Interview with Sonnenzimmer
I had amazing opportunity to meet and interview Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi, a creative duo from Chicago. The core focus of their work is screen printed posters and publications; however, their artistic endeavors transcend into an interdisciplinary works from art exhibitions, textile creations to music. rr However, on the cold and dark November’s afternoon their thoughts reached beyond initial questions as we were chatting in university’s library in Helsinki.

How would you define a poster?

Nick: I think the function of a poster is to build a message. So it’s this old idea that a poster is a piece of paper that is trying to communicate a message through image and text—most of the times. It’s important to distinguish between a print and a poster. Basically, a print is a recording or a representation of something; whereas a poster is a more condensed form of a print that is trying to communicate directly. We should also not mix up posters with signs. Because signals are always “true” and posters are a temporal communication device. For example, a poster that advertises a concert refers to something that exists at a specific time.

Nadine: A poster is a communicative two dimensional rendering of a temporal message with a goal of advertising. Perhaps posters today refer more to the arena of activity, whereas messaging or advertisement was illustrated on a piece of paper. As posters are freed from their original function perhaps it would benefit to add a new definition to the original etymology.

In your opinion how did the perception of the poster change in last 50 years?

Nick: Posters used to represent the forefront of the visual culture; they were the most expressive and the biggest. People connected to the current visual language through posters. On the other hand, today’s posters are just a part of campaign and they are secondary to a digital interface. For instance, you have a campaign poster and when you visit its web page, it looks like the poster. So the poster has lost its central significance or singularity. As a result, we are surrounded with more instances of digital things and posters become secondary.

Nadine: I believe it also depends how posters are made and by whom. If a designer makes it, it perhaps serves as a status quo symbol, for example “Look at me, I can design this”; meanwhile if it is hand painted in India, it’s perhaps considered a gesture of craft, or just serves as a service job. So the function can differ if you take geography into account. In technology-based Western economies today the poster is affirming the digital realm. It serves as some sort of authenticity tool. It is interesting to follow the relationship between the analog and digital poster and how this shift happened and how it informs each other. At first we had a printed poster and afterwards it was documented in the digital realm. But now I observe that often the avatar proceeds the poster, meaning being stuck on a piece of paper. In my opinion, this never work, as it’s serves more like signage.

Nick: I have noticed that posters, which really stand out, are the ones that were not intended for digital use. Because they retain autonomy from the screen and, in doing so, retain a vitality that can be made only outside of the computer platform.

To continue previous question. At The Poster Remediated David Crowley stated: “Instead of being frightened of the rise of the digital screen, all the people who admire and understand the power of graphic design should embrace the digital era, as an age of prosperity for the remediated poster.” So, do you think that poster on paper is dead or still alive?

Nadine: I don’t think the paper poster is dead at all. The connections you make on a paper you don’t make digitally. Paper gives us personally a lot more possibilities because we are allowed to make a piece of art and do not have to compete with the marketing end of this matter. Additionally, I feel we can react better to the dimensions of communication on a paper, as there is an inherent figure ground relationship to the rectangular piece of paper that the graphic will be living on. The crucial point here is to understand that analog and digital realms inform each other, but at the same time they exist in their own realms simultaneously.

Nick: Contrary to “death”, I think now is a good time for posters. A printed poster used to carry all the information; however, now this job can be split between the analog and digital realm. Take painting, it held a position to represent the physical reality, it couldn’t become abstract. In other words, painting couldn’t get abstract until we had photography. The same goes for posters now. Posters don’t have to render all the information, they just have to stand out and get your attention.

How do you see future of the poster?

Nick: Posters will basically remain unchanged. As long as it’s easy and cheap to print something out, there will be a poster culture. It is the most direct way to get a message across in a physical space.

Nadine: It depends also on legislation, for example littering or “post no bills” laws. Take Chicago in 90s, there were much more posters around than today. Due to the change in laws, that landscape changed. Now, in 2016, you cannot paste your own poster up wherever you want in the city. This changed the poster production and tradition where we live.

When designers debated about poster, they always tend to highlight importance of its message. As poster embodies significant part in media culture I wonder how would you relate to words of media guru McLuhan’s “Medium is the message.” How do you convey to this enigmatic paradox as medium being its own message?

Nick: Posters are more than just bringing imagery to the paper. They also communicate the process of building these images and maybe that can be a message. We screen print our images and our images are different than offset printed. It is a picture about a picture and how a picture works.

Nadine: We do a lot of improvisation. We use the medium as a vessel for our image making ideas.

What do posters mean to you personally?

Nick: For me a poster is to be part of culture immediately. To make a graphic statement in the now, that is meant for now, that should speak about the current state of the world, I love that. It’s a way of partaking and conversing with everybody. This will feel fun forever, because you can play with expectations and you can emote in some weird way. It’s different than making art, because art, at the end of the day, gets shoved away to museums, gallery spaces, storage, and comes with its own baggage. In contrast to posters, which are here to hijack a structure of communication and be able to be seen or heard. I respond to that.

Nadine: For me, as a graphic artist, the poster is a discipline that combines typography, illustration, photography, aesthetics, your own form language. Thus there are so many friction points in there that open up more space to explore. For me it’s the master discipline of the graphic arts. The poster is a moving canvas that is very democratic and international, I feel deeply connected to that. Even if you cannot read the type on a poster, you still can feel the attraction and the impression it leaves on you. I never feel excluded by a poster, they do not have a gatekeeper. It’s just you and a graphic image that someone is sharing with you.

How do you see the role of interactivity or adding electronic components: improvement or an unneeded distraction?

Nick: A wall of interactive posters in a public space could be asking for too much attention, which might be a turn off for people. These types of posters will have to find interesting ways to grab people’s attention. Some kind of poetry must emerge for the medium to work in such an environment.

Nadine: I think interactive posters will develop in the direction of having added information. For example, “snap your fingers if you need more information about this”. I recall an awareness campaign from the ad council around three years ago: it was advertising a hot line meant for children who were in abusive homes. The telephone number could only be seen at a certain height from the ground, which was set at the average measurement for children between 6 - 9 years old. Interactivity has to serve as an added value so it doesn’t create redundancy for the medium. For us poster making has two layers that need to be mastered or at least envisioned: a communication level and an artistic level. The same probably goes for interactive posters; it should develop two layers that don’t fight each other but create a higher outcome in terms of reachability with the message.

To wrap this up, I have to ask. Does anyone care about posters, or are they just an ego-trip for the designers who still make them?

Nick: Both. Nostalgia plays an important roll in poster art. Similarly, people still make records or anything tactile. But as designers, it is our job to make people care about them. It used to be much more multidirectional, now it’s basically our job to make people remember them, and to remember the power of a simple gesture, such as hanging something on a wall.

Nadine: I appreciate your question here — to call designers out. What an important thing to do! I think on a do-it-yourself level, people make posters because it is a powerful tool to go and print your message out and put it up on a wall. No matter if you are a designer or not. In the United States the self-made, commissioned, or designed poster culture still exists largely because of touring bands and venues. Music posters really made a lasting foundation in our country through the psychedelic posters that were created in the 60s. Political resistance posters of that time too, make for a strong legacy. A large part of that history spreading was due to people printing posters that weren’t “designers”. So, I think it’s a spiritual medium for people, like folk music, and yes, people still do care.

Nick: But many posters today don’t work as traditional posters, as advertisements. They are a nostalgic idea of what poster used to be; hence they are used as a souvenir. These posters don’t end up on streets and fight for someone’s idea; they end up in someone’s home as a memento.

Nadine: If you increase foot traffic in an area, you increase the likelihood of posters “living”. If you kill foot traffic, you kill posters. Perhaps with increased foot traffic in virtual reality we will see more digital posters? Haha!

The interview was conducted with a creative duo: practitioners Nadine Nakanishi and Nick Butcher (known as Sonnenzimmer) on November 25th, 2016. The interview was initially published in This Is Not A “Poster, Only Better”
Snap your fingers if you need more information about Sonnenzimmer or try clicking the link.