» Presenting the Poster for The 2020 Best of Chicago Underground Film Festival Virtual Fest

By Clay Mills

Artist Statement

Clay Mills is a Texan filmmaker, writer, photographer, designer and strategic consultant. His front tooth is mostly fake, and he’s decided that if it comes out again he won’t get it replaced so he can fulfill surface-level ideas about the appearance of eccentricity. He’s recently gotten over listing subject matter he’s interested in making work about, because it seems to only function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In March of 2033 he’ll die in a tragic car accident. “Gone too early,” they’ll say. Two days later, his former acquaintances will argue online about who really knew him and who’s allowed to post about his death.

When I was asked to write an artist statement regarding this poster I felt a little wary. The goals of art and design are markedly different. Art has to wrestle with the contradiction that it also functions as commodity. For design this isn’t a contradiction at all. The goal of a piece of design is to get people to do something, typically to purchase a commodity. Art, at least non-regressive art, is uninterested in getting its audience to ?do something. Any action that art causes in its audiences usually comes through indirect means. Otherwise its likely propaganda, which is more akin to design anyway.

This said, there appears to be two different kinds of designers that you’ll encounter: those who view themselves as artisans and those who view themselves as artists. These designations are not indicators of artfulness however, they’re just the ways that designers will often present themselves. Those who view themselves as artisans are the kinds who work at Fastsigns, or make intros for YouTubers, or at their most prestigious, make blockbuster movie posters. The other sort often still work at companies, though they’ll describe these companies as firms. These designers carry a sense of prestige. RISD, Yale Design school-types, and within them there often seems to be a great deal of inner turmoil.

What happens when a designer views their work as art while simultaneously being confronted with graphic design’s production process? A designer must deal with all kinds of little annoyances while working: chains of management, deadlines, the flattening effect which results from the need to appease both an audience and the suits, brand identity and internal guidelines, and of course the wants and needs of the client, which often must be divined by the designer because the client either cannot tell you what it is they want or are too ashamed to do so because of the implicit baseness of marketing. When one believes they are creating art while in this environment, the alarm bells must be ringing! The anti-sellout purists who sometimes occupy the space of the artist-designer seem to set themselves up for disaster, but they ?do? still appear more legitimate than the artisans. The artist-designer has 20k Twitter followers. The
artisan-designer has 200. The artist-designer lives in high-rise apartments in Berlin, Germany. The artisan-designer lives in cookie-cutter apartments in McKinney, Texas. The artist-designer makes album covers for P4k top 100 records of the year. The artisan-designer makes mixtape covers for a guy he knows from high school that raps over Carti-type beats.

Design isn’t my primary occupation so I’m speaking on it from the outside, but I feel that for this statement I’d simply like to tell you the actual process of how certain design decisions were made, rather than try to veil my decisions in artistry. In the CUFF Slack, it was asked if anyone had experience in graphic design. I thumbs up reacted: I was certified in Photoshop and Illustrator in high school and worked for a student rundesign company for a few months at Northwestern before it was shut down due to university financial restructuring. Since then, I had done a little work designing posters for bands, promos for my college radio show, and various shitposting miscellania. I showed some of my better work to CUFF’s management, and they seemed to like.

With a shiny new title, I was assigned to design the poster for the Best of CUFF Virtual Fest. My original design was based on the phenomenon of people spamming the only two reacts in Zoom calls, the clap and thumbs-up. The background of the poster was littered with those two emojis, and the foreground featured my own hands, shifted neon yellow to match emoji-tone. On my hands I had written pertinent info about the fest in sharpie. Particularly exploitative given the moment, but that’s in part what it’s all about, riding the wave of the present baby! It felt perfect because Zoom reacts are widely known but go largely unmentioned, the type of thing that causes people to have tiny “aha!” moments. I also liked it because it was funny and annoying. This design however, didn’t really go over well. The Zoom reference just didn’t read to management. Back to the drawing board.

The physical hands were well liked, but the emojis themselves only caused confusion. I tried dropping the emojis and leaving the hands, but without the emojis to ground the internal logic of the physical hands, they no longer had a reason to be there. I was a little too desperate to keep the hands, and I tried the (meme) work around of dropping the opacity of the emojis a bit, then including a 3rd physical hand which held a phone with texts between me and my manager where she explained that people didn’t understand the emojis. She liked that but others didn’t. I decided to drop the Zoom bit altogether, physical hands included. They were convenient however as a means of delivering information through a design piece rather than pure text, because people don’t like to feel like they’re reading, and the hand holding the phone seemed like a solution.

I decided to push in on a piece of the design that I was more skeptical about, which wasa computer I put in the back. In the original draft, the computer was only there as a joke so I could include an image of the Monopoly Man with the Facebook logo on his hat. This particular image has a niche reputation behind it, because from an internal glitch,it was once uploaded to Imgur 3.2 million times. My friends and I used to browse random image generators linked to Imgur to see what we’d find, and the constant
appearance of the Monopoly Man image was shocking without knowledge of its origin. The new draft pushed in on this computer by including a bunch of technological paraphernalia because it was a event. It was also at this point I was told to make it more professional, because it turned out this design was pointed more towards industry publications, rather than the general internet, two very different audiences! This was refreshing however because I have become sloppy as a designer, so making something professional was a breath of fresh air.

I replaced the hands with cursor hands I drew up because , and since I was asked to include images from some of the films, on a phone screen that one of the cursor-hands held, I included a screenshot from the Google Drive folder which included all the films’ posters. I decided that since management didn’t like the Zoom kitsch, I wanted to include a bunch of UI elements that people have likely become numb to, even more than usual while in quarantine. Aestheticizing things that people take for granted
is attractive to me. The other hand includes a fake email I wrote from the perspective of a worried mother which includes all the vital info about the fest. This was a bit too small, and for some users I didn’t think it’d be visible. Management agreed, and I added a separate element of a Windows 98 pop-up which also included all necessary info (which left a bit of a bad taste in myself due to v a p o r w a v e but alas).

In the original version, the main text was 2D but in the final draft I just decided to make it 3D to pop more. It took nearly 2 hours to render on my computer  . The background is a photo I took at the State/Lake stop of the sun reflecting off a window. Above that is the Wikipedia article for Chicago Underground Film Fest. There were also many more meditations of this design between the first and last drafts, but I didn’t know what to write for this and I now realize I’m at 3 pages, so farewell for now!