Posters and ‘Zines at CalArts
by Tim Belonax (with thanks to Christopher Mount and Lorraine Wild)
When a cultural shift occurs, what happens to the dominated, consumed, or dismissed practices that were once the norm—the ones that are cast aside in favor of change? With every introduction of “the new” comes a declaration of what is “dead.” At the advent of photography, the death of painting was heralded. After motion pictures captured our attention, photography was said to have a foot in the grave. Now that the internet has us glued to screens 24/7, the death of print is Tweeted daily—yet we still have all of these technologies and practices functioning in our culture today.
Nothing has died, but nothing has stayed the same. The introduction of “the new” challenged and changed our perceptions of existing practices. Photography confronted painting’s representational grasp of the human form, freeing painters to experiment in other modes of abstraction and expression. Yet today, representational painting still exists. Video never “killed the radio star,” it just redefined what being a radio star meant for future generations (today it means being on American Idol or the X Factor). This is an exploration of one such challenge.
The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) graphic design program is known in the design community and the institution itself for its rich poster culture—one of challenging aesthetics and engaging concepts. The posters live throughout the halls of CalArts, behind glass in various administrators’ offices, and in the permanent collections of museums. Post-modernist, post-structuralist, illegible, ugly, awe-inspiring—whatever you call them—these posters are the physical embodiment of the program’s critical approach to design and its tireless work ethic. In the past two years, something beyond posters has been circulating the brutal halls of CalArts—’zines. These DIY booklets of simple means and revolutionary connotations have existed in underground communities for decades. In our increasingly digital world, what does the relatively new introduction of ’zines into the visual ecology of CalArts’ program in graphic design symbolize? And, does it imply something else about the future of posters in general?
Posters are a common means of communication where foot traffic and walls are available. We (Americans) most often encounter posters at movie theaters or bus stops, but rarely elsewhere. Besides New York and a few rare cities, the poster is hardly the means of communication it once was. Despite this dearth of design, posters are alive and well in Valencia, California. Located thirty minutes north of the City of Angels lives the perfect breeding ground for poster design—CalArts. Since its inception, the school has exhibited a healthy poster culture. Two books have even been published on the subject: CalArts 10th Year Poster Book and Earthquakes & Aftershocks: Les Affiches du California Institute of the Arts, 1986-2004 et la Culture Californienne. The combination of a massive silkscreen studio and a consistent request for posters from other departments within the Institute, have allowed the department to produce a significant body of work outside the commercial constraints that dominant the design profession. This body of work reflects two tenants that remain pillars of the program: the connotative/denotative approaches to making meaning and the importance of recognizing ones own work within the context of the ongoing history of design. Beyond their formal and conceptual strengths, these posters are a visual records of campus events, providing a physical artifact that exists well after a performance or gallery opening. Their communal nature fosters a shared visual culture between faculty, staff, and the diverse student-body. Passengers in the hallways of CalArts can miss a recital or an art opening, but it’s difficult to ignore the con- spicuous nature of a silk-screened poster.
They speak for themselves. Posters broadcast to the community at large and bring people together. ’Zines perform a similar function, but use different tactics more suitable to its smaller, bound form. The term “’zine” is short for “fanzine,” which references its historical upbringing as a bound print material from fans for fans. A ’zine often represents a dialogue within a particular community that is underground or operating outside of the mainstream. Content ranges from the super-serious to the ridiculous. Thomas Paine’s straight- forward critique of the British government in Common Sense (1776) was a ’zine; perhaps one of the most powerful examples of the medium’s ability to address an audience and spur social change.1
The ideology of CalArts was founded through a ’zine of sorts. California Institute of the Arts: Prologue to a Community was the title of an entire issue of Arts in Society in the Fall of 1970. The publication was founded by the University of Wisconsin in 1958 and existed “… to discuss, interpret, and illustrate the various functions of the arts in contemporary civilization.”2 This issue was designed and edited by Sheila de Bretteville using material she collected from the first generation of CalArts students. Printed one-color (black) on a variety of paper stocks, the production methods and design resemble low-cost DIY publishing, the aesthetic backbone of ’zines. Released during the time of the Vietnam War, the text and imagery reference the social upheavels of the late ’60s, in strikingly graphic terms. Letters from Walt Disney and Robert Corrigan (the Institute’s first President) propose a new method of arts training that is framed by larger social conditions. Letters of application to the school are reproduced, with many students expressing the desire to be part of a community of artists and thinkers that does not exist elsewhere. One student was quoted in an inter-office memo saying, “I simply want to be here to benefit from the whole Institute; not to make ‘art objects’ but to to become something I can’t become else- where.”3 The same sentiments of community that drew the first students to CalArts are still at work forty years later.
FISK is a student design collective at CalArts that was founded in 2009 by Bijan Berahimi during his first undergraduate year. In addition to running a blog (wearefisk.com), FISK publishes ’zines showcasing the work of current students and alumni as a means to further a sense of community through design. The ’zines are commonly distributed at major school events, like class registration, the annual t-shirt show, and smaller design gatherings. This hand-to-hand distribution method is a tell tale characteristic of the medium and its biggest hurdle. Often printed in low quantities and distributed in-person, ’zines can be difficult to acquire as well as distribute. They require the intimacy of books while retaining the immediacy that reflects their ideas and production process— ranging from Xerox, digital and inkjet printing, or cut-and-paste collage. Since the late ’80s and the birth of desktop publishing, ’zines have enjoyed a steady growth in popularity. In the early ’90s the UK newspaper The Guardian reported 10,000 football-related ’zines while Time magazine reported 20,000 ’zines in publication in the US, with an annual growth of 20 per cent.4 Almost a decade since this study and with the aid of the internet, the ’zine community holds multiple expositions throughout the world (visit under- groundpress.org for listings), including APE, the Alternative Press Expo, which is the largest ’zinefest in the US. With recent improvements in affordable digital printing, today’s ’zines have the potential for a level of craft that could never be matched by its forefathers. Often sold at cost, ’zines represent a labor of love for their creators. For Bijan, FISK was both an opportunity to learn through making and to create something with his community. “I pitched it as a cross over between Emigre and Design Observer,” he says. “I was interested in print because I had no experience with it. We released our first publication in December and everything was new to us. I had never curated, screen-printed, or dealt with printers—so it was all extremely exciting.” It also gave the first-year undergraduate a plat- form to work with upperclassmen, mfa students, and established designers (like graduate faculty Ed Fella)—a collaborative structure unique to CalArts. The communal workshop nature and resource- fulness that are native to this visual community are what enables both the CalArts ’zine and poster cultures.
In 2009, Mark Owens’ Pop-Up Studio had mfa students producing ’zines and other design artifacts from a storefront in LA’s Chinatown. Exposing the means of production as well as the activity of design to the general public was an act of creating an internal (between the designers) and external community (the residents and visitors of Chinatown). Scott Massey started his own ’zine before enrolling at CalArts. RRR represented a collection of artworks from over 40 artists and designers. He continued to publish it at school, enlisting layout assistance from fellow mfa, Laura Bernstien and design contributions from other students. In these instances the production of a ’zine facilitated the formation of a group of producers (those making the ’zines) and consumers (readers). Perhaps the greatest achievement of both projects was their reach outside of CalArts. These activities, along with the recent introduction of the Risograph (a high volume duplicator) to the mfa studios, may have unintentionally put the production of posters at CalArts into a new perspective.
The interest in ’zines at CalArts comes at a time when its posters are becoming increasingly scrutinized or worse—ignored. CalArts poster culture brings with it a legacy that is both exciting and stifling. These works of ink on paper have accumulated a certain aesthetic language, influenced by students and the conditions in which they are made. Issues of time, budget, client and production methods (ie: almost always silk-screening) combine to form this homogenization that would only seem dull or repetitive in a place as stimulating as CalArts. Many posters in recent years appear uninformed or reflect little about the event other than the designer’s own aesthetic point of view. At their lowest point, they become easy to ignore or serve as inside jokes among a limited crowd. Some students have recently challenged the structure of the poster in size and medium. The 2010 mfa show, Happy Medium projected the collection of mfa posters onto a single plain, saving wall space and utilizing technology for a dramatic result. Last year, an anonymous message appeared in large green vinyl lettering near the studios, provoking students to go “beyond the medium.” Its’ size, material, copy, and vertical wrap up the wall and onto the ceiling were all challenges to the convention. The legacy of experimentation surrounding posters at CalArts isn’t dead, but it isn’t thriving either.
At this moment, it seems that ’zines have a greater possibility to energize, expand, and redefine the collaborative work environment at CalArts. While design students might work jointly on a poster for a different school within the Institute, it’s rare that their interaction with the client transcends the conventional designer/client relation- ship. ’Zines offer an opportunity for design students to work in a more cross-disciplinary manner with individuals inside and outside of their métier. It tests students’ editorial and curatorial skills as well as more pragmatic issues such as distribution and funding. These publications also offer a venue for design students to rediscover another rich history within CalArts that few address—design writing and criticism. This slower, richer method of communication acts in opposition to the quick-hitting characteristics so often employed by CalArts posters (and reflected in our increasingly Tweeted lifestyles). Where posters attract an audience to an event, ’zines have an ability to become the event and foster a community through discussion and collaboration. By these means of address, CalArtian designers can continue to challenge the boundaries of graphic design, through the image and the word.