Pasted Over: From Posters to Billboards, 2023.
Published to accompany The Big Mess With Us Inside It — a solo exhibition by Nabil Azab
Pumice Raft
348 Ryding Ave #103, Toronto, ON M6N 1H5

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The streets and alleyways of my neighborhood are lined with wooden utility poles. These stripped trunks of Fir, Cedar and Pine support the wires that physically connect me to the digital world. Down below, intact, degraded and fragmented posters alike cling to their surface. On the busiest corners posters overlap with one another in an effort to compete for our attention. It may be one of the only places where teenage babysitters obstruct public protests. Or where the details of used e-bikes align perfectly with the descriptions of lost cats. A poster aims, as Susan Sontag writes, to seduce, exhort, sell, educate, convince or appeal. As a result of these sometimes contradictory aims, they wrestle with each other until, eventually, they become entangled. Sontag goes on to mention that “posters are aggressive because they appear in the context of other posters.” City legislation was written to prevent postering on these utility poles. Threats of removal and fines are intended to deter people and direct them towards designated poster cylinders installed along shopping streets, but use of the neighborhood utility pole persists. What most attracts me to posters is that their ephemerality is an integral part of their power. The people who make them understand this well. Posters direct our attention to things, people and events out in the world and eventually, the world impresses itself back onto them.

A poster is a poster because it is posted. This action distinguishes it from other kinds of visual material. By contrast, a flyer isn’t affixed and could very well fly away should a sudden gust of wind roll through. In cities they are pasted and pinned to bus stops, bulletin boards, building facades, light posts, and monuments. Despite their continued presence in our everyday lives, the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the poster is more than a century behind us. As art historian Dawn Ades notes in her 1999 essay Function and Abstraction in Poster Design, “The poster belongs to a specific phase in the age of mechanical reproduction: for seventy or eighty years it was the most conspicuous, accessible and familiar form of pictorial production.” During this period, the street is the domain of visual culture. Some artists were magnetized by this new street aesthetic and the closeness of contact between art and life, while others damned it a visual plague that needed to be contained. The latter attitude has most impacted the appearance of streets and facades today. In 1872 John Ruskin reluctantly expressed his view that the poster had finally usurped painting: “The fresco painting of the bill sticker is likely, so far as I see, to become the principal fine art of modern Europe... Giotto’s time is past… but the bill poster succeeds.”

Conceived as the early couriers of advertising, posters were fundamental in establishing the inexhaustible desire of consumer culture. In Posters: Advertisement, Art, Political Artifact, Commodity Sontag posits that “...the poster could not exist before the specific historic conditions of modern capitalism.” Inevitably posters have become commodities themselves. As early as the mid-19th Century, designs by artists such as Alphonse Mucha, Jules Chéret, Eugène Grasset, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec “...were almost immediately collectors’ items, with price lists and catalogues, and they were frequently stripped from the walls by enthusiasts before the paste was dry.” A century later, the pursuit of collecting posters and graphic material continues. In How Posters Became Art, Hua Hsu traces the ‘poster craze’ of 1960s America: “More than a million posters were sold each week to the ‘visual maniacs’ craving ‘expendable art.’ Posters were cheap and abundant and, whether you preferred Jimi Hendrix or Che Guevara, an easy way to convey your sense of taste.” These collections have found their way into museums and galleries despite their relegated status as ephemera or graphic art. They are materials still considered distinct from unique artworks because the poster is without a meaningful original, there are only copies. “Art historians and critics have had little regard for anything existing in multiple copies made for mass consumption,” remarks graphic art collector Merrill C. Berman, “also, art dealers prefer one-of-a-kind works. They can’t relate to multiples unless they’re numbered and signed by a famous artist. It’s a prejudice that has affected the attitude of many people toward this material. They have never understood typography, anything with a message.” For collectors interested in graphic material and ephemera this secondary status has made collecting more accessible. Today, the subculture of collecting posters as art has gone mainstream. Most recently an international version of a Metropolis poster from 1927 reportedly sold to Leonardo DiCaprio for $690,000. It is the most expensive poster ever sold. As Hsu says, there is something perverse about the commodification of posters as they are “ a product of capitalism, intended to beautify the act of selling.” As such, the secondary market developed around the sale of posters which function to advertise other products and events is a testament to the narcissism of consumer capitalism.

Unlike the mainstream art world, however, the market for posters cannot influence their raison d'être: their message. That doesn’t, of course, mean that a poster can or should only exist out in the street. Between 1965 and 1971, artist, nun, educator and activist Corita Kent used her platform as pedagogue and household name of the pop-art movement to voice concerns about poverty, racism and war in America. Kent emphasised screen printing as a material because of its potential for democratic and expedient outreach — an affordable art for the masses. Printed in large unnumbered editions, serigraph posters such as american sampler 1969 and love your brother 1969 combined photographic images, found printed matter, text and poetry. They are bold, colourful and incisive. These works were displayed mostly on the null white walls of art galleries. Despite this, Kent’s exhibitions handle materials and space with an irreverence usually only seen in the street. Prints were left unframed and pinned to walls in tight-yet-expansive arrays. All of it — the process, the prints, the gallery — was in the service of her message.

The billboard is a distinctly American mutation of the poster. They are the inevitable next generation of a pictorial form born by capitalism. In 1835, the circus was the first business to use large format outdoor advertising. Unlike the poster, the billboard is privately owned and therefore requires both permission and payment. Designers and artists who make billboards unavoidably compromise with property owners. As a result, billboards don’t share as broad a history of use as political material as posters. This is because the process is much slower and controversy risks interfering with private gain. Billboards resist becoming commodities to a greater extent than posters, however, because they are printed in sections, bound to a structure, often very large and collaborative in nature. In Causing Conversations, Taking Positions, artist Peggy Diggs reflects that, “Much short-lived public art, of which the billboard is the most familiar form, is relatively inexpensive to produce, is sometimes made collaboratively with groups of non-artists, and is difficult to collect. Although the artist’s billboard appears in a space dedicated to advertising, it cannot be commodified; such a billboard makes its point - usually to an unintentional audience - and then is gone.” It has become a trend for sign companies to partner with arts organisations to use some of their billboards (often for a reduced fee or no cost at all) in an ongoing effort to avoid further business regulations citing that they are making a ‘contribution to culture’. Photography festivals, in particular, have gladly accepted these offers as an easy way to stretch their programming into public space. In order for photography to behave as public art it necessarily co-opts the spaces and materials usually reserved for advertising. Where else can artists find a large, easily seen, surface to mount photographic material to? This is a crossover of convenience. Photography is a natural fit for print advertising because, as Rodchenko said, it is fast, cheap and real. Comprehending a photograph is much quicker than reading a few lines of copy. Their origins also bind them together. Unlike other visual art forms, Sontag writes, “... the poster (like still photography and the cinema) carries no history from the pre-modern world; it could exist only in the era of mechanical duplication.” It is a generation of materials spawned by technological revolution. Free from the burden of pre-modern history, all three disciplines have seamlessly integrated themselves into our lives today. Their use as advertising have become interchangeable components in the public delivery of products and services.

As part of the inaugural exhibition at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, Canadian artist Ken Lum was asked to remake one of his photo-text works in billboard form to promote the exhibition. On the condition that the billboard excludes his name and any information about the exhibition, Lum agreed. Installed on an outer wall of the museum, the work depicts a young woman sitting in a cramped office juxtaposed against text which reads Melly Shum Hates Her Job. When the exhibition was finished, the Melly billboard was removed. Not soon after “the Witte de With staff received several telephone calls and a number of written protest messages demanding Melly’s reinstatement” says Lum. “Several callers reasoned that every city needs a monument to hating one’s job.” Melly was reinstalled permanently on the building's facade in 1990 and in 2021 — reckoning with its namesake’s colonial ties — Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art changed its name to Kunstinstituut Melly. “While I may have created Melly Shum Hates Her Job, the public has been activating the work far beyond my initial intentions.” The public’s reinstatement of Melly is certainly an unusual outcome for an artist's billboard since, like posters, their impermanence is an integral part of their being. Artists’ billboards are more often removed due to controversy than they are reinstated due to praise. In 2020, Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival was forced to remove seven billboards made by local artist Steven Shearer. These billboards featured photographs of people sleeping in a variety of positions and environments. Within two days of their debut, before the festival had even officially begun, Capture staff received a flood of angry emails complaining that the images reminded them of dead people. In articles, context is often vague. The toxic drug crisis and opioid epidemic is, like in many other parts of the country, an urgent concern in Vancouver. Perhaps residents of the high market condominiums which face the billboards didn’t want to be reminded of this reality. “Clearly we overestimated Vancouver’s appetite for provocative work” said festival founder Kim Spencer-Nairn. In response, Capture deinstalled the images and left nothing in their place.

The paradox inherent to billboards is that they are public only insofar as the private property on which they stand has good visibility. They are always in our field of vision but rarely within our control. Lum and Shearer’s respective reinstallation and removal are exceptional instances of the public speaking and property owners listening. Complaints which remain unheard have compounded into organized resistance intent on reclaiming public space. San Francisco’s Billboard Liberation Front, for example, alters and defaces signage while Scenic America tries to educate and effect government policy. Liz McQuiston claims that “defacing and graffiti magically transform” billboards “into a two-way conversation” in which “the voice of authority is overtaken by the voice of resistance, and commercial power is subverted to people’s power.” On the website of Cuban-born American artist Félix González-Torres, documentation of Untitled (It's Just a Matter of Time) 1992 and Untitled 1991 include images of these billboard works which over time have been covered in graffiti, postered over or are in the process of removal. These artworks cannot be seen outside of their ephemerality. In the context of the AIDS epidemic both of these billboards depict something fragile and fleeting. The black-and-white image of an unmade bed seen in Untitled 1991 is clearly imprinted with the traces of two human bodies. Untitled (It's Just a Matter of Time) from the following year features white text on a black background which according to the viewer can read like either an omen or fortune. The language of both billboards is ambiguous: one utilizes the emptiness of the so-called ‘objectivity’ of photography and the other the emptiness of idioms. Perhaps this is how they slipped by the conservative filters of signage companies. Yet understood through their placement along areas of major protest in New York City and the zeitgeist of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, their subversion of the public — which willfully ignored the crisis — is both powerful and poignant.

Although billboards are two-dimensional and inflexible in scale, the contexts of their site and public afford artists a flexibility to generate new, and sometimes unpredictable, meaning. The site is the frame through which what an artist attempts to say (or not say) is interpreted. In her essay Disturbances in the Fields of Mammon: Towards a History of Artists’ Billboards Harriet Senie writes “Certainly billboards that are part of exhibitions are likely to be reviewed as art. But artists who approach billboards the way they make gallery art do so at a risk.” What is meant by this isn’t that a pre-existing artwork couldn’t become a billboard or vice versa, but instead, that making an artwork for the sterile space of a gallery demands a different kind of awareness. Senie later writes, “considering the relative absence of art in our public education system, the greatest strategic pitfall when it comes to artists’ billboards today would seem to be irony. An accepted postmodern attitude, irony is an in-joke. You have to catch the tone and recognize the reference. While intending to undercut the dominant discourse, it may instead exclude (and alienate) the very audience it seeks to address (and convince).” In their use as commercial advertising, billboards already alienate anyone who doesn’t fit their target demographic. This is further exacerbated by the exclusivity of their unobstructed view and the private property upon which they stand. Thus the irony which artists so often wield to ‘undercut the dominant discourse’ within an art context ends-up mimicking the very thing it attempts to critique.

Today, the ubiquitous understanding of billboards as sites for public art are a long way from their pointed use in the 1980s and 1990s by artists such as Félix González-Torres, Edgar Heap of Birds, Barbara Kruger, Ken Lum, Martha Rosler and others. This is because — as is often the case with photography festivals — artists are conveniently given access to billboards instead of independently seeking them out as a unique, contextually specific, format. That billboards have become a fixture of arts festivals’ programming proves that their primary relevance in advertising is passé against the omnipresence of digital marketing. The charitability of profit-driven sign companies towards the arts is agitated by the fact that what is being given away is temporary access to a commercial asset with a diminishing value to commercialism. Since artists aren’t being asked by these companies to sell toothpaste or cars, I wonder, what are we being sold instead? Posters, by contrast, necessarily participate at eye level in the everyday give-and-take of images. Collecting, covering, defacing or removing are all acceptable ways of engaging with them. Furthermore, allegiances with companies and their private interests can’t grant them immunity. Vulnerability to their surroundings and competition with other posters means that, even as artworks, they hold no exclusive rights to their place in public.

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