10 April 2008
Andrea Rauch and Gianni Sinni
The following Feature, an introduction to the exhibition "Alba", part of the Icograda Design Week Torino 2008 exhibitions looks at the role of posters in Italian society today.

Andrea Rauch and Gianni Sinni

Visitors at the "Alba" exhibition, 2007.

In 1999 we prepared an exhibition named "Epoca" (Epoch) for the Santa Maria della Scala Museum in Siena. The exhibition included "Italian posters from the past century, moving towards the new millennium", capable of representing, in their communicative essence, the facts and events of the preceding fifty years of Republican life in the country. It started with the famous Albe Steiner poster for the "Reconstruction Exhibit" (1945) and closed with the "Kosovo Risiko" poster regarding the conflict in the Balkan area. The posters represented of a variety of themes, such as the birth of modern advertising, student dissent, minority rights, public utility graphics, terrorism, important exhibitions, minor news and, moreover, the history of the whole epoch. The exhibition's own poster, in its title, paid homage to a famous graphic work by Bruno Munari, as well as recycling the eye from an Albe Steiner image dedicated to the victims of Nazi-Fascist concentration camps. The idea was to indicate both the testimonial and historical nature of the exhibit.

Almost ten years later, we are preparing a poster exhibition representing the present time and defining the role of posters in Italian society today, an update to the first "Epoca" show.

Yet, in planning the event, we immediately realised a literal upgrading of the "Epoca" experience could not be possible. First of all, eight years is not a sufficient period of time for analysis (of course many events did take place, influencing society and costume, and contradicting all those who thought history would end with the new millennium). Yet the main reason is the fact that posters themselves have been transformed into something completely different, almost unrecognisable by those who are familiar with this medium's history. Acknowledgement of such a transformation is in fact the first necessary step to understand the state of auteur posters in Italy today.

Cassandre once defined the poster as "...the voice of the street". Would he still think so now that streets have substituted their voice with a frantic accumulation of "sounds"? Now that nobody walks anymore, or even stops to look around? Now that squares and cities no longer exist as relationship textures, and have become mere additions of aphasic, non-communicating individualities?

A series of elements must coincide in order to create the conditions for the poster, as we have known it, to exist: there must be "something worth communicating", "someone who desires to communicate it", "a place where the poster should be stuck up" and "somebody who is interested in receiving the communication". In modern cities some of these elements, if not all of them, are missing. Obviously, there are still thoughts and ideas that are "worth communicating", yet communicative forms have taken other routes, such as the television screen or Internet; those who are "interested in communicating" also dedicate their energies to media that are perceived, perhaps through misjudgement, as more efficacious on an economic scale; the "places for sticking up posters" are now practically absent, or have been relegated to cities' peripheral areas, to walls and gateways, where they become unreadable for drivers, and unread by passers-by, who hardly ever walk in such parts of the city.

The change in peoples' lifestyles and relationships have therefore transformed the very environment in which the poster was born and found its success; it would be unrealistic to ignore its progressive and perhaps unstoppable functional decadence.

The involution in the poster's function also has various effects on the demand and offer for such works. Specialised poster creators no longer exist, nor is there a specific market demand for such professionals. Posters are now rarely even published, and, in abandoning their traditional paper support, they end up living in a parallel digital universe that is ever more often deeply self-referential. Posters seem to retain importance only in the world of graphic designers, who still envision them, as Aldo Colonetti taught, as "producers of memory".

Considering these aspects, an exhibit such as "Alba" (Dawn) is very difficult to conceive and realise. The graphic designers who are exposed are the so-called "middle generation" and "young generation" of Italian graphics. They represent the hope that, more or less consciously (depending on each case), fights to avoid the decline and death of the poster as a medium.

They are all professionals whose studies have led them to explore many fields besides graphic planning, such as communication strategy, exhibit design, coordinated imagery and branding.

All of them are particularly interested in posters, even when encountering the many problems we have already described above. For the older ones among them, such difficulties add to the continuous, almost schizoid changing of technologies and to the need for an almost frantic upgrading in communication styles.

Whoever may consult the "Epoch" catalogue and compare it with the "Alba" pages can easily see how the relative stylistic environment has changed profoundly, even in the case of authors who appear in both exhibits. Given our direct involvement, it is very difficult for us to judge if the changes have been for the better or the worse, if the techniques used during the "Epoch" years were preferable to the modern ones. 

What is certain is the fact that "at the dawn of the third millennium" the poster must reinvent its role and its path in order to survive. Cultural and technological upgrades are merely a part of building these new ways of expression.

Even if we must be cautious, this "moribund" patient still appears rather lively to our eyes. He may be complaining and crying, but as one of Pinocchio's doctors says in Collodi's masterpiece "When a dying person cries it's a clear signal that he would rather not leave!"

"Alba. New Italian Posters" will be a part of Icograda Design Week Torino 2008 exhibitions, organised by AIAP, the Associazione Italiana Progettazione per la Comunicazione Visiva.