Graphic Noise: Sound on Paper

By Grace Tran, Jesse Sawyer

Walking into the MCAD gallery, like most any art gallery in the world, the first thing that greets you is silence. There is a mild shuffling of feet, hushed voices, the white noise rumble of electricity and heating vents. An occasional laugh punctuates the air. The walls are meant to speak for themselves, and they do so in the ever-changing grammar of whatever artistic medium happens to adorn them. In the case of MCAD’s current exhibit, entitled “Graphic Noise,” they do so in the form of countless rock concert posters, collected across national borders and genre lines, abstracted from their concrete promotional purposes and displayed solely as pieces of art.

The Graphic Noise exhibit overwhelms your senses—approximately 700 rock posters line the walls, from floor to ceiling. They’re loud, colorful, and beautiful, even when they promote a band worth less than the paper the poster is printed on (I’m looking at you, Velvet Revolver). As advertisements, they are meant to tantalize, offering a visual preview of the promised sonic performance. Pinned up on a gallery wall, they are viewed as the craftwork of talented designers confronted with the task of articulating a band’s sound in visual print.

Most of the posters correlate directly to the band’s sound, image, or themes— many of the Decemberists’ posters are either whimsical or carnivalesque, while a Hold Steady poster features a large Gideon bible emblazoned with the band’s name. Designer Jay Ryan of Chicago’s Bird Machine comments: “As far as making the poster appropriate for the band, that’s right at the top of the priorities for me. I don’t think I usually make images where the band name could be swapped out with any other band. The viewers may not always see the connections I intend between the band and the image I make for them, but it’s usually there. In a way, the posters are a collaboration between the band and myself, though the band’s involvement is usually passive. It’s more like I’m reacting to the band’s music or personality or character.”

The rock posters in the exhibit advertise live shows—and the posters are as ephemeral as these performances. They are inherently created to reflect and affect an extremely short period of time, namely the weeks leading up to the performance. Unlike performances, however, these posters can be saved. Recontextualized in an art gallery, or even on the bedroom wall of a fan, they are objects of nostalgia, and this nostalgia is twofold. First, they reflect a fleeting aesthetic situated in the brief context for which they were designed, and second, they look forward to an event that is now past.

The designer Emek said, “A rock poster has a few simple truths: It should name the band, show the date, place and time. It should speak directly to the band’s fans; and stand out from all the other sensory overload imagery in the world. Then it can be thrown away or collected.” This ambivalence towards the rock poster points to its dual nature as promotion and art object. Just as Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters once decked Parisian city streets, and now fetch exorbitant sums in high art auction houses, so the rock poster finds itself snatched up from venue walls and displayed and sold as modern art. In doing so, the rock poster, just like Toulouse-Lautrec’s originals, shifts position from low- to high-culture art object.

Contemporary rock poster designers differ in the degree to which they value this shift. Mike Davis, of Minneapolis firm Burlesque of North America (which also has designers in California) is explicit about this point: “We definitely hope [the posters] are collected. We work on them for days, putting a lot of work into the design, the drawing, and the printwork…People buy the posters even if they weren’t at the show, or even if they don’t like the band.”

Other designers relish the potentially limited lifespan of the concert poster format. Dan Ibarra, of Minneapolis’ Aesthetic Apparatus remarks, “We love the idea that they’re ephemeral, that they’re trash. Which isn’t to say we don’t put way too much time into it. We love what we do. Still… I think we’d rather see them on a signpost than in a gallery. We get much more satisfaction from it being up there.”

Bird Machine’s Jay Ryan agrees with Emek’s sentiments: “These posters are inherently disposable. They are designed to serve a specific purpose (make people aware of an event) and once that purpose is served (after the event is over), they can be collected, in the same way that some people collect beer cans or cereal boxes.” Still, Ryan recognizes the personal effort placed in the creation of these “disposable” items: “I make these things mainly to serve my own desire to create, but also to serve the purpose (advertising) for which they are created.”

Regardless of the reasons for their inceptions and degree to which the designers see themselves as artists as opposed to designers, the Graphic Noise exhibit accomplishes something crucial to any future examination of the rock art culture. It brings together a diverse collection of carefully conceived pieces of artistic craft, pieces which, at their core, each seek to distinguish themselves from the visual saturation of their surroundings in order to convey some sort of message in the few seconds our eyes happen upon them. The walls of the gallery may be ostensibly silent, but the posters that line them scream for your consideration, and the Graphic Noise exhibit demands they be considered as more than footnotes to the musical epoch from which they emerged.