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‘The Singing Posters’: hear them howl

Conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg’s new exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center consists of hundreds of multicolored posters inscribed with text and stapled in a rectangular grid onto a single gallery wall. The mural-sized arrangement is unexpectedly bright upon first sight. 

It can take a minute or two to recognize the text on the posters, which is printed in an assortment of fonts and sizes, sometimes with words facing different directions. One of the first posters, stapled onto the upper left-hand corner of the wall, reads: “Y SAW thuh BEST MYNDZ uhv my je-nuh-RAY-shin di-STROYD BY MAD-nis … ” For those who know, however, the text gradually reveals itself as a variation on Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem “Howl,” unfolding across and down the wall, with each poster containing just one of the epic poem’s long, digressive lines, spelled out phonetically. 

Amid these panels of poetry, Ruppersberg has inserted additional vintage posters, each with similar color schemes and type fonts — clearly a source for his own graphic method. All the posters — commercial and poetic — include the name of the Colby Poster Printing Co., whose fluorescent boards and bold, all-caps typefaces touting concerts, events, products and services adorned light poles and empty walls throughout Los Angeles from the 1940s until 2014. In addition to using Colby to design and print his phonetic translation of Ginsberg’s poem, Ruppersberg has included a few of these vintage posters from his own collection into each showing of “The Singing Posters,” as the exhibit is called, since it was first displayed in 2003. 

One Colby poster in the Skirball exhibition simply reads “EXIT”; another exclaims, “LOSE WEIGHT NOW! PERKSinc.”; a third announces a gallery show called “The FART Show,” subtitled “…IT WAS INEVITABLE…” With eye-popping brightness, they announce Latino dance parties, gay pride celebrations, Jewish ceremonies, political events and so on. The Ginsberg line, “hoo WAWKT AWL NYT WITH thair SHOOZ FUUL uhv BLUHD on snowbank docks waiding FOR uh DOR in thuh EEST RI-ver TOO O-pin TOO a room ful of steamheat and opium,” continues into a commercial poster that says “FREIGHT TRAIN JANE.” 

Ruppersberg’s Colby posters “combine poetic language and commercial language, and so the viewer is forced to jump back and forth between what confronts them every day on telephone poles, or used to, and a kind of reading of poetry,” the artist, 71, said in an interview. 

The Beat Generation poet Ginsberg conceived “Howl” as part of an oral tradition concerned with collectivity: history, war, shared experiences. “Howl,” considered to be one of his masterworks, was published in 1956 to much controversy and was the first in a series of works by the Beats that introduced readers to the discontent of a generation excluded from the American ideal, a “generation destroyed by madness.” The poem is full of references to specific events, people, issues and ideas.

Ginsberg’s readings of the poem were famously incantatory — long, rhythmic lines of similar construction chanted in single breaths, aspiring more to force than nuance. Even on the page, the lines of the first two sections of “Howl” resemble speech more than verse, public address more than private inquiry. Likewise, with their particular cultural reference points, the commercial posters “bring you back into a history,” Ruppersberg noted.

The effect is awkward — sounding out the words as if for the first time, reading them to an audience of fellow viewers who are reading the same poem. But with momentum, the poem begins to seem as contemporary as any modern political song. The result is that “Howl,” despite being 60 years old, is made revelatory again: The anger of Part 1; the hysterical madness of Part 2; the spiritual renewal of Part 3. 

The idea for the piece arose in the early 2000s, when Ruppersberg was planning to focus a class he was teaching at UCLA on “Howl.” He soon discovered that most of his students were unfamiliar with the poem. “It’s probably the most important poem of the late- 20th-century postwar period, and if they didn’t know it, then it was about time that they did,” Ruppersberg said.

Ruppersberg has been working and living at least part time in Los Angeles since the 1960s, when he moved from Ohio to attend what was then called the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts). In addition to written language, his work often includes collected ephemera, vernacular photography, educational film and other forms of visual language. The meaning in his work emerges from the confluence of diverse identities and social relationships embedded in the memories of the artifacts themselves. The result is sometimes familiar, sometimes strange, sometimes both.

The most effective element of “The Singing Posters,” on display at the Skirball through Aug. 23, is precisely the transporting of this material history. Just as “Howl” has been transported, the commercial posters are emptied of their transactional meaning but retain their cultural roots. At the Skirball, they echo visual public address in new ways. As attendees view and speak aloud together, a contemporary American moment reconnects to its modern social history. The present is made radical again. 

Concurrently, the Long Beach Opera will be performing Phillip Glass’ “Hydrogen Jukebox,” for which Ginsberg wrote the libretto. The title of the opera comes from a line in Part 1 of “Howl”: “[…] listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox … ” Ginsberg said it “signifies a state of hypertrophic hi-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization’s military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, reminder of apocalypse.” The show explores American society from the 1950s through the 1980s through archetypical characters — a waitress, a policeman, a business, a cheerleader, a priest and a mechanic.

Directed by David Schweizer and conducted by Kristof van Grysperre, the piece will be staged on four occasions at a site-specific location in San Pedro at the end of May and in early June.

For more information on “The Singing Posters,” contact Skirball at (310) 440-4500 or visit ” target=”_blank”>longbeachopera.org.

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