Buy your modernism here

Published:  November 20, 2013

Words- Double Days

Illustration- Bratislav Milenkovic 


The modern gig poster is in the midst of a digital reverse, yet the demand is still driven by the appeal of analogue craft.


“Everything we do ends up in the computer at some point. We are believers in technology; with it we are able to quickly use our library of textures to emulate ‘hand done’.”

I am talking to a young, casually dressed ‘dude’ at Flatstock – a huge poster selling event held several times a year by the American Poster Institute (API), exhibiting the gig posters, and their artists, of the world. The ‘dude’ stands proudly in his allocated cubicle, as sparky as a salesman. His display of posters, featuring skulls, lions and babes, were presumably hand illustrated and screenprinted, as is the norm with the contemporary gig poster. But, on closer inspection, I find they are digitally printed, and the illustrations lack a consistent style. Stock imagery, I wonder? I question him.

“We are one of two studios here [at Flatstock] that print our posters this way,” he explains, with a mild defensiveness. “With it we are able to get from point A to point B more quickly, and sell our posters cheaper. People like the vintage, mid-century modern aesthetic, that something ‘was’ clean, something of the ready-aged. It’s easier to pop a digital texture on top. I’m sure if the great poster artists of the past had these tools, they would have used them too.” The sale and demand of the modern gig poster has had something of a relatively recent revival.

Complemented by the emergence of digital technologies, the production of the posters completed its transition from the street and into the dedicated, commercial art studio. The usual process is an illustration put through the computer (if not created there), its colours separated and then screenprinted, in the traditional craft process of the past. Yet walking through the Flatstock hall, there are signs that the hand-crafted conventions of the screenprinted poster are continuing within a new, digital practice, and these trends call into question how we frame their cultural value and authenticity, when the very idea of history and culture have themselves become libraries of styles and palette swatches.

The API and Flatstock community is a tightknit club. Many of these artists work with little pay and even less recognition; they toil to serve the musicians they love and the fans love them for it. Resisting capitalist predilection to be responsible for a piece of work they are proud of, the poster artists have become modern day folk artists battling within DIY expressionism. But the introduction of technology, which allows the fast production and reproduction of posters, has offered a shortcut to success for the business savvy. It has also presented the artist with a choice: whether to create in complete freedom, or to sell their work to an audience. This audience has a taste for ‘vintage’ and a set of particular expectations of the work – value is judged on the limited numbers produced and the amount of runs under the squeegee.

This may explain the prevalence of the poster covered in vector ‘dust’ and for the layered textures of digitised ‘age’ and ‘charm’, carefully applied with a Wacom. Once screenprinted, these elements go through a process of becoming analogue, obtaining the required ‘unique’ quality that ensures a sale. Naïve mid-century geometry, circus typography and deco Dubonnet appeal to an audience with disposable cash and bare walls. And while the indiscriminate reuse of past styles is nothing new, this widespread practice of referencing continues to show how important it is to be aware when considering the cultural value or relevance of a new artwork.

The defensive tone I picked up from my earlier questioning confirmed a suspicion of snobbery among the poster artists of today. While some produce in a semi-traditional way, others are producing the same effects digitally in a fraction of the time. If value is measured by a sense of authentic labour and effort of the artist, you can understand there is a rift, two separate sides with an integral crevasse between them. This way, the accessible skill of tracing, drawing, compiling and layering digitally has shifted the ability to judge a poster at face value.

“I feel that a lot of digital stuff is disingenuous. Hitting Command+P is not nearly as cool. It’s not a piece of art, it’s just a reproduction – there’s nothing original about it.”

Poster artist Dan Stiles’ opinion is confident. He works with digital technology, but in a very different way. Stiles uses Illustrator specifically for the clean, mathematical lines he can create, but then screenprints the digital images. These crisp illustrations have nothing vintage about them, they look like something brand new – a digital artist using a traditional process. “I love the look and feel of a screenprint,” he states. “You can’t properly emulate that with a digital print.”

For Dan MacAdam of Crosshair studio in Chicago, US, technology has allowed him to meticulously deconstruct his photography. His images of rural, suburban and industrial buildings are scanned in and lightly altered in Photoshop, then separated and screenprinted with an incredible, meticulous care, layering with as many as 17 colours. “I’m a bit of a hack photographer,” he confesses. “The screenprints look infinitely better. Digitising and screenprinting this way has meant I have the opportunity to micromanage everything about the image.”

Throbbing Gristle by Sonnenzimmer Nick and Nadine, 2009

Throbbing Gristle by Sonnenzimmer Nick and Nadine, 2009

Other artists, like Dan Black and Jess Seamans of Landland (in the US’s Midwest), still avoid using computers altogether, except for their colour separations. This, Seamans explains, is primarily because “the only thing in the world I know how to do, is draw”. Most of their type is drawn by hand, and their layered textures are created with watercolour paints, infusing a warmth and depth without the need of ready- made textured swatches.

Chicago-based Sonnenzimmer, however, is perhaps the most striking example of how the gig poster’s ‘digital renaissance’ can mean less about convenience and more about an addition of a new, potentially exciting tool to the artists’ palette. The studio’s Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi’s approach is distinctive but never formulated, an intersection of the accidental splatterings of printmaking and the constrained form, grid and typography of a Swiss catalogue. They believe in a cultivated, human translation of visual elements and use the computer as a production tool to this end. “We use the computer as a paste-up, a pattern- maker,” they explain. “Everything is laid out twice and retranslated. We scan in, mock up, print out on transparency and then look at scale, mount up and move it around. We never output 1:1.”

The studio’s use of digital technology and type is contrasted with an exciting, progressive interpretation of a classic format. And this makes it stand out in a room of vectorised ageing and village fete charm. The mainstream demand for this kind of look, says Butcher, is simply “faux nostalgia for a time they never lived in and have no connection to. These mid-century posters were in the context of a bigger cultural shift.

“Now, old math book covers are source material; you can recreate the artwork and just put a band name on it.”

For Nakanishi, it’s important to recognise ‘vintage’ as a contemporary idea, a recent notion synonymous with good taste. “It’s work judged in the vintage notion of nostalgia – modernism in America is an accessory,” she says.

“When you understand that, these posters begin to make sense. Popular opinion values it because it’s home- grown. You can’t underestimate the American connection to Americana.”

As Sonnenzimmer’s work shows, an awareness of a poster’s technological credentials is important. The artist’s dilemma has little to do with quality of reproduction, exclusivity or the cost of man-hours – digital files can be deleted and mechanised printing can yield beautiful results. And this is more than just a reaction to analogue elitism: the promise that new technologies can merge sympathetically with the valued traditions of the past is where contemporary poster art can present us with something that is truly new.


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