SOME POSTERS / poster retrospective book - 2013
The cornerstone of my design practice since around 2003 has been poster design, primarily for music performances, theater events, and gallery exhibits. In 2013, I published Some Posters, a collection of posters designed from 2005 onwards, as a way to track the development of the poster form in my own work and to highlight recurring themes and motifs. The book contained an essay entitled Pioneers of Flight, which examined the changing nature of the poster from announcement to ritualistic souvenir, using a Spectral Mornings performance at Cranbrook Academy of Art as a case study.
“For many, a show starts not when the curtain raises or the doors open, but when an inviting poster or advertisement beckons. Here our expectations are framed and we are guided towards what is to be seen. The show begins in our imagination long before we have bought a ticket. And yet the very means employed to engage the public are strangely sterile. Their dull familiarity lies in their relationship to core strategies of corporate media and market imperatives. A museum’s visual communication enters a context colonized by commercial messages, and unless it stands apart will itself be colonized. Ideas are sold as products, and instead of discussion the public is offered condescension. This one-way process contributes to the public’s feelings of institutional culture as an elite spectacle.”
- Jason Grant. Cultured Graphic Hygiene. Design Observer. May 12, 2009.
In 2010 Spectral Mornings played its last show as a full band at Cranbrook Academy of Art. This performance served a few different purposes. First, it was a demonstration of the cathartic nature of my musical exploits for my classmates, so they could hopefully connect with the type of emotional content I was trying to convey with my other Cranbrook work. Second, it gave me the chance to create something transitory and ritualistic while directly exploring the connections between location, identity and expression that form the foundations of my work. With this performance I could create a singular moment that encompassed both musician and audience; a one-time event that marked a crossroads of time, place, and personal trajectory.
Trevor Edmonds and I started making music together as Spectral Mornings in 2003. We formed the band while at college in Marquette, primarily as a platform for working out methods of performing electronic music live. Our first show was at an open mic night at a bar called the Upfront & Co., where Trevor played a synth and guitar and I manipulated percussion loops on a laptop. That was it, at first: I made the rhythms and he made the melodies. It was all instrumental, heavily influenced by early techno and industrial music. Over the next few years, however, as we played more shows and started becoming more well-known in our local music scenes, the music became more hypnotic and layered, reaching out to post-rock in structure and song length. Chad McKinney joined us in 2007, and, as a three-piece, we were more bombastic and band-y than we had ever been. For me, the music became more about a search for catharsis, both in the songs themselves and in the act of performance. It was around this time that Drum Song entered our repertoire. It became the ultimate realization of the “Spectral Mornings” sound: a simple quiet-loud-quiet dynamic, built around a bombastic second half that focused on Trevor’s live drumming and a wall of church organ chords and distorted guitar. We always ended our sets with this song, it was a piece of music that existed in a separate world from our other work.
After Chad moved away and we reverted to a two-piece, Trevor and I began to scale back, writing three- to four-minute pop songs, and exploring dynamics through juxtaposition and interlocking intricate melodies instead of through volume and density. But we based our work on the attitude of Drum Song, still performing it as a closer at shows. It was a guiding principle, but also became a looming presence, a weight on our shoulders.
Since we started Spectral Mornings, the band, and the performances, record label and subsequent solo music that it spawned, acted as my gateway to design, far more than any classes at university. Being involved in the local music scene in Marquette and, later, in Bay City, gave me a chance to connect with a lot of other musicians and do a lot of design work -- posters, flyers, and so on. It also allowed me to see how much the idea of location, of place, influences how those musicians express themselves. More than that, it shapes who they are, and “who they are” comes through in their music. Looking back at it now, creating posters and album covers for these musicians was my first foray into exploring the tumultuous relationship between location, identity and expression. With concert posters in particular, I was trying to capture an emotional portrait of each musician’s work, but I was also becoming aware of fact that each of those concerts happened in a specific place, often in that musician’s hometown. What does it mean to stand up in front of that hometown and sing a song? How does that hometown appear as a presence in those songs? And, for me specifically, how does being in Marquette, Bay City, or even Detroit influence what my music is about?
My concert posters began to incorporate the idea of place more and more. For the Screaming Out of my Ears festival poster I designed in 2007, for example, I was fascinated by the fact that a group of teenagers from Essexville, a tiny town near Bay City, had decided to organize a day-long event showcasing original music from local performers. This small festival took place near both the town hall and the Saginaw River, the town’s most recognizable geographic symbol. On the poster, I represented the location with a stylized body of water and depicted a band of youngsters performing towards it, confronting that geographic symbol of their home with a defiant expression of self-identity. One force (expression or location) influences and counters the other. I was discovering a nuanced feedback loop between location and identity, with the energy of expression acting as both a by-product and as a catalyst.
This was on my mind in the middle of my first year at Cranbrook, which was my new home and, therefore, served as a formative part part of my identity. This, combined with the fact that I had recently seen some rather self-reflective performance art and I was acutely aware that Spectral Mornings was no longer performing as much as it used to, made me decide to bring the band to Cranbrook for one last evening, to create an event to mark a fleeting time and place in my life.
To accompany the performance, I designed and screenprinted a run of posters, and I created a set of four unique posters on large canvases, one for each member of the band. The posters for the show featured a drawing of all the Spectral Mornings equipment over the years, as well as a swarm of airplanes. The planes became an avatar of sorts, a stand-in for dynamic machinery and the idea of being overwhelmed with emotion. They also looked backwards to the very first Spectral Mornings poster for a 2004 performance at the 231 Gallery in Marquette, a venue that has since burned down.
I saw these particular posters as a kind of culmination of all the Spectral Mornings posters that came before, and as a demonstration of my design interests: geometry, custom typography, texture, noise, illustration, lines, density, emotion. I was interested to a degree in questioning the role of the contemporary poster, particularly in terms of music promotion in the age of the internet, where a posted piece of paper doesn’t have much point. The poster has moved from an announcement to a commemoration, something to put up on a wall after the event. I created large posters on canvas, the size of typical paintings sold at the mall, to mark this transition: the large posters blatantly presented themselves as souvenirs, not advertisements. They carried information, not necessarily textual information about an upcoming event, but textural information about the emotional nature of the event. This emphasis on emotion gets to the heart of my interests in design, particularly when traditional design overlaps with “promoting” expression. These posters summarize the Spectral Mornings worldview, or at least my interpretation of it, and they serve as a monument to the band and music that consumed much of my life and design work for the better part of a decade.
This time the band was a four-piece: myself, Trevor Edmonds, Chad McKinney, and Sean Patrick. Even though Sean had never played with Spectral Mornings before, he had been present ever since the band began, and he was a key part of the band’s identity and connection with certain locations. The four of us represented Spectral Mornings in all its lives and incarnations, and our performance at Cranbrook served as a coming together, a culmination, a sense of closure in the form of a temporary, one-time-only event. We played new arrangements of the most recent, cathartic pop songs Trevor and I had written, and, of course, we ended the performance with Drum Song. Throughout the night the drum kit sat foregrounded at the center of the stage, silent, filled with Chekhov’s-gun-like potential. That drum kit, marked with a customized bass head design and lit from within, served as a reminder of the primal cathartic nature of all the Spectral Mornings music that we had written up to that point, an entirely analog counterpoint to our band’s digital beginnings. At the end of the show, the drums took over with the power of ritual, accompanied by a wall of noise. That’s the last time we’ve ever played Drum Song.