Columbia College Book and Paper Collaboration
During March 22–24, 2013, after almost a year of planning, Columbia College’s Center for Black Music Research and Center for Book and Paper Arts collaborated on a one-credit workshop titled “Material Social Practices: Posters as Social Media.” The event featured a Friday night lecture and open house reception at the CBMR, followed by assisted research on Saturday morning in the CBMR Library and Archives. The class then moved on to Book and Paper’s letterpress printing studio for the rest of Saturday and all of Sunday.
The seeds for the class were planted after meetings between the two centers regarding a book project for the CBMR. I and Morris Phibbs (Center for Black Music Research) consulted with CBMR colleagues Janet Harper and Laurie Lee Moses during the planning phase, with the support of Monica Hairston O’Connell (Executive Director of the CBMR), Steve Woodall (Director of the Center for Book and Paper Arts), and Melissa Potter (Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts). Both centers were able to showcase their talents and to pool their efforts to keep alive the American musical culture, with all of its detail in view of the public.
Students in the workshop included graduate students from the Interdisciplinary Arts Department and undergraduates from the Art and Design Department. They explored a great deal of resources in the CBMR Library and Archives, including photos from the Sue Cassidy Clark Collection, vinyl recordings of work songs, recordings of 1960’s girl group hits, books on reggae, books on hip-hop, posters, and more. Required reading for the course included selections from black music research pioneer Eileen Southern, James Sullivan’s On the Walls and in the Streets, and writings about the ephemera that Sun Ra wrote to express his ideas and promote his music.
Amos P. Kennedy Jr., a renowned artist, printer, and activist who is based in Detroit, was brought in to serve as a print instructor and guest lecturer. Kennedy lives his maxim that “All art-making is a social practice.” His Friday-evening lecture, which was open to the entire campus community and to the general public, helped familiarize the students with social poster making practices.
The students researched a wide range of subject matter—from the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the nineteenth century to Kanye West. During the class workshop activities in the print studio, Kennedy encouraged the students to develop design strategies that express their chosen subjects while also embracing the inherent restraints of letterpress printing, which is the oldest form of printing for mass-produced public messages. Using Book and Paper’s extensive collection of metal and wood type, the students handset each character of each word, locked them up on the bed of the press, and then hand-fed paper for each relief impression print. This printing process requires a creative approach to working within the boundaries of these ages-old techniques.
After many hours of designing and printing, and once the ink was dry, students took their posters to the streets, hanging their messages in store fronts, libraries, music venues, and even apartment building commons areas. The posters serve as artistic informational works that can shape a new understanding of the resources that are available at the college and in the city, and they draw attention to overlooked and misunderstood issues in American music history. The project has an ongoing life, as participants are now looking for venues to exhibit their works.
Posters and printed matter, ranging from official public notices, declarations of outrage, entertainment announcements, or ads, have played a historic role in transforming American society, and though they now serve mostly as advertising, posters still remain a force for communicating messages to masses of people. A window or the side of a building can be suddenly transformed into outlets for the expressive potential of an artist, government, or company, thus creating cultural touchstones, defining movements, and exciting crowds. Back in the day, before other means of social media, posters informed us—they were our newspapers and news channels; they were our Craigslist and our Facebook.
While doing her research at the CBMR, Interdisciplinary Arts, Book and Paper Program graduate student Amy Leners found a Nina Simone quote to be particularly inspirational for this project: “There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”