October 24 – November 14, 2014
An exhibition based on modern reinterpretations of the one-sheet broadside. This body of work finds its place between the ephemeral, commercialized object and something more lasting, tactile, and intimate or conceptual. The artists investigate a range of interests including aesthetics, politics, humor, cartoons, poetics, and social issues.
Of its many variations there are several elements of the broadside that have remained constant throughout its history. Whether manifested in an 18th century ballad or a notice for a public hanging, a 1960’s social activist leaflet or today’s illustrated poem, the broadside’s consistent traits are that it is a portable, accessible, and affordable form of communication. It is not surprising that these pieces of street literature have been a useful tool for artists and artist activists looking to reach the larger public without limits placed by editors, curators, and other art market gatekeepers.
Yet long before these modern uses, broadsheets were a popular form of advertising in emerging market economies. From the 16th century to the early 19th century broadsides promoted business, shared news, and decreed laws. Intended for posting in public places, such as town markets, or to be read aloud, such sheets paid little attention to visual details. The ephemeral nature of the broadside meant that most of its history has gone un-archived or otherwise documented. The ones that survived are typically authorless and align themselves in some ways with oral storytelling traditions, where information would get lost and altered as it moved from place to place. Although the printed sheet attempted to nail down facts, it was not until the advent of newspapers and the novel that one could read the exact same thing as someone living in another country. Here we can see another constant in the broadside, that of having space within a given community. Although an instrument for mass communication, the broadside until the Industrial Revolution was essentially a local form of expression, contained within a particular community, social network, and cultural discourse.
In the early 20th century the significant transformation of mass media technologies reduced the traditional value of broadside communications. Instead of being products of the industrial print shop, artists used broadsides as a form of self-publication. They became a favorite medium for the artistic avant-gardes of the time, in particular the Dadaists, Futurists, and Russian Constructivists. These artists looked to advertise their performances, publish their poetry and make known their manifestos for a new art. The broadside gave the avant-gardes a means to exchange information outside the scrutinizing eye of established schools of art and their supporters. While providing a platform for the subversive and sometimes illegal acts of artists, broadsides also became a platform for the respective groups’ sense of design aesthetics. The avant-gardes pushed the broadside far away from its popular and commercial distribution of prior centuries. Their community of followers remained small, but their networks became global. Now an entire “ism” might be communicated in a letter with a broadside enclosure, uniting avant-garde communities in Poland, for example, with comparable communities in Japan.
In the hands of the avant-gardes the broadside was a highly aesthetic object, even if it remained firmly within the realm of ephemera. These sheets were props for the artists’ messages, but few considered them works of art in themselves. Only with conceptual art did street ephemera acquire the cachet of high art object, as in the work of Jenny Holzer in the 1980’s.
Conscious of the power of advertisement and frustrated with Reagan-era politics, artists/activists like Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Robert Indiana, collectives like the Guerilla Girls and Gran Fury, to name a few, looked for new ways to tackle such issues. They utilized the broadside as a text-based image outside and inside the gallery to infiltrate mass media’s langfuage with their own messages. For these artists the word becomes the material, the line of text the composition. The result would often be that the look of the message became more important than the message itself. With this new preciousness applied to the text, they caught the eye of the art world and began a process of popular canonization; which included a retrospective reevaluation of works such as those produced by the Surrealists.
Sign painting and hand lettering by street artists working outside the gallery circuit also began during the time that conceptual text-based work was gaining momentum. The advent of the copy machine made it possible for artists to acquire the now antiquated letterpress printer for cheap and combine letterpress typefaces with their illustrations and cartoons. This direction, as expressed by groups such as the Mission School artists in San Francisco, marks a definitive interest in work that could be easily produced and exchanged. Here the idea of a gift economy within artist communities is important to consider in our contemporary, and now multifaceted, perception of what a broadside can be.
For artists throughout the past century, “broadside” may not have been a frequently used term, however, today we can see its influences on self-published sheets made by artists, activists, and poets. It is a combination of avant-garde propaganda, social activism, and interest in the material qualities of text that make up our contemporary definition. All of this, coming together in our now completely digitalized age, marks a continued interest artists have in the tactile and immediate nature of the broadside. Currently other types of self-published material like chapbooks, zines, and artist books are enjoying a renaissance of sorts. This can be read as a need to react to our visual-heavy Internet culture. In essence the ephemeral nature of early broadsides has been replaced with the fast-paced scroll of a social media or news webpage, and the object fills a desire for a lasting product that can still be produced cheaply.
The broadside’s “object-hood” has been exaggerated since its early days, but it remains a way to establish one’s community through printed material that can be shared and posted. In that sense contemporary broadsides are reactions to the universal connectivity of our digital culture. We are constantly sharing and performing versions of ourselves online yet caught in a strange web of anonymity that occurs with an overwhelming flow of users. Perhaps the allure of the self-published object comes from the immediate declaration of self resulting from the act of its physical exchange.
- Maggie Jensen