Time Traveling Through CalArts’s Poster Archive With Michael Worthington

CalArts’s Program in Graphic Design has a long history of documenting Institute-wide events through custom screen-printed posters. Typically produced in editions of 50 or less, it has become a badge of honor among students to have their work taken off campus walls by classmates with sticky fingers–a clear indication that the work is valued for more than its information.

In 1994, Graphic Design faculty members Shelley Stepp and Kary Arimoto-Mercer created a physical archive for the posters as a way to preserve students’ work. From their initial efforts, the physical archive has grown exponentially, requiring that the posters be stored in various corners of offices across the Graphic Design program.

Without a central location or means to access the physical poster archive, Graphic Design faculty Michael Worthington devised a plan to consolidate the work into a digital space, a platform that could be made available online to alumni and current students, as well as to CalArts and design communities at large.

Philippe Apeloig Poster (2008). Design by N. Silas Munro & Stephanie Chen. | Courtesy of CalArts Poster Archive.

“I realized about two years ago that our collection of posters was in fact a rich, visual historical timeline of design at CalArts, and a cultural timeline of the Institute, too. Enough time had passed that the collection was now an archive,” Worthington says. We asked him about how he and his team of students finally brought the physical archive into the digital age, and about the upcoming book release and REDCAT exhibition that will celebrate the legacy of the Graphic Design poster tradition at CalArts.

Graphic Design Faculty Michael Worthington. | Image from Coursera.

24700: The physical archive has been in the works for about two decades. What made this moment the right time to create a digital extension of that collection?

MW: We had never had any funding for the archive, but two years ago the Graphic Design program received a share of the profits from the online Coursera courses the design faculty had taught, and we used that money to buy lights and a camera and hire students, so that we could start to document and archive the posters. We cleaned out a storage closet and turned it into a photo studio. I built a white box and had someone build a portable poster-mover, so we could transport posters between the archive and the shooting space. When we had enough images I worked with two MFA students on the website UI/UX, identity and structure—Tracy Tran and Guanyan Wu—and we hired faculty Roman Jaster and Yay Brigade to program the site for us. Since then we’ve been gradually adding to the site, and now have more than 1,000 posters uploaded, and another 1,000 or so still to shoot…

Can you talk a bit about the book of posters you are working on?

We plan on publishing a book of a selection of the posters. One of the starting points for this project was the 10-year Poster book that CalArts printed in 1980, to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. My idea was to create a publication that filled the gap between 1980 and now. I commissioned about 12 pieces of writing and interviews that chronologically line up across that time span to try and get a feel for the changes and history of nearly 40 years.

The book will also be funded by the Graphic Design program’s Coursera profits, and we are hoping to release it at the same time as the show at REDCAT in October. I’m editing the publication, and will work closely with two MFA students on the design. We don’t know yet if we will self-publish or find a publisher or distributor, but either way it’ll be for sale through the website, and available to CalArts students, faculty and alumni.

There will also be a REDCAT poster exhibition in the Fall. Can you give us a preview of what that is going to look like?

La Meninas Poster (2007). Design by Julie Mattei. | Courtesy of CalArts Poster Archive.

So far, the organizing structure and curatorial decisions haven’t been made, but it’ll definitely cover the whole time span since the 10-year poster book. We had to get the digital archive up and running before we could commission writers for the book, and select the work for the exhibition: the archive had to be made visible before we could really see what we had, let alone start to work with it. The show will be a smaller selection of curated posters than the online archive, which will eventually include every poster in the physical archive.

There are still a lot of uncredited posters on the archive. Who should students or alumni contact if they want to help identify the designers for those mystery prints?

You can click on the “?” on the website to submit missing information. One of the goals of the site was to crowdsource missing info, for some posters, especially the earlier ones, we don’t even know its year, let alone the designer! We’ve already had more than 350 missing pieces of information supplied by alumni, as well as several offers to donate posters. When someone submits an email about missing info, it automatically flows into a Google spreadsheet, cross-referenced against other comments, and we update them as soon as we can.

What’s the best part about seeing this project come to fruition?

Well, it’s far from done–we are only halfway through the digital archive, and then, once we are caught up the site will have to be updated every year with the new posters! We are also working on creating a physical space on campus, to store the hard copies. Once we have all the information in the digital archive, it will allow us to properly label and organize the analog posters by year in flat files, which will be a mammoth task in itself. Then, we have to finish the book and the exhibition… It’s a three-year project from start to finish, and we are about 18 months into it.

But the best part so far is making such a large volume of work visible that was previously hidden, and being able to easily search through it and filter it. It’s wonderful when you find a fantastic design from the past that you didn’t see at the time. Actually, not just the designs, but also the events. Seeing which artists were visiting here in the ’80s and 90s is amazing. In a lot of ways, the posters are like time capsules. They are evidence of the past and of past events at CalArts. They are visual triggers for memories, and transport alumni back to the time that they were students. That’s the real magic of the poster archive.

Discover more in CalArts Online Poster Archive.

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