box of jars

mark kelner
Big Letters

It's ironic that in the age of text, words are limiting. Information flows faster than ever, the speed of which seems to double every few years. Whereas traditional newspapers and books had the visual distinction of their ubiquitous "small black letters on a white background," nowadays, that no longer applies. We get our printed news on screens, and the dissemination of those headlines are clicked, cataloged, quantified, and "liked" using other various screens and devices. The content of the news seems to always get lost in the shuffle. What matters is the metrics—how many views and who is the audience—and how best to track them and sell to them, be it news or products. One platform begets another and it's endless and uncharted. Lastly, it's unreasonable.

In 1933, at the emergence of his coming purges and genocide, Joseph Stalin issued a declaration: The reality of our plan of Production— millions of workers creating a new life. His words proved especially effective as the basis for a now-famous typographic poster that, in hindsight, relishes in its own false representation. While millions of workers were displaced and forced into labor camps (the Gulag), millions more who threatened or dissented from Stalin's "Apparatus of Terror" were simply killed. Writers and intellectuals vanished. Fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night was the norm for years to come.

All of which leads back to today. More than 80 years removed, Stalin's language and means of communication—the mass-produced poster – proves antiquated. These days in Russia, no one knows from Stalin as this history isn't taught in schools. Rather, he's vaulted into a heroic figure who united the country in relation to its place in the world and as a balanced check of power against the West. Even in America, references to Stalin have less to do with his policies than they do with his cult-of-personality. Much like the news and the dominance of page views, "clickbait," and above all, revenue, dilution of the message being sold is key to understanding the 'style over substance' trend of most things visual, and certainly, social. And in this parallel, I see an opportunity to further deconstruct, if not repurpose, Stalin's words and poster into something new.

Big Letters is a conceptual translation that breaks down the barriers of exaggerated, politicized language to reach the widest audience in the simplest manner possible. In remaking a graphic poster in line with the spirit of the larger series, "Moscow Made, American Born," personal duality also plays a role in the process. The Soviet Art-Deco typography of the original is replaced by the alphabet of the popular American subway scroll of 1930s. This choice informs the parallel between that which is ideological versus that which is utilitarian. This choice also helps reduce the absurdity (and tragedy) of Stalin's text into an equally absurd (and, perhaps, melancholy) contemporary visual expression and comment on advertising, media, their controls and limitations. Additionally, the "Letters" series, Big Letters, Letters, and Small White Letters, all work together in an attempt to reveal a darker, whitewashing of history into something "cool," if not decorative as an art object. By rooting itself in the propaganda of Soviet graphic design, my hope is that merged with American pop culture sensibility, a larger narrative creeps into view. One that can reflect an autobiography of sorts – each foot stepped in both worlds.

Using photo paper, each work is unique. Once printed, the image is cut, folded, matted, and then cured on the street. Posters are meant to live and breathe outdoors and the risk of the elements are an important step in their making. In line with Stalin's distorted representation of fact, and by recognizing the poster as the original "street art," my ambition is to respect that tradition, all the while remaining self-aware of the ironic tone of performance at work.