This is what Canadian music looks like. The Polaris Prize poster show is on now in Toronto
Every year the prize commissions posters inspired by its nominees. Here's how they do it
The winner of the 2022 Polaris Music Prize will be announced Sept. 19, but this year's nominees are already being celebrated at a special art exhibition in Toronto.
Since 2006, Year 1 of the award's history, Polaris has released a series of posters inspired by the records in competition, hiring Canadian artists to handle the designs. And between now and Sept. 29, much of the full collection will be appearing at Underscore Projects in Toronto.
The latest round of 12 posters — screen-printed tributes to the 2022 shortlist and Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize winners — can be seen from the gallery's window on Dundas Street West, while more than 200 prints from the past have been papered, teenage-bedroom style, on the walls of the gallery's upper floors. According to organizers, it's the first time they've ever mounted a large-scale exhibition of their poster archive, though selections have been shown in the past, including a spring 2019 show at Museum London in Ontario.
When Polaris began running their poster program, the whole initiative was conceived as a sort of gift to the nominees, who are traditionally presented with framed posters at Polaris' annual gala. (Further copies of the limited-edition prints are often put up for sale; this year's batch can be purchased through Underscore Projects.) And originally, all the hiring and curation was handled by Steve Jordan, founder of the prize and its former executive director.
Toronto-based graphic design studio the Office of Gilbert Li has overseen the program since 2016, however, and as creative directors of the project, part of their job is matching the music with artists — folks they've found through user-submissions and their own tireless culture-vulturing.
Seven editions in, Gilbert Li says the annual gig remains a favourite recurring assignment — one that's totally unlike his company's typical client work, designing art books and catalogues, or developing logos and websites and such.
Here, he walks us through the process, and reflects on the Polaris look (which may or may not exist).
When you first got the assignment from Polaris, what did you find interesting about this project? Why was it something you wanted to take on?
For me as a designer, it's something I feel strongly about. Like, I should use my skills and experience in aid of the promotion of culture. To me, it's very important. And this fit.
The process: does it begin by selecting artists? What's the first step in putting together a series of posters?.
Even when it's the so-called off season, we're all culture fiends. We're always looking on Instagram, looking at other designers, other illustrators. Part of our mental bookmarking is looking for artists that are very specific to some sort of community, even just a region of Canada.
[Polaris's] network of illustrators they were tapping was very limited. [Steve Jordan] liked how we were very cognizant of issues around diversity and trying to find illustrators from perhaps a similar background as the musicians. Like, you know, something as simple as if it's an album from Quebec and all the lyrics are French, we would need an illustrator who themselves is fluent in French.
You must be an expert in Canadian music at this point. I mean, I imagine you must be paying very close attention to all of the albums as you're going through the curation process.
I'm a bit older. I'm not the most up to date on the music scene, so every year when there's a shortlist, I would say most of the bands are new to me.
It's definitely a fun thing in our studio. Sometimes it's a group effort. We kind of divvy up the albums so it's up to a particular designer to do the initial listening and, you know, propose which artists to consider.
There's four of us in total, including me.
Who makes the final decision of pairing an artist with an album? Is that all up to you?
It can vary. It's a very fun collaborative process. Once we have the shortlist of albums, we are usually given like a week or two to come up with our candidates for each poster. Before COVID we would actually meet in person in the studio. Someone from Polaris would have their laptop loaded, ready to go with the music. And we would literally pin up — like, here are four potential artists for this album. They'd play the music and we would be looking at, like, mood boards of artists' work.
Everyone involved at Polaris is obviously very knowledgeable, not just of music in general, but specifically of the bands that have been shortlisted. So we get a lot more information about the context for the albums, the background of the musicians and so on. And we kind of have a discussion.
Sometimes it's a no brainer, and other times it gets a little bit more divisive and everyone has to have their sales pitch for a particular artist.
After a bit of listening, often different vibes — different feelings, you know, different understandings — start to come to the fore and people change their mind.
When I think of the history of music posters — gig posters, specifically — they're often so synonymous with specific eras or music scenes. When you're curating one of these series, is there a Polaris esthetic you're trying to create?
In the moment we are not thinking that way. We are really thinking album to album. Like even in our studio, we have a wall where we put up a random selection of about 30 or so posters. It is only when someone comes into the studio and sees it and we hear their feedback that we then start thinking about, "Oh! Is there a general trend?" Even year to year: was there a specific identifiable something that tied the posters together?
I think that was part of what we tried to bring to the whole program — not just diversity in the artists, but in the end results — to have a wider range of visual vocabulary in all the posters.
I would say the most successful posters, for me personally, are when you can really tell there's a great synergy between the lettering and the visuals. They're always the most exciting posters, to me.
Which ones would you single out?
Tom Froese is one artist. He frequently illustrates for top magazines like Monocle.
The illustration he drew, it had a really loose illustration style, so I suggested to him: "Have you thought about doing hand lettering instead of using a font?" He came back with something amazing.
One of the shortlisted albums this year is Lisa Leblanc's [Chiac Disco]. We tapped a Quebec artist, Mathieu Dionne, who we worked with before, and he just nailed it. It instantly screams French from the colours to the illustration, but it's the typography that really makes it disco with a French flair to it. Even if you haven't listened, you've already got a good sense of what the album sounds like.
All these years in, why has the project had such longevity? What keeps it going?
Music is one of those things that most people have at least some interest in. It doesn't take long to find people that are really big fans of music. We're tapping into people's love of music. Even our studio — why we're involved in this poster program — it's to play a part in the shared kind of love of music and the spreading of it. That, I think, is what keeps the program going.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
CBC hosts the livestream of the 2022 Polaris Music Prize gala Monday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. ET. More info here.