript over the army photographer’s image. Union lithographers donated their services, and paper was obtained without cost. On hearing about the project, the president of the board of trustees of the Museum withdrew the institution’s support. Nevertheless, the AWC went ahead, publishing the poster in an edition of 50,000 copies, which it then distributed “free of charge all over the world” including in the Museum’s lobby. The group issued a press release reflecting on this turn of events:

 

Practically, the outcome is as planned: an artist-sponsored poster protesting the My-Lai massacre will receive vast distribution. But the Museum’s unprecedented decision to make known, as an institution, its commitment to humanity, has been denied it. Such a lack of resolution casts doubt on the strength of the Museum’s commitment to art itself, and can only be seen as a bitter confirmation of this institution’s decadence and/or impotence.[11]

 

The group also mounted a “lie-in”, parading the poster in front of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), one of the most compelling anti-war images of the twentieth century, in the Museum’s galleries.[12] In effect, the AWC staged what at the time was being called a “Photo Op”, an event which was organised to attract media attention or, in other words, to be mediated.[13] Perhaps unsurprisingly, the action in front on Guernica was reported in the New York Times.[14] Various art magazines also promised to publish this image on their covers.[15] In the event, it only appeared on the cover of the November 1970 issue of the British art magazine, Studio International. In the same year, the Baden Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, adopted the poster as the cover of the catalogue accompanying its Kunst und Politik (Art and Politics) exhibition in summer 1970. The cover design was given a kind a gauzy treatment, appearing as if the poster had been shot from a television screen.

The cover of Kunst und Politik (Art and Politics), catalogue of an exhibition at the Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1970. Private Collection.

The cover of Kunst und Politik (Art and Politics), catalogue of an exhibition at the Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, Germany, 1970. Private Collection.

 

Human Billboards

The “And Babies?” poster was fashioned from material which had already undergone various forms of mediation. Moreover, the design – already printed in thousands of copies – was distributed indirectly by being reported in the print media. This particular form of remediation has a long history and a special association with protest. A parade of placards and posters brings a particular advantage to protesters. Inherently photogenic (and, of course, spectacular en masse), vivid posters like “And Babies?” supply their own captions when they appear in press photographs. Moreover, in their mobility, poster parades bring their messages to settings which are already inscribed with meaning. When in 1968 African American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, went on strike to express their deep frustration with dangerous conditions, as well as workplace racial discrimination, they organised boycotts, sit-ins and marches. Famously, in March three hundred protestors marched from Clayborn Temple, their home base, to City Hall, the site of civic authority in Memphis, as well as their employer. Each carried a placard, printed in the Temple’s print workshop, carrying the slogan “I am a Man.” A assertion of human dignity, these words connected civil rights with campaigns for the abolition of slavery in the eighteenth century.[16]

Such demands for civil rights in the United States in the 1960s; for democracy during the Arab Spring in 2011; or the defence of freedom of speech in the aftermath of the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in Paris in 2015 had particular poignancy by being printed and carried by ordinary citizens. And their messages were amplified by the way that the posters were borne. When the Memphis sanitation workers marched, they sometimes hung their placards around their necks (much like the Suffragettes in Britain before the First World War).

Suffragette with posters demanding votes for women, London, undated. Source: Library of Congress.

Suffragette with posters demanding votes for women, London, undated. Source: Library of Congress.

In this way, they announced “I testify to the injustice which I have experienced”. In his interpretation of the AWC “lie in” at MoMA, Gregory Sholette points to the symmetries between the gestures in Picasso’s aggrieved painting and those the protestors in press photographs – the fist of the fallen soldier echoes the grasp of the protestors on their poster before the canvas.[17] In their expressiveness, gestures of these kinds accentuated the poster’s message.

The murderous assault on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and the violence that spiralled out across the city and the country thereafter led to waves of anguished expressions of dismay and anger. The words “Je suis Charlie” were tweeted within minutes. And within an hour, Joachim Roncin, a French artist and journalist, had turned the phrase into a graphic device, employing the block letters of the weekly magazine’s masthead. Expressing solidarity with the victims of the attack and defence of freedom of speech, numerous newspapers and press agencies reproduced Roncin’s design. The day after the attack, Belgian financial daily De Tijd and French newspapers Libération and L’indépendant issued entirely black front pages featuring the “Je suis Charlie” slogan, and similar gestures were made by newspapers in Estonia, the UK and Sweden. Google France added the device to its homepage. But perhaps the most affecting uses of the slogan was by citizens around the world who downloaded a digital file from the Charlie Hebdo website and then carried print-outs in vigils and demonstrations.

Demonstration in Paris, January 2015 photograph by Valentina Calà / flickr  (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Demonstration in Paris, January 2015 photograph by Valentina Calà / flickr (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Some simply displayed the design on their smart phones. Modest in scale and often adapted by their bearer, these small posters were clasped over the chest or held above the head – effectively giving voice to silent and invariably sombre faces. And the claim on unity in the face of terror acquired full meaning, according to Roncin, by being carried by thousands of people of different genders, races and nations: “It is a purely republican message; one of hope, of solidarity, of peace, of unity that goes beyond Charlie Hebdo. It is a message that says that our fists are raised and we are not afraid. They didn’t just attack an editorial board or Jews or policemen. They attacked the world of free thought.”[18]

The words “Je suis Charlie” resonate with other assertions of human rights: not only “I am a Man” in Memphis but also “I am Spartacus” from the 1960 Hollywood movie; President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin in 1963; and the “I am Michael Brown” banners carried by Black Lives Matter protesters after the shooting of a young black man by the police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The frequency of such declarations also forms a ground against which progress itself can be measured, sometimes negatively. This would seem to be one of the points made by the American artist Dread Scott in his 2009 performance “I am not a Man”. Carrying a modified version of the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ poster, Scott walked through the streets of Harlem in New York City, historically the setting of some of the most vital forms of black culture in the United States (aka the Harlem Renaissance). In a tie and jacket, Scott looked like a figure from another time, perhaps one of the dignified protestors of the Civil Rights movement fifty years earlier. Most of the documentary photographs recording Scott’s performance seem to capture the indifference of the people around him. And when he stumbles and his trousers fall down, Scott emphasises the pathos of the protestor who calls for acknowledgement of his or her humanity. In the light of continued disadvantage and violence still experienced by African-Americans, Scott’s work can be understood as a commentary on civil rights after decades of activism.

The most provocative version of the human billboard in recent years has been created by Femen, the feminist group which emerged in the Ukraine in 2008 and now has loosely-affiliated branches across Europe, as well as North and South America. Objecting to domestic violence, prostitution, the corruption of female sexuality by pornography, and other forms of misogyny, Femen’s members write slogans across their bare breasts and then engage in acts of civil disobedience, often targeting politicians and religious leaders.

Femen activists marching in Paris, 2015. Photographed by Mickael Menard. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Femen activists marching in Paris, 2015. Photographed by Mickael Menard. (Reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

They create what they call “body-posters” through which the “truth [is] delivered by the body by means of nudity and meanings inscribed on it”. Here the correct gesture or body stance is vital: Femen’s organisers train novices how to stand when protesting – feet apart and firmly rooted; with an aggressive demeanour and unsmiling. With one or more breasts exposed, Femen’s activists invoke historical figures of revolution and resistance including, most obviously Eugène Delacroix’s canvas “Liberty Leading the People” (1830), and, from their own homeland, the sword-wielding “Motherland” monument overlooking the river Dnieper in Kiev (completed 1981).

The dramatic and spectacular nature of the events which its activists create, as well as their sex appeal ensures that images of Femen’s actions circulate on the internet and in print and broadcast media. Easily dismissed as stunts, the risks which they and their associates have taken are real. In March 2013, Amina Tyler, a young woman from Tunisia, aligned herself with Femen by posting pictures of herself on Facebook. In one, she had written “My Body is My Own and Not the Source of Anyone’s Honour”, a reference to the meaning attached to the veil in conservative Muslim societies. The response was quick and extreme: she was subjected to death threats, assaulted and arrested.[19] Muslim clerics denounced her actions. Adel Almi, head of the national Commission for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice claimed that Tyler’s actions “could bring about an epidemic. It could be contagious and give idea [sic] to other women.”[20] Criticism of Femen’s activities does not just come from their enemies: some feminists have objected too. After attacking the sex industry in Eastern Europe, “they started to ‘recruit’ young Muslim women in France”, writes Agata Pyzik, “… conflating, stereotypically, Islam and patriarchy/misogyny. But in doing so, they were not only racist, they neglected the meaning of years of struggle that are behind defending the rights of women from different than European/white background.”[21]

Femen’s actions are undergirded by a utopian belief in universal freedom which overrides – or, as their statement below suggests, prefigures – all cultural and historical distinctions:

 

In the beginning was the body, the sensation the woman has of her own body, the joy of lightness and freedom. Then came injustice, so harsh that it is felt with the body; injustice deprives the body of its mobility, paralyses its movements, and soon you are hostage to that injustice. Then you push your body into battle against injustice, mobilizing each cell for the war against the world of patriarchy and humiliation.[22]

 

In making themselves human posters, Femen activists also become targets in actions which they know will provoke a response, even violence. Hijacking meetings and ceremonies organised by the Roman Catholic church, the far right or Muslim groups, Femen’s activists are often dragged off-stage and away from the cameras: sometimes they are beaten in the act. In protesting against violence against women, they induce it. It seems that nudity – carrying association with sexuality and vulnerability – amplifies this effect.

In other circumstances, opposition carries mortal risk. Here, the anonymity afforded by the Internet sometimes provides security. The wave of protest that spreads across the Arab World since 2010 has stimulated the production of what is sometimes called “electronic posters”, i.e., designs which can be downloaded and printed by anyone with access to a domestic printer.[23] This has been the output of Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh (The Syrian People Know the Way), a collective of 15 anonymous artists, formed in 2011 to express support for the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Established by an art student from Damascus and a calligrapher from Meah, near Hama, the group were joined by Syrians inside and outside the country, and turned their attention to the regime at home. Posted on Flickr and Facebook, their designs – signed by the collective – were carried in demonstrations by university students, civil society activists, and ordinary Syrians who demanded democratic freedoms and an end to the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad. Counter-propaganda against the state-controlled media at the time they were made, Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh’s designs often referred to prohibited and, as such, highly combustible, themes.[24] One “electronic poster” carrying the words, “It will not happen again”, features an image of the waterwheel at Hama, the site of a notorious massacre of 25,000 civilians in 1982. Under Bashar al-Assad public discussion of this event was strictly suppressed. In the foreground, a child – rendered like a stencil – seems to be writing on a wall. This is a reference to the events of March 2011 when children graffitied the popular revolutionary chants they had seen on satellite television – “The people want to topple the regime”, “Your turn is coming, Doctor” and “Leave” – on the walls of a school in Deraa were arrested and tortured. Public anger at their treatment was one of the triggers of anti-Assad protests. In another electronic poster, a woman covers her face with a veil or possibly a chequered keffiyeh associated with Palestinian nationalism.

Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh, “I’m going out to demonstrate”, electronic poster.

Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh, “I’m going out to demonstrate”, electronic poster.

She is framed by the words “I’m going out to demonstrate” in elegant Arabic calligraphy. As Robyn Cresswell notes, the Arabic verb for “to demonstrate,” atazahar, suggests the process of “appearing” or “becoming visible”.[25] Here, the possibility of private identity and public protest – which characterises Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh’s actions – is, itself, the theme of one of its designs. The contrast with Femen’s “body posters” could not be greater.

 

[—]

 

Controversies

 

Protestors are not the only groups which attempt to amplify their poster messages by thumbing a ride in the press or on social media. Lacking the resources to mount expensive print advertising campaigns, charities and other interest groups often court controversy by commissioning publicity which tests public opinion and sometimes contravene the codes which limit advertising in many countries. In this way, a poster can become a news story in its own right. Today, it often seems that sex or images of children are the most effective vehicles for controversy. In 2010 a French campaign commissioned by Droits des Non Fumeurs (The Rights of Non Smokers / DNF) from the BDDP et fils agency set out to capture the attention of the young, who appear to be largely unmoved by warnings of the deadly effects of smoking-related disease. Instead, the director of DNF argued that it was necessary to tap the sexual desires and dislike of authority of teenagers in its press and poster campaign. Featuring the slogan “To Smoke is to be Enslaved”, the campaign images presented the act of young people smoking as if compelled to perform an act of fellatio on an older besuited man. If the clarity of the message was doubtful, the media effects of the image were not. The French press immediately called on public figures to give an opinion – libertarians attacked the publicity’s censorious tone; champions of family values identified paedophilia in the images; and the Minister of Health judged the campaign to be inappropriate precisely because it set out to shock. Evidently, DNF had a “succès de scandale” on its hands, ensuring that its publicity was publicised.

Sexuality also featured in the public discussion of one of the most controversial commercials in the UK in recent years. A series of weight-loss advertisements were placed on billboards and on public transport in spring 2015 featuring a slim and tanned model in a bikini with the question “Are you Beach Body Ready?” The company behind the advertisement, Protein World, produce and market food supplements and meal replacements. The ad immediately drew a critical response, often in ways that combined both a direct engagement with the poster in situ and the rapid, centrifugal effects of social media. Angry passers-by answered the ad’s question personally and directly with marker pens and stickers: one transformed it into “Everyone is Beach Body Ready!”; another replied with “None of Your F*cking Business”.

Response to Protein World’s “Are You Beach Body Ready?” billboard advertising in London, 2015.

Response to Protein World’s “Are You Beach Body Ready?” billboard advertising in London, 2015.

And, in a witty gesture, two young women, Tara Costello and Fiona Longmuir, were photographed in their own bikinis standing by the ad on London’s tube system. Both feminist bloggers, they captioned this image with their own Q and A (“How to get a beach body: Take your body to a beach”) and then posted their body positive message on social media. These first angry responses spiralled quickly into something like a campaign against ”body shaming”. Protesters gathered on a cold day in London’s Hyde Park, many in swimwear with the slogan “Beach Body Ready” written on their skin. This media-friendly event made the broadcast news that evening. An on-line petition calling for the ad to be banned attracted more than 70,000 signatures. And the advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a regulatory body received 378 complaints largely claiming that the image of the model and the headline had toxic effects on individual well being and confidence.

In the face of such widely reported criticism, the response of Protein World was highly combative, with the company’s representatives taking every opportunity to defend the ad. “Are you Beach Body Ready?”, they argued, was an invitation to viewers to consider if they were in the shape they wanted to be. The company’s head of global marketing Richard Staveley even revealed the company received a bomb threat but said nevertheless that it had been “a brilliant campaign for us”.[26] What would seem to be clear evidence of this fact was that sales of their slimming product increased during this media skirmish. Much to the disappointment of the protestors, the controversial campaign was also cleared by the ASA: “We considered the claim “Are you beach body ready?” prompted readers to think about whether they were in the shape they wanted to be for the summer” declared the UK ad watchdog, “and we did not consider the accompanying image implied a different body shape to that shown was not good enough or was inferior.”[27] Protein World then shifted its attention to the slimming market in the USA, launching their campaign there by placing the same “Are you Beach Body Ready?” ad on a massive billboard in Times Square in New York. Although the public response proved to be more ambivalent , the American press had been primed, with journalists asking passers-by live on breakfast TV “Are you upset by an ad which caused so much offence in the UK?” An ad had become news, again.

 

Concentration or dissipation?

The remediation of posters in the press and other news media often focuses attention on the message which the poster has been created to deliver. Not all acts of remediation can be understood as the concentration or amplification of information. Some seem to produce the reverse effect; one of deferral and even dissipation. The afterlives of the AWC’s “And Babies?” poster illustrates this point well. In 1970, Gloria Steinem, the prominent feminist activist, added the words “The Masculine Mystique” to the poster, a play on the title of Betty Frieden’s 1965 book about the ways in which the horizons of women living in the USA were contained by the myths of femininity.[28] In Steinem’s reworking, the murder of the villagers from My Lai was an extension of the values which American society drilled into its sons. Speaking at a US Senate hearing on equal rights in May 1970, Steinem said:

 

… it seems to me that much of the trouble in this country has to do with the “masculine mystique”; with the myth that masculinity somehow depends on the subjugation of other people. It is a bipartisan problem; both our past and current Presidents seem to be victims of this myth, and to behave accordingly. … Perhaps women elected leaders—and there will be many of them—will not be so likely to dominate black people or yellow people or men; anybody who looks different from us. After all, we won’t have our masculinity to prove.[29]

 

A few months later Steinem carried her reworked version of the poster along Fifth Avenue in New York during a march of 20,000 women in support of the Women’s Strike for Equality. Reframed by feminism, the “And Babies?” had became an indictment of American machismo.

Other acts of remediation of the AWC poster deferred the original message yet further In 1982 East German designer Jürgen Haufe designed a poster for the Dresden State Theatre production of Heinar Kippart’s play, “Bruder Eichmann”, an adaptation of Hannah Arendt’s study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961.[30] SS officer Eichmann, an official of the Third Reich, had been responsible for the administration of the deportation of Jews to the Third Reich’s extermination camps. Haufe too created an adaptation, this time of the AWC poster. Roughly erasing the original lettering of the poster, Haufe combined the image the bodies of the dead with another of the keyboard of a typewriter. Here was a sharp indictment of Eichmann’s claims to have been an ordinary and God-fearing bureaucrat innocently caught up in events. For those who recognised the crime at My Lai, Haufe’s design connected the violence of US actions in Vietnam with the Holocaust: for those who did not, the poster produced a more general message about man’s inhumanity. Much is lost and gained in such acts of remediation. In this case, the identities and histories of the dead (and those who killed them) were overwritten by a universal message. […]

 

The Poor Poster

If remediation undermines the hold of authors on their images, it would seem axiomatic that it infers their spread. In an influential 2009 essay, film maker and writer Hito Steyerl gave a name to describe the order of image which travels fastest and furthest, “the poor image”:

 

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.[31]

 

In her essay, Steyerl’s primary concern is to understand the circulation of film in an era which is characterised by the rampant privatisation of the media and the collapse of non-commercial infrastructure for making and distributing films. Deterioration may well be understood as the noisy, low resolution of much Internet imagery, but it also can be thought of as the loss of information about who or what is being represented in an image. One only has to look at television news reports which increasingly feature camera phone footage recorded by ordinary citizens of extraordinary events. Shaky and compelling clips of rioting, natural disasters, the activities of rogue police offers, and, of course, images of billboards being destroyed by angry crowds, are often accompanied by the phrase “we have been unable to independently verify this footage” (and there are many examples of news outlets broadcasting material which has been misinterpreted or even manipulated[32]). The compelling and spectacular quality of low-fi, up-close images often overrides any uncertainty about their status as documents. For Steyerl, the rise of the poor image should not, however, be lamented. The circulation and production of poor images based on cellphone cameras, home computers, and unconventional forms of distribution may yet have democratizing effects: “Its optical connections—collective editing, file sharing, or grassroots distribution circuits—reveal erratic and coincidental links between producers everywhere, which simultaneously constitute dispersed audiences.”[33]

What insights might be gained from Hito Steyerl’s essay for considering the poster, especially now that it is increasingly being delivered on digital screens provided by a small number of specialist companies offering advertising spaces (surely the setting of “rich posters”)? Are we witnessing the concomitant rise of the “poor poster” in the twenty-first century and if so where? Perhaps we should look to the home-made banners and placards carried in demonstrations in Tahir Square in Cairo in 2011, in the Maidan protests in Kiev or in Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders. Unlike their home-made predecessors in other historic moments, these graphic signs were broadcast around the world almost instantly and without restraint (a lesson perhaps learned reluctantly by President Erdoǧan in Turkey when he attempted, unsuccessfully, to block Twitter in the country[34]). Or perhaps the poor poster takes the form of the ephemeral but highly popular Internet memes which slip between different social media platforms to deliver bitterly sardonic messages (or completely inane ones, for that matter). Moreover, for a some period, the criteria for judging a poster – described above as “the rules for … impact: brevity, asymmetrical emphasis, condensation” – by Sontag have been undergoing a change. Some posters were described as “icons” precisely because they appeared to condense a moment or a condition into a single image and thereafter come to seem like its essence. […] Perhaps this process is an inevitable effect of remediation but in the moment of the “poor poster” other possibilities exist too. Writing of the wide distribution of the technology of image-production and distribution as well as the difficulties of what is sometimes called “image management”, activist and architect Eyal Weizman has described the increasingly multitudinous ways in which events are recorded: “We can no longer rely on what is captured in single images,” he writes, “but rather on what we call ‘image complexes’: a time-space relation between dozens, sometimes hundreds of images or videos which were generated around incidents from multiple perspectives including ground, air and outer space.”[35] Weizman’s point might be illustrated well by a demonstration or an occupation in which police, protesters, professional journalists and independent reporters all carry cameras to capture each others’ actions. Lenses faces lenses. Cameras attached to helicopters and drones observe from above, whilst CCTV networks hold a steady gaze. Attempts to record what might be called the “image complexes” of recent conflicts of this kind include the Occupy Wall Street Archive at http://www.archive.org, a collection of more than 7,500 images, almost 1,250 movies, 339 audio files and 71 texts (at time of writing). It is, in effect, a massive digital archive of the signs, voices, actions and views which made up what might be called “time-space relations“ of Occupy when it filled the business district of Manhattan in 2011. Much of this material has been uploaded by activists to social media sites like flickr, or originates with news media outlets. (We still await the photos and CCTV footage recorded by the authorities and the neighboring businesses). Other recent cataloguing operations include the rapid formation of the Maidan Museum in Kiev to collect not only the artefacts which were created as part of the occupation of the Maidan Square by anti-Yukovich protesters and then its defence during the bloody fighting which broke out in 2014 but also the accounts of the participants.[36] So sharp was their sense of the need to record this historic event, that the future museum’s curators saved the smoke-damaged banners and placards from the Yolka – a tall Christmas tree-shaped structure which had been a temporary gallery of home-made signs – whilst armed militia still occupied Kiev city centre.

'Yolka’, Maiden Square, Kiev, May 2014 photograph by Marco Fieber /flickr (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

‘Yolka’, Maiden Square, Kiev, May 2014 photograph by Marco Fieber /flickr (reproduced under a Creative Commons license).

Viewed as two poles – the “poor poster”, made non-professional designers that hitches a ride in the mainstream press or spins though the internet, and the “rich poster” created by professional creatives and delivered by digital screens owned by specialist advertising companies who have secured lucrative deals with city authorities – are two very different poster futures, yet they are both likely to persist. Moreover, they both raise questions of public space, whether online or in the streets around us. What rights do citizens have to express their views in public? And what right does society have to exclude irrational or unreasonable views from being posted on walls or on websites? What kind of controls ought to be in place to stave off the domination of our environment by advertising?

 

[1] Josef Müller-Brockmann and Shizuko Yoshikawa, History of the Poster (Zurich, 1971), 239.

[2] See http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/dec/01/gadget-obsessed-uk-top-digital-advertising-spend – accessed 23/03/16

[3] Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott (London, 1979) 89.

[4] See http://www.plan-uk.org/news/news-and-features/only-girls-allowed-futuristic-advert/ – accessed 23/03/16

[5] See https://www.72andsunny.com/work/google/google-impact-challenge-bay-area – accessed 23/03/16

[6] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA, 1999) 15.

[7] Bolter and Grusin, Remediation, 56.

[8] On this episode see Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent. Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (Manchester, 1999) 160-207.

[9] See William Thomas Allison, My Lai: An American Atrocity in the Vietnam War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2012).

[10] “Transcript of Interview of Vietnam War Veteran on His Role in Alleged Massacre of Civilians at Songmy”, New York Times (25 November 1969) 28.

[11] Cited in Lucy Lippard, ‘The Art Worker’s Coalition: Not a History’ in Studio International (November 1970) 15.

[12] See Francis Frascina, Art, Politics and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999) 160-208

[13] Evidently the practice predates the term. According to Kiku Adatto it was coined to describe and disparage Nixon’s attempt to garner media attention by appearing with TV star Jackie Gleason on a Florida golf course during the 1968 Presidential Election campaign. See Adatto, Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op (Princeton, NJ, 2008) 10.

[14] Grace Glueck, ‘Yanking The Rug From Under’ in New York Times (25 January 1970).

[15] See Michael Israel, Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (Austin, 2013) 135.

[16] See Mary Guyatt, “The Wedgwood Slave Medallion. Values in Eighteenth-century Design” in Journal of Design History, v. 13, n. 2, (2000): 93-105.

[17] Gregory Sholette xxx

[18] Joachim Roncin cited in “Qui se cache derrière le slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’?” (22 January 2015) at www.lesinrocks.com/ accessed 23/03/16

[19] ‘Tunisian activist who posted topless photos is arrested after new protest’ The Guardian (20 May 2013) at www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/20/tunisian-activist-amina-tyler-charged-protest – accessed 23/03/16

[20] Cited by Laura J. Shepherd, Gender Matters in Global Politics: A Feminist Introduction to International Relations (London: 2014) 301.

[21] Agata Pyzik, Poor but Sexy. Culture Clashes in Europe East and West (London, 2014) 139.

[22] Cited in Femen and Galia Ackerman, Femen (London, 2014) vii

[23] See Liz McQuiston, Visual Impact. Creative Dissent in the 21st Century (London, 2015).

[24] Malu Halasa, Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud, eds., Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (London, 2014).

[25] Robyn Creswell, “Syria’s Lost Spring” in New York Review of Books (February 2015) www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/02/16/syria-lost-spring/ accessed 24/03/16.

[26] Staveley cited by Siobhan Fenton in “’Beach body ready’ posters in New York spark counter-campaign” at www.independent.co.uk/ (4 July 2015) – accessed 23/03/16

[27] ASA adjudication (1 July 2015) here: https://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2015/7/Protein-World-Ltd/SHP_ADJ_300099.aspx#.VvTrkmSLQy4 – accessed 23/03/16

[28] Betty Frieden, The Feminine Mystique (New York, 1965).

[29] Steinem speaking at a US Senate hearing on equal rights in May 1970. SOURCE

[30] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem. A Study in the Banality of Evil (New York, 1964).

[31] Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’ (2009) in The Wretched of the Screen (2014) 32

[32] See, for instance, http://mediashift.org/2014/12/an-epidemic-of-false-video-footage-swamped-big-news-stories-in-2014/ – accessed 21/03/16

[33] Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, 43.

[34] See Kevin Rawlinson, “Turkey Blocks Use of Twitter” in The Guardian (21 March 2014) www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/21/turkey-blocks-twitter-prime-minister – accessed 23/03/16

[35] Eyal Weizman, ‘The Image Complex’ in Loose Associations, Oct. 2015

[36] New York Times article TBC