On Andrzej Klimowski

Contemporary Art, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

This essay was commissioned for a new book on the posters of Andrzej Klimowski published by Self-Made Hero in 2018.


In 1980 English-born Andrzej Klimowski had been living in Warsaw for seven years and was working as the designer of posters for the state film distributor and a number of theatres around Poland. That year, he put his commissions on hold to make a film for the Se-Ma-For film studio in Łódź. The studio had a high reputation for experimental short films and animations, and gave even novice film-makers like Klimowski access to 35mm cameras, professional lighting rigs and skilled technicians. It was one of a number of surprisingly free zones of artistic expression in the People’s Republic of Poland.

Entitled Martwy Cień (Dead Shadow), Klimowski’s ten-minute film lays out the symbols and themes that he had already been exploring in posters for most of the 1970s, and continue to occupy his imagination almost forty years later. A man sits at home, sleeping. We are granted access to his dreams and nightmares, many of which are haunted by the face of a woman. Her photographic portrait looks down from the wall of the apartment, framed alongside others from an earlier age. She also appears in print: the man leafs through an album of Victorian monuments, and Renaissance mausoleums and churches, before turning to a newspaper which features her portrait framed with a black border. The mood of the film is intensely introspective (an atmosphere heralded by a rapid descent down a musical scale before the action starts). Full of memories and desires, the home in Martwy Cień is what art historian Andrzej Turowski has called a ‘utopie rétrospective’.[1] Such places idealise settings and times – like the homes of childhood – which can no longer be accessed. The only incursion of the world outside the home comes in the form of a flickering television screen in which the same woman appears as a news presenter introducing reports of military violence and police brutality. In the final scene, she features as if in ‘real’ life only to turn to a deathly mask when embraced by the man. Whether as photograph, as half-tone illustration on the printed page, as video, or as celluloid, she is a ‘dead shadow’ who haunts the present.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Torment’.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Nashville’.

The woman was not a new discovery. She had already starred in many of Klimowski’s posters: in dark eye-make up in his design for Olea’s film Torment (1974); with foaming hair and in profile for the publicity for Robert Altman’s movie Nashville (1975); and, three years later, brightly decorated with stage-paint and peering out from the stage curtains to announce the thirtieth anniversary of the Współczesny Theatre in Wrocław. Yet she was not an actress. She was and is Danuta Schejbal, a theatre designer, Klimowski’s wife and sometimes his creative partner. (Most recently in their joint graphic memoir of life in Poland in the 1970s[2]). Her appearance in his work may be explained pragmatically as the convenience of having a model ‘on call’. Or it may be explained emotionally, as an expression of love and desire. But this intimacy also opens up the prospect of viewing the men who feature in his images as self-portraits (even if the man in Martwy Cień was not played by Klimowski himself) and the poster as a vehicle for some kind of self-inspection.

The mass-produced poster seems like an unlikely medium for this kind of turn inward. After all, modernist design theory had emphasised the poster’s public duties. Famously, A.M. Cassandre, the celebrated French designer, laid out the case for the poster as a kind of impersonal medium in 1933: ‘The poster is only a means to an end, a means of communication between the dealer and the public, something like telegraphy. The poster plays the part of the telegraph official: he does not initiate news, he merely dispenses it.’[3] But the conditions which prevailed in the People’s Republic of Poland when Klimowski began his career, released the poster designer from the pressures of commercialism or even the task of accurate delivery of information. Hardly required to ‘sell’ seats in cinemas and theatres, and benefiting from a strong belief in the autonomy of the artist which was shared by many working in the arts, poster designers probably enjoyed more freedom of expression than their counterparts in the West. Posters had to pass through the state censor’s office, but were rarely banned. Klimowski recalls only one such incident; when the film distributor required that his poster for Torment be reworked before it was sent to the censor. He recalls

The communist state was very careful not to aggravate the church. There was a Spanish film about a priest who was under the control of a woman, unable to escape her influence. I made a photograph of Danuta naked from the back. I had to use delay timer because I had my hands around her, holding a cross and bound in a rosary. The response was outright no. The publisher said the censor won’t pass it.[4]

When commissioned to promote imported movies like Torment, poster designers in Poland had little access to publicity photographs and might not even see the film in advance. Instead, they might be given a plot summary by the distributor. And in the case of theatre, the posters had to be printed long in advance of the premiere. Often, all that was available to the poster designer was a script or libretto. In such circumstances, poster design was, necessarily, an act of fantasy and improvisation. This added greatly to their autonomy. After his return to UK in 1981, Klimowski continued to work in much the same way. His intuitive approach to the image was hardly suited to the regimes of market research and PR which shape publicity in the business-minded world of graphic design in the West, and so while the supply of poster commissions continued, they were never to be as plentiful again.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘Kartoteka’.

Klimowski’s posters, book jackets, illustrations and his film Martwy Cień evades simple interpretation, yet the repertoire of images and devices which appear in his works is remarkably concise and constant. The repeated overlay of one person’s eye on another’s face or the attachment of wings to a human torso are not arbitrary combinations, guided by some kind of surrealist fascination with the effects of chance. These gestures recur so frequently that they are more like Klimowski’s own idées fixes. And if the meanings that might be attached to such montages cannot precisely determined, say in the manner of a rebus or even an allegory, they are best understood as poetic metaphors, sometimes for what cannot be seen. In fact, many of Klimowski’s poster images and illustrations allude to blindness or to what might be called ‘displaced’ sight: a 1998 poster produced to promote the 28th Short Film Festival in Kraków features a transparent blindfold through which, paradoxically, light emanates; in others, like the posters for Jacques Deray’s movie Flic Story (1976) and Tadeusz Różewicz’s play Kartoteka (1984) or a performance of Richard Wagner’s Flying Dutchman at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki (1981), a human face is either hidden or abruptly cut-off. Sometimes, the eye has left its conventional position altogether: for an adaptation of Botho Strauss’s die Zeit und die Zimmer (1993), for instance, a large eye peers back at the viewer from the frame formed by the crooked arm of a woman holding her head. Is the eye hers? Or yours? Or God’s? There is, of course, something capricious about using a medium that is tasked with pleasing the eye to explore blindness or displaced eyesight. But Klimowski seems to be suggesting that external sight must be extinguished for internal vision to flourish.

Klimowski is by no means alone in making this suggestion. Late in life, philosopher Jacques Derrida was invited to curate an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris. True to his deconstructive method, he set out to expose that which had been repressed in an institution which was a cornerstone of Western art history. The result was his Memoirs of the Blind, an exploration of the images of non-seeing in the museum’s vast collection displayed in the Napoléon Hall in 1990-91. Classical mythology and the Bible have provided dozens of instances of blindness – usually as divine punishment – for artists to envision. In the accompanying publication, the philosopher placed particular attention on drawing, arguing that even those artists who draw their subject d’après nature face two orders of blindness. Attentive to the drawing in hand, he or she is blind to the subject, and when gazing on the subject, is blind to the drawing. What holds these activities together is the resort to memory and experience – forms of what Derrida calls ‘autoreflection’. A drawing of blind person – perhaps using touch to ‘see’ the world – is a kind of doubling too: ‘if to draw a blind man is first of all to show hands, it is in order to draw attention to what one draws with the help of that with which one draws, the body proper (corps proper) as an instrument, the drawer of the drawing, the hand of the handiwork, of the manipulations, of the manoeuvres and matters, the play or work of the hand – drawing as surgery.’[5]

Klimowski has in recent years spent much of his time drawing, not least the frames of the graphic novels he has authored since his first, The Depository, in 1994. But his posters continue his long-standing practice of photomontage, involving the excision and combination of images from existing printed sources. This is its own form of ‘drawing as surgery’; one in which different orders of image – whether wood-engravings in medieval bestiaries, halftones from the illustrated press, or plates from the Victorian illustrator Gustav Doré’s books – are sutured together and then photographed for reproduction. Photomontage allows for repetitions and collisions, as well as abrupt shifts of perspective and distortions of scale. It has a long tradition in the visual arts and cinema, but Klimowski’s points to the special impact of reading Latin American writers in the 1970s, not least Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar’s short stories in Zofia Chądzyńska’s brilliant translations. For instance, in Cortázar’s ‘Las babas del diablo’ (which provided the original idea for Antonioni’s movie Blow Up), a French-Chilean translator and amateur photographer called Michel captures on film a selfish attempt by a woman to seduce a boy on the streets of Paris on a bright November day. Only after he blows up his photo to the size of a poster one month later, does he realise that he had actually witnessed the efforts of a man to trap the boy. Perhaps this man is the devil suggested by the story’s title. By making the print, Michel gives the boy a chance to escape, at least in his imagination.

Shifting perspective, this fragmented short story moves back and forth between first and third person: sometimes Michel explains his actions using the personal pronoun, and, at others, we observe him from afar. What begins with the bright confidence of photographer in his ability to reveal the lines of beauty and order that run through Paris, ends in breakdown. Michel enters the photograph on his apartment walls:

… I realized that I was beginning to move toward them, four inches, a step, another step, the tree swung its branches rhythmically in the foreground, a place where the railing was tarnished emerged from the frame, the woman’s face turned towards me as though surprised, was enlarging and then I turned a bit, I mean that the camera turned a little, and without losing sign of the woman, I began to close in on the man who was looking at me with the black holes he had in place of eyes, surprised and angered both, he looked, wanting to mail me onto the air, an at that instant I happened to seeing something like a large bird outside the focus that was flying in a single swoop in front of the picture and I leaned up against the wall of my room and was happy because the boy had just managed to escape …

A human camera, he then frames and focuses the boy’s tormentors:

Out of breath, I stood in front of them; no need to step close, the game was played out. Of the woman, you could see just maybe a shoulder and a bit of the hair, brutally cut off by the frame of the picture, but the man was directly centre his mouth half open, you could see a shaking black tongue, and he lifted his hands slowly, bringing them into the foreground, an instant still in perfect focus, and then all of him a lump that blotted out the island, the tree and I shut my eyes, I did not want to see any more … [6]

Michel then breaks down into tears, another kind of blindness.

The mysterious symbols in Cortázar’s short story as well as a kind of suspicion of claims on objective reality bind Klimowski to the Argentinian writer, but it is perhaps the affinities of technique, despite the differences in medium, which are most revealing. ‘Sometimes within a short story, just four pages long’, says Klimowski, ‘Cortázar could shift reality totally. So, a character being observed is, at the end of a story, waiting to being observed. It is a sudden shift. And that shift of two realities is what happens in collage or photomontage’. Sometimes these shifts are between worlds, as Michel’s step into a photograph taken one month earlier proposes. And, at others, they are shifts in time. Combining both an endless present and a vertiginous sense of the past, this is one of the chief effects of the photograph. (Of one print showing ‘two little girls looking at a primitive aeroplane above their village’ Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida ‘how alive they are! They have their whole lives before them; but also they are dead.’[7]) The possibility of folding different orders of time together also explains the deep interest in photomontage in communist Poland. So many of the brilliant image-makers working in the country in the 1960s – Roman Cieślewicz, Jan Lenica, Walerian Borowczyk, Daniel Mróz and others – reactivated imagery from the past in their posters, illustrations and animations, often from the lost worlds of their childhoods or even earlier. Eschewing activism and agitation, this is the closest that these artists came to contesting state ideology. Irrational, ‘obsolete’ and yet highly-charged images – portraits of film-stars, family photographs, religious imagery and so on – offered the means to tap suppressed values in a socialist society which endlessly trumpeted its rationalism and progress.

Klimowski’s poster for ‘The Omen’.

Klimowski had close affinities and, in the case of Lenica and Cieślewicz, good relations with these artists but he belongs to a younger generation. He also brought a strong fascination with patina – the marks of age and time – in his poster designs and other images. In a memorable scene in Martwy Cień, the camera tracks right to left across a cityscape composed of photographic images. Neoclassical temples turn into modernist housing. Once pristine, they now seem marked by age. Crumbling walls bear graffiti and torn posters from different times and places: a piece of propaganda in Russian, a French ad, and a contemporary poster designed by Klimowski himself (for Richard Donner’s film The Omen). Similarly, his posters feature imperfections – surfaces are blemished or marked by signs of their making. This was, in part, a matter of necessity. The faulty materials available to artists in Poland in the 1970s and the need to improvise by, say, converting a bathroom into a darkroom had both aesthetic and intellectual effects: ‘Grit is important’ he says. ‘This dawned on me when I was in the darkroom and I could not get the dust off. I could not avoid getting negatives scratched. So, I thought that this is part of it … these bits of hair floating in amongst the half-dot screens and the scratches. That’s texture.’

For some commentators sensing the breakdown of the material world of real existing socialism, Poland was too full of texture. Setting the scene for his short story, ‘A sense of … , Janusz Anderman wrote:

Silence and mist covered the vast square: its houses lay in decay, unreal as a stage backcloth; jutting balconies stacked with discarded objects, broken chairs, faded children’s toys, scraps of refuse, dusty jars and bottles, saucepans with holes and cracked enamel, voiceless TV boxes, old-fashioned chandeliers, rotting picture frames, rusty bikes, strung-up bundles of old newspapers.[8]

But one suspects that the attraction of grit to Klimowski was not simply a sign of the times: but that in these blemishes and marks signs of vital life were to be found too.

Klimowski celebrates the power of images to elude precise definition. He freely admits that he does not know what the images in his posters and illustrations might mean or even why they recur with such frequency. This is perhaps where their uncanny power lies. And like the woman who haunts the sleeping man in Martwy Cień or the devil in Cortázar’s short story, it is not clear whether Klimowski sought out his images or if they have found him.


Dublin, 23 October 2017


[1] Andrzej Turowski, Existe-il un art de l’Europe de l’est? Utopie et idéologie (Paris 1986) p. 265.

[2] Andrzej Klimowski and Danuta Schejbal, Behind the Curtain (London, 2015).

[3] Cassandre cited in David Crowley and Paul Jobling, Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation since 1800 (Manchester, 1996) p. 149.

[4] This quote and all others from an interview with Andrzej Klimowski, London, August 2017.

[5] Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-portrait and Other Ruins (Paris, 1993) pp. 4-5.

[6] Julio Cortázar, Blow Up and Other Stories, translated by Paul Blackburn, (New York, 1968) pp. 114-15.

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, translated by Richard Howard (New York, 1981) p. 96.

[8] Janusz Anderman, ‘A sense of’ in The Edge of the World (London, 1988) p. 72.

The Poster Remediated – installation shots and press

Design as Critique, Design Exhibition, Design/Critique, Graphic Design

These installation shots in Poster Museum at Wilanów were provided by Podpunkt, the excellent studio which designed the show and the accompanying book. They were photographed by Michał Drabik.

Podpunkt did much more than design the show: they worked closely with me to shape its conceptualisation. Much of the intellectual drive of the show comes from Podpunkt’s design.

The show was controversial. Some designers felt that it undermines the tradition of the Polish poster – perhaps it does. My intention was not to treat posters as works of art (in the traditional sense) but to explore the relationship of this historic form to other media – to cinema, television, print media and of course the Internet. Some of the most striking works in the show are by unknown designers.  So in this sense, the highly artistic and authorial tradition of the poster was abandoned, at least for the duration of the show.

A large number of critics also wrote a letter to the Minister of Culture, Piotr Gliński, demanding the reinstatement of the traditional Biennale competition (an open call for designers to submit posters – whether they were commissioned works or simply propositions for posters) and describing the decision to change the format and appoint me  a ‘scandal’. You can hear the arguments being rehearsed on Polish radio here. During the opening of the show, there was a protest against the concept of the exhibition. Ten or maybe twelve painted posters were hung in the courtyard which divides the two pavilions housing the show. Here are two of them – you can judge their merits.

If you read Polish, there are some thoughtful reviews and previews in Polityka, dwutygodnik (a typically excellent and critical piece by Karol Sienkiewicz), Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita. The last(!) print issue of 2+3D magazine also includes an interview with me, an editorial on the Biennale and a feature on the work of Jordan Seiler and Vermibus, two artist who feature in the show. There is also an image-led piece the summer 2016 issue of Eye.

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.






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

All Power to the People

Graphic Design


This is a draft version of a short essay which will appear in a book accompanying ‘The Sixties: A Worldwide Happening’, an exhibition being organised by the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in the Netherlands.

A new global consciousness infused the political poster in the 1960s. The fight for Civil Rights in the United States, decolonization in Africa, the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62), the Cuban Revolution (1953-9) and the Vietnam War (at its height between 1965 and 1975) threw up not only powerful images of societies undergoing dramatic and sometimes violent transformation but also heightened awareness of the injustices produced by various kinds of imperialism. Liberation movements in what is sometimes called the ‘Global South’ today provided inspiring models of action, as well as powerful critiques of Cold War order. In the most affluent consumer societies of the ‘First World’, political activists identified with ‘Third World’ revolutionaries. For many, Frantz Fanon’s 1961 study, Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth) was a key text. Fanon challenges his readers to throw off the myths of progress which had been generated in the West since the Enlightenment: ‘Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions … The West saw itself as a spiritual adventure … [and] justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.’[1] The challenge facing all liberation movements was, according to to avoid reproducing the social structures and illusory freedoms on which European humanism had been based. Violent resistance was a legitimate response to the overbearing violence of colonialism. And national consciousness – raised by artists and poets in the aftermath of colonialism – need not lead to nationalism, but to greater internationalism (an African or Arabic consciousness).[2] Looking beyond the West, Fanon – a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front – saw signs of the new world to come: ‘The liberation of Africa and the growth of consciousness among mankind have enabled the Latin America peoples to break with the old merry-go-round of dictatorships where each succeeding regime exactly resembled the previous one. Castro took over power in Cuba, and gave it to the people.’[3]

Time magazine, Jan. 1959

Time magazine, Jan. 1959

Fanon – like many left-wing intellectuals around the world – looked to Cuba with high expectation. Seizing power on the Caribbean island in 1959, Fidel Castro’s 26 July Movement had toppled the Batista dictatorship and promised to end inequality and bring social justice. Cuba’s hold on the imagination in the West and the East was perhaps greater than the size of the island or its population might warrant. But its proximity to the United States, and the extent of popular support for communists like Castro (unlike, say, in Eastern Europe where the seizure of power had been achieved in the late 1940s through murky machinations and menace) added much to its global importance. Moreover, the guerilla war to oust Batista exploited – like no other revolution before it – the power of the image. Castro’s revolutionaries, small in numbers, achieved the ‘media effect’ of amplification by performing horseback parades and gun salutes for the cameras of the world’s media.[4] And once in power, Cuban films, magazines and posters continued to trumpet the values and the achievements of the revolution abroad, in forms which were no less vivacious even when reporting sugar cane harvests.[5]

Although often screen-printed on cheap paper, Cuban posters of the mid-1960s drew enthusiastic praise around the world for their vivid fields of colour and uninhibited designs. They were generally created by designers on the books of official agencies such as Comisión de Orientación Revolucionaria, the publicity wing of the Communist Party and Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos which issued posters to promote films. Printed in large numbers (more than 5 million posters in one year, 1972[6]) and in a great plurality of styles (from portraits of workers in the socialist realist manner to fashionable Op Art aesthetics), they formed the visual environment of post-revolutionary Cuba. They also travelled well: Cuban posters were shown in galleries on both sides of the Cold War divide and reprinted in large format anthologies within a few years of the revolution.[7] The diversity of poster styles, it seems, was living proof of Fidel Castro’s promise to cultural workers made in 1961 to withdraw from questions of artistic form, in exchange for party control of content. Although writer Susan Sontag argued that undisciplined aesthetics lacked the rigour required to be truly revolutionary, she traced the contours of freedom in their hedonism: ‘These posters give evidence of a revolutionary society that is not repressive and philistine … a culture which is alive, international in orientation and relatively free of the kind of bureaucratic interference that has blighted the arts in practically every other country where a communist revolution has come to power.’[8] In other words, these posters were proof that Cuba was not the Soviet Union, with the paranoia, conservatism and despotism that Brezhnev’s rule entailed.

Alfredo Rostgaard, poster marking the 10th anniversary of ICAIC, 1969

Alfredo Rostgaard, poster marking the 10th anniversary of ICAIC, 1969

Castro presented the Caribbean island as the friend of small nations living in the shadow of aggressive neighbours and a sanctuary for revolutionaries around the world. Black leaders in the United States were drawn, with Havana’s encouragement, to Cuba, particularly after the explosive Watts Riots in Los Angeles in August 1965. Black Power activists including Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver left the USA for Cuba in 1967 and 1968, before being given passage to Africa to agitate for their visions of pan-Africanism there. In 1966 Cuba hosted the Tricontinental Conference in Havana to promote ‘solidarity with the Third World people’s struggles, claims and most precious desires.’ Under a neon sign of fist clenching a gun fixed above the entrance of the Havana Libre hotel, representatives from more than 50 countries gathered to express their opposition to imperialism and neo-colonialism. There was little consensus about what to do next, except perhaps to express solidarity with the people of Vietnam. In his concluding address, Castro drew attention to the resistance being encountered by half a million well-equipped American troops fighting in Vietnam: ‘To the amazement of the world, the people of Vietnam are furnishing the most extraordinary example of heroism the history of any liberation movement has ever seen, because a liberation movement has never had to face more powerful forces. The people of Vietnam are reversing these forces and defeating the might of the Yankee imperialists’.

Following the conference, OSPAAAL – Organización de Solidaridad con los Pueblos de Asia, África y América Latina (Organisation of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America) – was formed. Engaged in various forms of propaganda activity, OSPAAAL was a major publisher of posters with messages in Spanish, English, French and Arabic. Opposition to the influence of USA was a mainstay of OSPAAAL designs, as was support for indigenous peoples and left-wing governments in the three continents.

Perez and Ernesto Padron’s ‘Day of Solidarity with the Peoples of Puerto Rico'

Perez and Ernesto Padron’s ‘Day of Solidarity with the Peoples of Puerto Rico’

Faustino Perez and Ernesto Padron’s ‘Day of Solidarity with the Peoples of Puerto Rico’ (1968), for instance, marks an objection to the Americanisation of Cuba’s near neighbour, with a precolumbian trigonolito (carved three-corner stone) – perhaps representing a Taíno deity – putting well known corporate logos to the torch. Such posters were folded into copies of Tricontinental, an OSPAAAL magazine which was distributed to libraries and other subscribers in more than eighty countries around the world. A supplement to the magazine, these designs were less attempts an attempt at persuasion than, perhaps, a matter of confirmation for its readers. The idea of revolution had high currency around the world in the late 1960s, not least in the West. There, the conviction that society could be dramatically reorganized at a stroke – motivated a new generation disenchanted with the divisive effects of post-war affluence. Revolutionary images were adopted in the modish fringes of consumer culture. In ‘Street Fighting Man’, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, for instance, sang about his excitement of witnessing demonstrations around the world from the perspective of ‘sleepy London town’. Posters promoting liberation movements and their leaders – not least Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara[9] – formed backdrops for fashionable lifestyles in the West. As Sontag noted, consumption in capitalist societies is based on appropriation: ‘counterrevolutionary societies … [have] a flair for ripping any object out of context and turning it into an object of consumption’.[10]

Cuba was not the only communist country which issued posters protesting against American involvement in Vietnam. Chinese and Soviet authorities did the same, often in images which stressed the unbreakable bonds of international solidarity and other clichés. Rather more compelling were those anti-American images produced in the United States by artists who identified with the emergent counter-culture.

Ungerer, EAT, 1967

Ungerer, EAT, 1967

In a much reproduced 1967 poster, celebrated graphic designer and children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer depicted the symbol of welcome to the United States, the Statue of Liberty (a figure who announces to the world, ‘give me your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free’), as a symbol of violence. A Vietnamese figure is compelled to consume this American gift with the bold injunction ‘EAT’. The emphasis suggests a second critique of American foreign policy: in asserting freedom around the world in the face of the spread of communism, Washington was demanding the conditions in which people would become free to consume American commodities. Making a clear opposition to the actions of the Pentagon and the White House in Indochina, the poster has been criticized for representing the people of Vietnam as victims, when, in fact, the Vietcong (North Vietnamese forces) were – as Castro had argued a few months earlier – proving to be very difficult to overcome.[11]

Art Workers' Coalition, Q: And Babies, 1970

Art Workers’ Coalition, Q: And Babies, 1970

Another anti-war image produced in the United States also emphasized the victimhood of the Vietnamese. In 1968 a troop of US soldiers massacred the population of a Vietnamese village, Mai Lai.[12] The 106 people who died in this brutal episode were initially described by a US army spokesman as a Vietcong unit. The evidence provided by the Army’s own photographer revealed, however, that men and women, old and young, had been killed indiscriminately. The images of the dead, as well as other shots of peasants recoiling from the menacing GIs, found their way into the American mass media. They were shown on the major news broadcasts without commentary, such was their shocking force. The images appeared 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 America was claiming to protect. The Art Workers Coalition – an alliance of politically-engaged artists in New York – published ‘And Babies?’ a poster based on an image that had caused a storm of controversy when it had been broadcast on American television.[13] What is more, the artists returned this image back to its mass-media home by parading for the world’s media in front of Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937), one of the most compelling anti-war images of the twentieth century, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1970. Here, the process of what Sontag called ‘ripping’ an image was put to critical effect.

Viktor Koretzky, 1964

Viktor Koretzky, 1964

Another indictment of the United States frequently-made by its enemies concerned the segregation and discrimination against black Americans. Viktor Koretzky’s 1363 poster, for instance, combined the historic symbol of American freedom, the Statue of Liberty, with a scene of licensed brutality. A group of uniformed officials — perhaps police officers — appear to be lynching a black man, a fate suggested by the ominous presence of a noose. Produced during the height of Civil Rights protests, the Soviet poster pointed out the failings of American democracy (and was, as such, a direct riposte to Washington’s claims that the Kremlin denied fundamental human rights to the citizens of the Soviet Union).

Emory Douglas

Emory Douglas

Civil rights and international solidarity combined in the posters issued by the Black Panther Party which was formed in the USA in 1966. Founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton professed deep admiration of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth.[14] Advocating armed patrols to monitor and challenge Police brutality as well as other public services such as free meals for poor children and opposition to the military draft (which called up a disproportionate proportion of black Americans), the membership of the Black Panthers grew rapidly across the USA. Eschewing the non-violence of earlier civil rights activists in favour of what it called ‘self-defense’, and styled in uniforms of berets and leather jackets and bearing arms (legally), the Black Panthers attracted considerable publicity. In fact, the Black Panthers were skilled communicators – issuing a manifesto (aka ‘The Ten Point Program’), publishing a newspaper (reaching a circulation of 250,000 copies) and of course, leaflets and posters. In ‘Afro-American Solidarity with the oppressed People of the World’ (1969), designer, Emory Douglas, made a clear connection between the interests of African-American people and those living in the Third World.[15] Produced at a time when the leadership of the Black Panthers wanted to put a halt to common sexism in its ranks, this revolutionary — displaying her black pride in her Afro hair and militant posture — carries both a rifle and a spear, and like a superhero, lines of light radiate from her body. With typical ambition, Douglas is identified as the Minister of Culture and the publisher as the Black Panthers’ Ministry of Information on the poster. And, as if to fulfill this dream of statehood, Black Panther delegations visited marxist North Vietnam, North Korea and China in 1969 and 1970.


Poster issued by the Committee to Defend the Panthers.

radical-chicUnsurprisingly, the organization seen as a threat by different branches of the state and the legal system in the USA, not least the FBI which mounted a campaign to discredit the organization. Numerous attempts to prosecute Black Panthers failed,[16] a fact which drew high-profile liberal supporters to the group. Most prominent among them was composer Leonard Bernstein who held a fund-raising party in 1969 for twenty-one Black Panthers accused of ‘conspiracy to murder New York City policemen and to dynamite five mid-town department stores, a police precinct, six railroad rights of way and the New York Botanical Gardens.’ This event was lampooned by Tom Wolfe in a biting account in New York Magazine in which city’s glittering elite rubbed shoulders with leather-jacketed revolutionaries over cocktails and ‘little Roquefort cheese morsels’.[17] Artists Donald Judd. Frank Stella, Nancy Spero, James Rosenquist and Roy Lichtenstein amongst others gave works for a fund-raising auction in a Manhattan church. In spring 1971 John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band released ‘Power to the People’, a variation of a Black Panther slogan which featured on this poster issued by the Committee to Defend the Panthers. Designed by Richard Earl Moore (Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad), one of the defendants and a member of one of the most active and socially engaged Black Panther chapters in New York. When the eight-month trial concluded in May 1972, the Panthers in the dock were acquitted after the jury deliberated for less than one hour. The testimony of three undercover police officers had been entirely unconvincing. With its raised fist and broken chain, Moore’s design trades in clichés but it also holds rare authority as the creation of an artist who lived the experience it depicts.[18]

[1] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2004), 252

[2] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 199.

[3] Fanon, Wretched of the Earth, 76.

[4] See, for instance, Lee Hall, ‘Inside Rebel Cuba with Raul Castro’, Life (21 July 1958), 29-35. See also Richard Gott. Cuba. A New History (Yale University Press, 2005) 160-4.

[5] For a survey of Cuban posters see Lionel Cushing, Revolucion! Cuban Poster Art (Chronicle Books, 2002).

[6] David Craven, Art and Revolution in Latin America, 1910-1990 (Yale University Press, 2006) 95

[7] See Cubaanse Affiches (Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1971); Dugald Stermer, (ed.), The Art of Revolution: Castro’s Cuba, 1959–1970 (London, 1970 ).

[8] Susan Sontag ‘Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity’, in Stermer, The Art of Revolution, p. xxii.

[9] See David Kunzle, ‘Uses of the Portrait: The Che Poster,’ in Art in America, 63, n. 5, (Sept-October 1975) 63-73.

[10] Sontag ‘Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity’, in Stermer, The Art of Revolution, p. xvii.

[11] See Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich, Vietnam images: war and representation (London: Macmillan, 1989) 115.

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

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

[14] See Stephen Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (London: Verso, 1998) 77-78.

[15] See Danny Glover and Kathleen Cleaver, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. The Art of Emory Douglas (New York: Rizzoli, 2007).

[16] An article in the New York Times (21 December 1969) listed 23 significant arrests and raids by the police on BP leaders and offices in 1968 and 1969 which did not result in successful prosecutions – see Charter Group for a Pledge of Conscience, The Black Panther Party and the Case of the New York 21 (New York, nd).

[17] Tom Wolfe, ‘Radical Chic. That Party at Lenny’s’ in New York Magazine (8 June 1970)

[18] Dhoruba al-Mujahid Bin Wahad’s freedom was shortlived. He was arrested again within weeks of his acquittal and prosecuted for the attempted murder of two police officers. He served 19 years in prison before being released in 1990 when a judge agreed to a retrial. In 1995 the Manhattan district attorney’s office stated that it would not pursue the case. With evidence that he had been the subject of a FBI smear campaign and that the prosecution had withheld evidence in the original trial, the FBI and the City of New York agreed to pay Dhoruba significant damages.

Poster maths

Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

This short text appears in the catalogue of the International Poster Biennale which opened in Warsaw in June 2014. I was one of the jurors.

24th_ipb-posterThe jury of the 24th International Poster Biennale used a website gallery to make their first assessment of the 3814 entries in this year’s competition. Each poster was viewed on-screen as a large thumbnail. A few seconds thought, then a click. Five, four, three, two or one? If an image warranted a closer look or was particularly detailed, another click opened up a larger image for scrutiny.


3814 posters ÷ 2 days viewing = 15.1 seconds per poster


This is a practical way of reviewing a daunting number of poster designs. With an international jury with members from five countries, and with entries from many more, how could it be otherwise? Of course, the poster is a material object, designed to be encountered on a wall or a billboard. But it is also designed to catch the eye in seconds or even less. Fast viewing is the necessary condition of the poster. And, perhaps, it is even under pressure today to deliver its effects with even greater speed. Posters on the street now are accompanied by the animated billboards and, of course, the portable screens in our hands.

So what kind of posters should benefit from this on-line reviewing system? Well, one might imagine that the answer would point to posters which deliver their effects with clear and powerful symbols. This has long been a valued quality of the poster. After visiting Cuba in 1969 and seeing works by poster designers like Felix Beltran and Alfredo Rostgaard, Susan Sontag put it thus: ‘The values of a poster are first those of “appeal,” and only second of information. The rules for giving information are subordinated to the rules which endow a message, any message, with impact: brevity, asymmetrical emphasis, condensation.’ Designer Abram Games put it even more economically when he called for Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means’. So by his measure, simple and boldly graphic devices combined with punchy copy should capture the viewer’s attention.

But when viewing so many posters in a short period of time, one becomes sensitive to repetition. An ‘efficient’ lexicon of symbols rapidly becomes a cluster of stereotypes and even clichés. Every death is a skull; every environmental warning invokes the Earth in the dark vacuum of space; every threatened species is a penguin. It soon becomes clear that other visual qualities have greater appeal: rippling surface decoration, bespoke lettering, and forms of photomontage which unsettle space or time, stand out. In fact, unfamiliarity and complexity are attractive in the company of so much condensation.

This might, of course, be a byproduct of the Biennale’s reviewing process: difference is bound to stand out. But perhaps this is also a sign of the appeal of images which slow us down. In a world of accelerated communication, perhaps one appeal of the poster today be the quiet invitation to look? Might it be possible for posters to slow down perception, and even to create silences in a noisy world?


Singing with Beck

Graphic Design, Music, Uncategorized

This review was published in Eye magazine in summer 2013 ♦ 

Berlin's Haunted House, 1914

Berlin’s Haunted House, 1914

Just over a hundred years ago the music business experienced its first major crisis. The success of new gramophone records played on a hand-cranked turntable with an overbearing horn, sounded the beginning of the end of popular sheet music, the business’s most profitable product at the time. In their heyday, scores for sentimental tunes and patriotic marches printed between vivid illustrated covers, sold in tens of thousands of copies.

The graphic products of Tin Pan Alley offered musicians considerable latitude. In an age before sound recordings, there was no authoritative version against which the player in the parlour could judge his or her performance. When the gramophone, and later the radio, became a standard feature of the home, the decline was not immediate: sales of sheet music were given a lift by the popularity of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s, for example. Nevertheless, the fate of sheet music was, it seems, sealed.

beck-fullcoverToday, the music business faces another crisis as record companies and high-street retailers struggle to find ways to persuade people to pay for recorded music. The Internet has turned what the industry used to call ‘product’ into a stream of code for downloading. Artists try to turn fans into consumers by issuing deluxe versions of their albums, often packaging their LPs with weighty books and films. At the end of last year, American musician Beck Hanson issued his most recent album as a ‘Song Reader’, a collection of twenty songs. What makes his project unique (at least when viewed from the present), was that this album is only available as sheet music in a beautifully designed folding portfolio. Each score features cover artwork by illustrators, often picking up the wistful mood of the songs. ‘The Last Polka’, an angular composition for piano in a musical genre which has not been fashionable for at least a century, and ‘Why Did You Make Me Care?’, a plaintive song for a jilted lover, are both packaged with illustrations from Peter Gamelen, a young British illustrator living in the US. The melancholic atmosphere which Gamelen brings to his drawings of moonlit rooms and empty streets in the dusk of Depression-era America lends itself well to Beck’s nostalgic project.

Beck’s ‘Song Reader’ began life in conversations with Dave Eggers, the writer and founder of McSweeny’s, the marvelously idiosyncratic publishing house. But the project has deeper roots: Beck has a track record as pop musicologist. ‘One Foot in the Grave’, an early album, for instance, opens with a traditional black spiritual played on a steel-string guitar. But the ‘Song Reader’, as a musical and graphic project, is not an exercise in historical authenticity. Sensitive to the traditional form of sheet music – three or four pages contained within simple covers – Beck and art director, Walter Green (a McSweeny’s designer) also bring a touch of wry humour to the project. The back pages of each sheet features convincingly retrospective adverts for products for music lovers like the harmonically-tuned needles for seamstress and scores for ‘Instrumentals for the End of the World’. America’s love with its own ‘age of innocence’ – evident in Hollywood films and the hokey homespun rhetoric of her politicians – is gently mocked and celebrated at the same time. This places Beck in a long tradition of liberal artists including Bob Dylan, Robert Crumb, and Ben Katchor who find values and sentiments in the American past which are missing or distorted in the present.

By only issuing the ‘Song Reader’ as scores, Beck invites musicians to interpret his songs. In fact, in a thoughtful preface on the challenges of writing music which depends on other people to play it, Beck makes an observation which chimes with the recent fascination with participation in art and design: ‘There’s something human in sheet music’ he writes, ‘something that doesn’t depend on technology to facilitate it – it’s a way of opening music up to what someone else is able to bring to it. That instability is what ultimately drew me to this project.’ Perhaps Beck writes off technology a little too quickly, for the Internet has provided McSweeny’s with the means for the players of these songs to share their recordings with the world. Its Soundcloud pages have been filling in the weeks since publication with dozens of different versions of Beck’s songs. Some are recast as ambient house or chamber music, whilst others follow the ‘trad.’ piano and ukulele arrangements provided in the ‘Song Reader’. Neither is more or less authentic than the other. Beck and his many ‘song readers’ have achieved together an exceptional union of the material world of the printed score and the dematerialized world of digital music.

Tomaszewski’s ‘Historia’ (occasional notes on posters)

Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

In Eastern Europe before 1989, the state held a near-monopoly on all forms of public expression. Censors wielding red pencils checked every message that went into print. Fearful of the spread of free opinion, the authorities controlled the use of even the most basic office printing equipment. In Ceausescu’s Romania all typewriters, for instance, had to be registered with the State. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger noted in 1970 of another machine,

The Soviet bureaucracy, that is to say the most widespread and complicated bureaucracy in the world, has to deny itself almost entirely an elementary piece of organizational equipment, the duplicating machine, because this instrument potentially makes everyone a printer. … It is clear that Soviet society has to pay an immense price for the suppression of its own productive resources—clumsy procedures, misinformation, faux frais.

During the period of Martial Law in Poland after 1981 when the government stamped down on Solidarity, the anti-communist alliance of intellectuals and workers, the police raided art schools to take away the screen-printing equipment. Nevertheless, samizdat production (self-publishing) continued illicitly there and throughout the Bloc. At the same time, what Tom Kovacs called the ‘spirit of metaphor’ shaped dissenting culture in the Eastern Bloc. When, for instance, the famous Solidarity logo was banned, the Poles invented new symbols which did not draw the rancour of the state. Ordinary people would wear electronic resistors in the ‘national’ colours of red and white. Everyone knew what this gesture meant but for the state and its henchmen to act against those wearing these tiny pins would have revealed the absurdity of the situation. ‘Aesopian’ parables and allegories found their way into many different kinds of posters. ImageIn a 1983 theatre poster for a performance of a work by Gombrowicz, Henryk Tomaszewski sketched the image of a foot apparently making the ‘V’ gesture with its toes, a symbol which Solidarity leaders had adopted during the heady days of its rise. This was read as an allusion to the irrepressible spirit of the Trade Union then under prohibition.

Zamecznik’s Silent Star (occasional notes on posters)

Cold War, Eastern Europe, Graphic Design

In many science fiction films of the Cold War period the cosmos is represented as an extra-terrestrial space in which international rivalries have been overcome. ‘Der Schweigende Stern’ (The Silent Star) depicted a world in which communism had swept the planet and mankind now enjoyed the benefits of nuclear technology, social equality and international fraternity. Internationalism was not only the theme but also the method of this movie: it was based on a book by Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem and shot in East Germany with an international cast.

The film depicts the discovery of a mysterious object in 2003 which contains a coded message threatening the Earth’s destruction. A spaceship is dispatched to Venus, the source of this message, with an international crew. There, they find only the ruins of the warlike civilization which had itself already perished in a nuclear civil war. The Cold War message was clear to all.

Interestingly, the film was distributed in America under the title ‘First Spaceship in Venus’ where its latent communist message was less important than its capacity to satisfy the tremendous popular demand for science fiction. The poster distributed in the USA stressed the dramatic experiences of space travel which could be enjoyed from the comfort of the cinema seat: ‘You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …, You are there …’.  Not surprisingly Polish designer Wojciech Zamecznik’s horizontal poster capture Lem’s intentions best. The ‘star’ – which has sent the message  has fallen silent, a deathly planet on which life has been extinguished. It is presented as lifeless face. The only allusion to the ideodological subtext appears in red trail which follows the cosmonauts as they fly through the dark night of space.

raumschief venusMaetigpolish_misc_first_spaceship_on_venus_JC06347_L

Autonomy. The cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970

Collage, Graphic Design

The political philosophy of Anarchism attracted some extraordinary and perhaps unlikely British adherents. They included Alex Comfort, an expert on the science of aging and author of the bestselling The Joy of Sex;  Herbert Read, the poet and critic who wrote incisively about modern art; and Colin Ward, an architect whose ideas about the importance of self-organisation led him to write about many everyday things including children’s play and garden allotments. Far removed from the cartoon-cliché of bomb-wielding terrorists in thtumblr_locn2tEtWH1qzzsdjo1_1280-661x1024e late nineteenth century or the Kings Road punk, these anarchist intellectuals were cerebral figures who used their skills with words to argue for what Comfort called the ‘maximization of individual responsibility and the reduction of concentrated power — regal, dictatorial, parliamentary: the institutions which go loosely by the name of “government” — to a vanishing minimum.’ They may have rallied against the oppressive reach of the state and the ‘inflation’ of professionalism, but ‘the Establishment’ was keen to benefit from their skills: Comfort was an academic at University College London; Read was given a knighthood in 1953; and Ward was to spend the 1970s as an education officer with the Town and Country Planning Association.

Ten years earlier, in March 1961, Ward had been the founding editor of Anarchy: a journal of anarchist ideas. This small format monthly was created to publish the kind of long and philosophical essays which not could be carried by its sister title, Freedom, an inky weekly newspaper that was then already seventy-five years old. Ward commissioned Rufus Segar to design his new periodical. Segar was working at the time for the Economist Intelligence Unit creating charts, maps and other info-graphics for business, education and government. Moonlighting with Ward, he designed more than 100 of Anarchy’s 118 covers – all of which are reproduced at 1:1 scale in Daniel Poyner’s new book Autonomy. The cover designs of Anarchy 1961-1970 (Hyphen Press).

Eschewing formulas and standard devices, Segar’s designs were diverse and often ingenious responses to the themes of each issue. Rarely meeting his editor, his brief often arrived on a postcard. Occasionally an illustrator was commissioned (Martin Leman’s Paolozzi-like collages of man-machines stand out). But more often than not Segar produced his own pithy drawings or worked with the images he had close to hand like clippings from newspapers, official reports and even family photographs. Like the best advertising of the day, the cover images, were animated by sharp copy. The solitary pair of transparent spectacles in a pile of rose tinted glasses on the cover of Anarchy 74 is catalysed by the accompanying question, ‘How realistic is anarchism?‘

Segar’s techniques sometimes approached what Umberto Eco was later to call ‘semiotic guerilla warfare’. Anarchy 79 (1967), for instance, was dedicated to the boiling ferment underway in the dictatorships and failing democracies of Latin America at the time. The cover takes the form of a sketch with correspondence to Segar from Ward, news clippings as well as handwritten directions to a designer and the printer. These are more than technical instructions. A cutting from an official Ecuadorian newspaper demanding that the poor are swept off the streets to keep tourists happy is accompanied with handwritten marginalia; our ‘translator … says that the tourist is always wrong, if he goes to the temples, he has no social conscience.’ On the back page, Segar instructs the designer to visualize the demographic explosion underway in the region: ‘Do a diagrammatic map of Latin America’. This, of course, is message to himself, the other Rufus Segar at his Economist Intelligence Unit drawing board. Interviewing Segar, Poyner tried to get the designer to talk about his double life as anarchist and design technocrat. The answer is unrevealing: ‘I found my forte in charts, maps and diagrammes.’

But of course designers are rarely the best interpreters of their own work. And, in fact, Poyner turns to the one of the most skilled deciphers of design, Richard Hollis, who supplies a technical analysis of Segar’s approach to typography and printing in an essay entitled ‘Anarchy and the 1960s’. Poyner also includes a characteristically brilliant 1987 essay by the late Raphael Samuel reviewing an anthology of essays from Anarchy. Disappointingly, this structure keeps form and content largely separate. Graphic design historians have spent many words trying to establish the relationship of style to ideology. In the élan of Cuban poster designers working for Castro’s revolution, for instance, Susan Sontag saw ‘a culture which is alive… and relatively free of the kind of bureaucratic interference’. So what was the relation between the libertarianism of British anarchism and Segar’s designs? Was his eschewal of a credo or a singular style a claim on freedom? This was what Herbert Read had in mind when he wrote ‘it is always a mistake to build apriori constitutions’. Was Segar’s sharp-witted bricolage technique a political declaration (as it was for the Situationist International, his contemporaries on the continent)? And if, as Samuel suggests, British anarchism faltered just at the moment when it was most needed, the revolutionary year of 1968, should the same charge be leveled at Segar’s designs? To judge from the images in this book, they would stand up well to this kind of scrutiny.

The Quiet American

Graphic Design, Uncategorized

This piece appeared in the September 2012 issue of Creative Review. It discusses Unit Editions’ new book on Lubalin – spreads below and details here.

Herb Lubalin did not like talking. A young designer working in his studio would receive a grunt of approval when a design met his standards. Nothing more. And one colleague recalled a trip across the States from coast to coast during which Lubalin only uttered six words. Even his son admitted ‘I loved my father, but we only exchanged maybe a few hundred words in his lifetime.’

Yet words were Lubalin’s business. A brilliant typographer designing magazines and ads from the 1950s to his death in 1981, he drew more expression from the arrangement of letters on a page than anyone before him. And, one can almost hear a New York accent in his layouts. His ads had the bone-dry wit of Madison Avenue in its heyday. And, like the American-Jewish comedians associated with the city like Jackie Mason and Woody Allen, he often sweetened sarcasm with sentiment.

Despite his taciturnity, Lubalin was – as Adrian Shaughnessy’s fine new book shows – a particularly literate designer. In the close-knit environment of the agencies in which he worked before setting up Herb Lubalin Inc. in 1964, he often contributed his skills as a copywriter as well as a designer. ‘I think more about creating an idea, writing the headline,’ Lubalin once admitted ‘than designing the ad.’ In 1968 his studio had the contract to promote Ebony, a magazine aimed at black Americans. Despite its success in attracting readers, Ebony struggled to find advertisers. Combining Irv Bahrt’s stark black and white photographs with acerbic copy, Lubalin’s ads told corporate America that prejudice was making it blind to the dollars in the pocket of the black consumer. Like all great copywriting, the Ebony ads capture the rhythms of speech. ‘Whassamassa, don’t you trust us?’ is not just read, it is heard.

Lubalin’s faith in articulate design was declared in a 1959 trade ad – ‘Let’s Talk Type, Let Type Talk’ – promoting the services of one of his then employer, the advertising agency, Sudler & Hennessey. His reputation as typographer rests on a small clutch of typefaces; Avant Garde Gothic, Lubalin Graph and Serif Gothic. Shaughnessy is particularly good on the teamwork involved in creating these fonts, giving fair-minded credit to his collaborators, Tom Carnase and Tony Di Spigna. But perhaps Lubalin’s real achievements lay in the creative and unorthodox ways that he composed lettering. Exploiting the potential offered by photocomposition, he would reverse, slant and distort letters. And by dramatically reducing letter spacing or by combining different thicknesses, Lubalin expanded the expressive potential of any type face. Even though he made full use of new technology, his designs seemed resonate with American history. Occasionally, he was accused of kitsch. Commissioned to design a poster to encourage voter registration in the 1964 presidential election, Lubalin designed a self-consciously nostalgic ad to conjure up the history of American democracy. The client spiked the design, describing it as ‘too old fashioned’.

Despite being in high demand in the booming world of advertising in the 1960s, Lubalin increasingly sought work which offered greater freedom of invention. Agencies were filling up with psychologists and pollsters who – in Lubalin’s view – underestimated the intelligence of their audience and suppressed the intuitive creativity of designers. He was much more interested in appealing to switched-on minds than stirring up unconscious consumer desires. His long and close relationship with publisher Ralph Ginzburg provided these kinds of opportunities. The young writer approached Lubalin in 1961 to design a new up-market periodical called Eros, a magazine which took love and sex as its theme. Eros became the subject of one of the most notorious freedom-of-speech trials in post-war America with Ginzburg eventually being imprisoned in 1972 for distributing obscene material. Looking at the magazine today, this hardly seems credible. The first issue – published on Valentine’s Day in 1962 – featured seventeenth century erotic poems by the Earl of Rochester as well a gritty photo-spread by Gerry Winograd recording brief encounters on the New York subway. Lubalin’s elegant spreads, playing with scale and different paper stocks, emphasized the upmarket ambitions of the publisher. The fourth and final issue of the large-format hardback featured a series of photos that the magazine described as ‘poem on interracial love’. Ralph Hattersley’s portraits of a very modest set of clinches is widely credited as being the trigger for the court case.

Ginzburg and Lubalin were not deterred and, whilst the case went through a series of appeals, they put Eros on hold and launched two other titles; fact:, a hard-hitting title which often featured exposés and investigative reports into the failings of consumerism, and the burgeoning war in Vietnam, and Avant Garde, a magazine which sought to combine the arts with politics. Published before America was convulsed by the stand-off between the state and the Counter Culture, Eros and fact: (1964-67) played a part in the opening up of the American imagination. The masthead of the first issue of fact: announced ‘This magazine is dedicated to the proposition that a great magazine, in its quest for truth, will defy not only Convention, not only Big Business, not only the Church and the State, but also – if necessary – its readers.’

By contrast Avant Garde, published between 1968 and 1971 – the high point of the Counter Culture – was off the mark. Radical politics was hardly well served by kiss and tell stories by Norman Mailer or trippy photographs of Marilyn Monroe, however well printed and wittily designed. Whilst Lubalin was not an ideologue, his work with Ginzburg illustrates his professional and personal ethos. He was a liberal in the full sense of the word, committed to freedom of speech and thought as well as the freedom of the market place. (He described himself as a ‘schmuck’ for not securing a better deal for his work on the best-selling brochure for The Sound of Music, a world-wide hit). When challenging censorship and conservatism, the liberal agenda had clear targets. When its battles had been won, new-found freedoms could look like exploitation. The summer 1971 issue of Avant Garde featured Anthon Beeke’s alphabet, AIR, formed from the bodies of young women, shot from above in an Amsterdam gym. There is little liberation in stretching a body to form the bar in the letter ‘A’ or pushing the arms apart to form the tie in an ‘E’.

Lubalin died prematurely at the age of 63 in 1981. Much feted in his own lifetime and, again, recently, Shaughnessy argues that he was neglected for so long because he did not write books or lend his name to manifestos. With mainstream clients, he was easily dismissed as a pillar of convention. The fact that Lubalin died on the eve of the digital revolution in graphic design also seemed to accelerate his relegation. It seems extraordinary that in 1979 one commentator could call him ‘King of Illegibility’, largely for his tendency to overlap letterforms. That crown was to be quickly seized by others in the 1980s.