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CalArts Poster Archive Preserves Weird and Wonderful Experiments in Graphic Design

Print Lab doors, CalArts 2020 | Michael Worthington
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The California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California, about 20 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, has long attracted people from all over the world to work with some of the most renowned figures in the arts — Judy Chicago, Nam June Paik, John Baldessari, Bella Lewitzky, Charlie Haden, Harry Gamboa Jr., Bill Viola, Wadada Leo Smith being among them — and to collaborate with other students who shared a deep passion for expression and rigorous study.

And while thousands have benefited from the incredible contributions by its graduates in art, film/video, design, dance, theater, music, and writing for decades, what many people outside of CalArts are unaware of are the visual gifts by its graphic design students that enhanced the everyday lives of students and faculty members on campus. They include some of the most innovative works in the history of the school and amplified what all the departments did via the most analog of items: event posters. 

Making the Invisible Visible

Some of the book cover designs for “Inside Out & Upside Down: Posters from CalArts 1980–2019." Full credits for book covers at the end of the story. 

This April, a new book and exhibit, “Inside Out & Upside Down: Posters from CalArts 1980–2019,” share nearly 40 years of this printed matter from the institute’s poster archive. Edited and designed by Graphic Design faculty and MFA graduate Michael Worthington (who also curated the show), the 400-page book features more than 500 posters and is being released with 70 different covers. Some 335 posters will also be on display at CalArts’ REDCAT gallery through August 30, 2020, for visitors to experience the posters as art objects — elevated in a way they haven’t been treated before. “Making the work public brings mixed emotions,” says Worthington who over the last few years worked to bring these posters to a much larger audience. “On the one hand, I’m really happy to have shone light on the archive; it’s historically and culturally important. On the other hand, a lot of the posters are experiments, made quickly, and aren’t always successful. It’s about what has been learnt from the making, the process, rather than the end result.”

About 180 posters will compose a timeline that will run the perimeter of the REDCAT gallery, while others will be exhibited on other “hanging structures, loosely they are ’trees’ where posters hang from branches, ’bushes’ that are small X shapes freestanding sections, and a ‘cloud’ where posters are hung from the ceiling,” he shares. Indeed, a far cry from their original context and previously abbreviated lifespan.

If there was any constant that the CalArts community all shared, it was seeing these posters mounted on the walls, and then see them promptly disappear like clockwork on a specific day of the week by “Plant Facilities” (as the facilities staff were always called) — if students or faculty didn’t already swipe them. “The starkness of the campus and white walls may have influenced the reaction for us to fill it with exuberant color and imagery in the posters, but it wasn’t a conscious effort,” says Shelley Stepp, another faculty member and MFA graduate of the program, who helped manage the archive in its early years.

It was like a weekly art opening when they went up, with a max window of seven days to view them. Students enthusiastically and critically took in the new work, and were even more thrilled (if they liked the design) when they or their events were featured in them. Seeing your name graphically treated in ways you couldn’t imagine was part of the thrill, but even more so that what publicized your event was beyond your basic DIY flyer. For students who had yet to make a mark in the world, the graphic design students presented their subjects like the second coming. These usually screenprinted posters validated their work, made them real. And at least for those who attended the school before the age of social media and personal websites and blogs, being featured in the posters was akin to seeing your name in a local weekly or newspaper. It was a big deal.

The Earthquake That Kick-Started the Poster Archive

When the Northridge earthquake hit Southern California on January 17, 1994, it upended thousands of lives, including the CalArts community, recalls former faculty member and landscape architect, Kary Arimoto-Mercer of arimoto+mercer: “Soon after the earthquake, the lab directors (I was director of the MacLab then) were asked to ‘volunteer’ to enter the building, which was thought to have asbestos.” Donning hardhats, respirators and jumpsuits, she and other staff made there way through the damaged building. “It was surreal because even though I’d been in the building at wee hours, I had never experienced it empty and so broken,” she says. “My continuing memory is of tracing the blood-stained prints of a hand finding its way along the corridors out of the building. So the sense of helplessness and loss became part of the motivation to save memories in tangible forms.”

This is when she felt particularly compelled to start collecting and acquiring student posters — along with Arimoto-Mercer’s then graduate teaching assistant, Stepp, who’d been collecting them since 1992 — that would become the birth of the CalArts poster archive. While Arimoto-Mercer can’t pinpoint when the two discovered they both were building collections, the designers says, “The genesis was our shared outrage when posters would get torn down from the walls and get trashed. As a part of their daily cleanup, some Physical Plant employees felt it necessary to clean not only the halls but also the walls. Posters were ephemeral and not worthy of being saved.” They took it upon themselves to preserve them. “For at least three years, we were thieving ninjas, rescuing posters.”

CalArts poster | Matt Normand and Jae Hyouk Sung
1/6 CalArts poster | Matt Normand and Jae Hyouk Sung
CalArts poster designed like a receipt | Jessica Kao
2/6 CalArts poster designed like a receipt | Jessica Kao
CalArts poster advertising a Gwendolyn Brooks event | Edwin Utermohlen
3/6 CalArts poster advertising a Gwendolyn Brooks event | Edwin Utermohlen
CalArts poster advertising a Mike Mills talk | Colleen Corcoran and Caroline Oh
4/6 CalArts poster advertising a Mike Mills talk | Colleen Corcoran and Caroline Oh
CalArts poster advertising an event called Cloud 9 | Barbara Glauber
5/6 CalArts poster advertising an event called Cloud 9 | Barbara Glauber
CalArts poster advertising a lecture by Mark Owens | David Karwan, Scott Massey, Stefano Giustiniani and Tom Kracauer
6/6 CalArts poster advertising a lecture by Mark Owens | David Karwan, Scott Massey, Stefano Giustiniani and Tom Kracauer

These priceless artifacts conjure memories of time spent there — colorfully printed time machines of sorts — for alumni and guests alike. Award-winning designer and director Karin Fong of Imaginary Forces fondly remembers the poster made for her 2005 talk: “It was such an honor to be invited to CalArts, and have other designers give you such physical, visual presence within the environment. Long live posters! Nothing says ‘welcome’ better,” she says of the work by then MFA graphic design students Eli Carrico and Yasmin Khan, who is now co-director of the program. “Even now, years later, I can remember the poster being presented to me, being struck by its boldness, the color, my name like a glossy big product among the stars. And struck by the printing — in this digital age, there’s still nothing like that tactile color.”

CalArts poster advertising a talk by Karin Fong | Eli Carrico and Yasmin Khan
CalArts poster advertising a talk by Karin Fong | Eli Carrico and Yasmin Khan

The Greatest No-Holds-Barred Show on Campus

One could say that the most prominent voices in the whole school on a daily basis were and are the graphic designers. They (attempted to) promote everyone, every school, student show, visiting artist, faculty event — and they often did it in spectacular, unreadable, humorous, brilliant, forgettable and unforgettable ways, with little if any input from those featured on the posters. People outside the graphic design program rarely knew who produced them. The designers’ names weren’t generally printed on the posters, and the students from the department were mostly anonymous in more ways than one: We never saw them. We only knew that their program was intense, as they were always working behind closed doors.

“After spending six hours every Thursday in really intense ‘crits,’ the posters were an opportunity for more open-ended collaboration with classmates, where we could push the boundaries of form, without fear of judgment,” says Colleen Corcoran, who received her MFA in graphic design at CalArts and is founder and creative director of L.A. design studio Place & Page. “The faculty had zero involvement, and I think that’s probably why a lot of the posters were so weird or more experimental.”

These posters demanded your attention, not just because they generally were the only decor on campus, but also because rarely did the readability of posters, in quick takes, get treated as a priority. Often you’d have to stand in front of them for some time to cull the details of the event or the subject. They challenged the viewer to see beyond the text, you had to work to read them. That may have created frustration for many past students, but in retrospect (for me, an alum, at least), it’s easy to see that the range and imagination with which designers played with and experimented with typography, images and printing processes were and still are noteworthy and worth highlighting long after the event.

“As far as I know the majority was produced on campus … And for those without a budget, on the sly,” says Arimoto-Mercer. “The director of the print lab would sometimes complain to me about the disappearance of ink and wonder how the culprits could possibly not know they could be traced back to their [silk] screens. The material losses humorously were seen as borne out of creative necessity and built into lab’s budget.”

Students also used “letterpress, color Xerox, and, for a while, a lot of diazo prints (blueprints) as cheaper, faster means of production, and, more recently, the Risograph machine,” says Worthington. “But the screen print has endured. It’s partly tradition now, it’s like a right of passage for the design students to stay up all night screen printing.” 

Today the number of posters in the archive numbers more than 3,000, about 2,200 are currently online, and the number grows each month thanks to contributing students but largely due to the efforts of the faculty over the years who invested their time — “This whole endeavor is not funded by student tuition,” stresses Worthington, “it’s all funded by money the faculty have generated” — to preserve and share this student work widely, in multiple forms. For Worthington, his hope is that the online poster archive and “Inside Out & Upside Down” show and book “inspire people to make in an idiosyncratic way, to not be afraid to explore and to play. There’s plenty of clichés about learning from failure, but a lot of these posters are exactly that: They are rapid prototypes, low-risk experiments, they are the visible traces of a lively education,” he notes. “The book maybe has additional goals: to catalogue and historicize the work, to cement the importance of the Graphic Design program’s pedagogy and the legacy of its students.”

"Inside Out & Upside Down: Posters from CalArts 1980–2019" book covers by: Sharleen Chen, Sarah Shoemake, Karen and Masato Nakada, Taylor Giali, David Mathew Davies, Alexander Ketchakmadze, David Chathas. Ben Woodlock and Scott Massey

Top Image: Print Lab doors, CalArts 2020 | Michael Worthington

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