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Is the Poster Dead, or Just Remediated?

Professor David Crowley, Head of Critical Writing in Art & Design, has a long-term research interest in the poster as both a design object and a means of communication. RCA Blog talked to David about his curation of the fiftieth Warsaw International Poster Biennale in June 2016, and the changing faces of poster design and dissemination in the digital twenty-first century.

The 2016 Biennale exhibition is titled 'The Poster Remediated', and explores how posters are circulated and revivified through the media – through cinema, television, the press and the internet. The Biennale competition, which invites designers to give new life to ten classic poster designs, is open from 15 March to 10 May 2016.

RCA Blog: The Biennale has been a way of charting new currents and practices in the design of posters internationally, since it was launched in 1966. What are your thoughts on the currency of poster design today? 

Poster announcing the first International Poster Biennale, Warsaw, 1966
Poster announcing the first International Poster Biennale, Warsaw, 1966
DC: There is much discussion today about the death of the poster, but in fact, this concern isn’t new. It goes back to the late 1960s and the spread of electronic communication. Now, it’s the internet that’s identified as the poster’s nemesis. 

In reality, we still fill our streets with advertising billboards, and when protestors march against injustice they carry posters. New media communications have lots of poster-like qualities: an internet meme – an image captioned with a slogan – is a digital poster, even if it wasn’t created by a poster designer. 

When the Ukrainian demonstrators in the Maidan, or protesters against the murder of the journalists and cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo, made posters and carried them in their demonstrations in Kiev in 2013 and in Paris in 2015, their images went around the world – not because they were printed and pasted on walls, but because photographs of these home-made signs were reported in newspapers, on news websites and TV broadcasts.    

RCA Blog: And that's remediation: blurring the boundaries of media, and exploiting the properties of different channels for dissemination?

DC: Yes, the term was coined by American academics Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin more than a decade ago. Reflecting on the rapid transformation of the media in the 1990s, they argued that there is rarely anything new in media. Instead, change should be understood as a process of refashioning. They say, ‘each act of mediation depends on other acts of mediation. Media are continually commenting on, reproducing, and replacing each other, and this process is integral to media. Media need each other in order to function as media at all.’ 

With this in mind, I've set out to explore ways in which the poster is not a separate category but often combines words and images which have already been given currency in other media – perhaps in the cinema or on television. Equally, the poster is not a fixed, final state. Very often we don’t encounter posters as printed objects pasted on the walls of our streets: they are photographed and become into news stories – when, for instance, a controversial design is commissioned by a charity. When protesters carry posters in demonstrations, they draw the lens of the media to broadcast their messages. 

RCA Blog: How will the Warsaw show reflect on the future of the poster?

DC: We plan to tell a number of these histories of poster remediation from around the world in the show. They range from the And Babies? poster produced by anti-Vietnam War protesters in 1970, which made headlines when it was protested in front of Picasso’s Guernica painting in MoMA, to the notorious ‘Are You Beach Body Ready?’ advertisements that triggered a wave of anger expressed through social media.  

We are on the edge of a new kind of advertising, in which animated screens may well have the means to recognise individuals – perhaps through facial recognition technology – and a billboard might speak to you, literally. Of course, this has been a fantasy since the early days of moving image. The brilliant French filmmaker Georges Melies made a short film, 'Les affiches en goguette’ (1906), in which characters on a large poster come alive and interact with passers-by. In the Warsaw show in June we will be presenting such interactions as both the past and the future of the poster.  

Art Workers’ Coalition, ‘And Babies?’, 1970
Art Workers’ Coalition, ‘And Babies?’, 1970
© Courtesy of the Poster Museum, Warsaw
RCA Blog: There are utopian and dystopian elements to this future vision?

DC: Yes, definitely. And other themes in the show are more critical, because I think that we need to have better discussions about the ways in which advertising forms a kind of mental and visual horizon in our lives and in our cities. The show will feature works by anti-advertising activists, Vermibus, Jordan Seiler and Brandalism, too. They strip the advertising frames on bus and tram stops of their inducements to spend and replace ads with graphic artworks which reflect on very different visual qualities and ideas. The idea of ridding the city of advertising and filling it with art is of course very appealing. But it is also what the regime in North Korea claims for its propaganda…  

Jordan Seiler, ‘Bullseye’, 2015
Jordan Seiler, ‘Bullseye’, 2015
© Courtesy of the artist

RCA Blog: The exhibition has been controversial in Poland. Why?

The poster has been claimed by Polish culture as an exceptional product with a particular, even 'national’, heritage. This is undeniable. The Polish Poster School was an extraordinary export of Polish culture, even during the Stalin years. Designers like Roman Cieslewicz and Henryk Tomaszewski were remarkable modernists who democratised art with their posters. 

The creation of the Poster Museum and the Warsaw Poster Biennale in the 1960s was also a remarkable moment in the history of graphic design, in the sense that they confirmed a highly aesthetic conception of the poster, namely beautiful creations by artists displayed in a gallery in frames. Sometimes these posters addressed lofty themes – human rights and world peace – or promoted high culture, such as opera or theatre. My feeling is that this conception of the poster, which seemed so urgent and meaningful in Poland in 1966, has become disconnected from life – from street protests connected to the Arab Spring, or global branding campaigns. My hope is that The Poster Remediated will reforge those connections. 

RCA Blog: Tell me about the competition?

We are also running a competition for designers around the world to animate iconic posters from the history of the Biennale in the manner of what is sometimes called the ‘Motion Poster’. Often commissioned by the film industry, these promo images are not trailers but an animation of elements of the promotional poster. For just a few seconds, letters ripple into life; actors strike a pose; lightning flashes overhead. Figures like the celebrated graphic designer Milton Glaser have given us their permission to allow designers to animate their designs. We hope that this opportunity will stimulate new thinking about what a poster might be.


Professor David Crowley runs the Critical Writing in Art & Design MA at the Royal College of Art, London. He has a specialist interest in modernism in art and design, often with a focus on the histories of Eastern Europe under communist rule. His books include Warsaw (2003) and three edited volumes: Socialism and Style. Material Culture in Post-war Eastern Europe (2000); Socialist Spaces. Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc (2003); and Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc (2010). He writes regularly for Eye magazine, Creative Review, Frieze and other art and design press titles. Crowley also curates exhibitions (including Cold War Modern at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2008–9; The Power of Fantasy. Modern and Contemporary Art from Poland at BOZAR, Brussels, 2011; and Sounding the Body Electric. Experiments in Art and Music in Eastern Europe at Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, 2012 and Calvert 22, London, 2013).