Graphic commons: Government sanctioned dérives

Making the most of the ‘sanctioned’ time I am allowed out to exercise during the UK government’s coronavirus pandemic ‘lockdown’, I have been drifting through my neighbourhood on a daily basis for the last week. Despite the awkwardness of swapping sides of the road every time I see someone coming in my direction, this has allowed me to visually re-engage with the Graphic Commons of this area of east Ipswich.

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I know these streets well from the many dog walks my wife and I have done around our locale. Or so I thought. However, with our dog a year gone, and in more recent years him being so lethargic with age we tended to take him for less lengthy walks, it appears I have either become unfamiliar with some aspects of my surroundings, or simply never spotted them in the first place. So now, under circumstances I would not choose, I have been conducting observational research on the visual culture of my immediacy.

As would be expected, the start of my walks tend to have some degree of planning; at least in respects to me deciding what direction I am going to head in before I close the front door behind me. From then though, I make my decisions on a whim—that whim is often influenced by whether there appears to be too many people for my liking walking in one particular direction—and I drift the streets based on instinct and the random thoughts that themselves drift through my mind.

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A question of signs

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A couple of weeks ago I took the above picture at Felixstowe docks, finding it interesting to see a group of signs in what appeared to be a holding pen, waiting to be distributed as need-be around the busy port. After editing the image to post to Flickr at the weekend, I wondered what the collective noun was for a collection of signs, so I posted the simple question to Twitter. Below are some of the excellent replies I got.

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@gray was the first off the mark with a reference to the Signs director:
A Shyamalan of signs.

Several took the theme of the communication problems of a lot of signs in one place, including: A confusion… (@Skipratmedia); A concussion… (@Johnctarpey); A directionless… (@zimboguide); An obscuration… (@mayhematics); An assault… (@Lestaret); A cacophony… (@peter_p_light): A confusion… (@Unionbuilt); and one of my favourites along these lines; A squabble… (@ZCDunnett).

On a theoretical level, A semiotic… makes sense, (@semajrabnud). That is if it wasn’t more suited to a collection of signals.

A directory… (@SuchAndSuchDes); A tell… (@MrBoyce); and A trail… (@thepublicartco) all nicely chime with signage’s purpose.

Given their upright nature, A forest… fits visually, (@jrooneyresearch), and this was confirmed as a term used in Germany, or rather ‘Schilderwald’, which translates as ‘a forest made from signs’, (@StefanH145).

However, the one that I think is probably gets the prize, if there was a prize, is simply: A shitload… . Thanks to @JulianDGomezZ, a genuine laugh out loud from me for that response.

Thanks to all who have given some excellent suggestions so far, there are far too many to mention here, (especially if you go sideways and look at the replies to retweets). To follow the post, click here.

And thanks to Justin Hopper for pointing me in the direction of this:

Aesthetics of convenience

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In the first of a series of publications that investigate different aspects of the graphic commons, Aesthetics of Convenience explores the vinyl window displays of convenience stores. Through a photographic and textual discussion of how these ‘little and often’ shop window displays affect human behaviour and environmental ambiences, the paper seeks to encourage a discussion about the visual culture of public spaces, as imposed on those that live in, or pass through them.

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Published as a 20 page numbered limited edition tabloid newspaper, Aesthetics of Convenience brings together my own explorative photographs taken on numerous dérives, and a 1250 word essay which pieces together my thoughts when out traversing the graphic commons.

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Aesthetics of Convenience is published as a limited edition of 100, and costs £3, (plus £2 postage in the UK, and £5 postage everywhere else). To buy a copy, follow the Paypal link, leaving your name and postal and email addresses in the notes section when paying: PayPal.me/paynigelball

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Graphic commons: Tunnel and peripheral vision

Distance: 3.7 miles
Steps: 8113
Start: 06:25
Ground covered: Feeder roads into and out of Ipswich town centre; pedestrianised shopping precincts; town centre.

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It has been a while since I last did a dedicated graphic commons walk; 2017 in fact. More recent graphic commons posts have mainly been about walks taken as part of other activities. This reengagement is due to the resurrection of a graphic commons project that was put on-hold a few years ago—that of a series of publications dedicated to specific categories of the commons as I see them. The other commitments that took precedent over that project have now been completed, and it seems like a good time to jump back in. I will post more news here soon as it develops, but for now, here is a more generalised document of yesterday’s dérive.

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The walk’s territory is very familiar to me, and picks up from two I conducted in 2016, peripheral visions and dérive of convenience. Although the walk was specifically to record more convenience store window displays, of which I got plenty, other categories presented themselves to me, with abundance: vinyl banners, telephone booth adverts, fly posters, etc. Ipswich, it appears, is the graphic commons gift that keeps on giving. While the delivery mechanisms themselves hadn’t changed much, some of the graphics had.

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Proposing the Graphic Commons

This text was first published as a pamphlet of the same name in August 2017. It is republished here for the first time online. Copies of the original pamphlet, as a numbered limited edition of 300, are still available on request. Please get in contact if you would like a copy.

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This essay introduces the term Graphic Commons as an identifier with which to discuss graphic design within shared public environments. It sets out why a new linguistic term in contemporary graphic design discourse is required, and situates this as part of wider discussions surrounding urbanism and social responsibility.

Much has changed since Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 declaration that: “…there is no architectural or urbanistic criticism on a par with the criticism of art, literature, music and theatre.” (1991, p92) Some 43 years later urbanism is studied in renowned academic centres such as University College London’s UrbanLab. However, graphic design as a discipline is often overlooked as part of ongoing critical urban dialogues. While anti-advertising rhetoric is in rude health within academic, design and political circles, advertising remains its focus. Although a critique of advertising is an important aspect of the Graphic Commons, and therefore appropriate to discuss under the term’s usage, this proposal considers a much wider remit of study. As Lefebvre stated: “There would certainly seem to be a need for such a criticism… We are talking, after all, of the setting in which we live.” (1991, p92)

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Led by donkeys

In living through the nightmare that is, (possibly), the final stages of the UK being in the European Union, it is difficult to see outside of the political, media and social storm that is raging around us. Looking back on this post, after whatever Brexit becomes, readers will, I suspect, be aghast at just what the British public have allowed to take place in their name. Amidst the turmoil though, there is a beacon of hope that is lightening the depressing situation by poking a finger in the ribs of contemptuous politicians. That finger poking is coming from a group calling itself Led By Donkeys.

Image of a quote by David Cameron posted to a billboard
Source: Led By Donkeys

Over a pint in early January 2019, four friends discussed the idea of using billboards to quote politicians contradictory words about Brexit back at them. With MPs using Twitter as an immediate way to score points over their rivals with quick soundbite statements, the four realised they would have plenty of examples to choose from. As the talk of this being a humorous prank continued, they convinced themselves to look into it further. After some research, they found that £300 would pay for the printing of 4 billboards and the equipment they would need to hang them. Clubbing together, they decided to make the pub banter joke a reality.

Image of a quote by Jacob Rees-Mogg posted to a billboard
Source: Led By Donkeys

As working people with families to support, after their first foray into the night-time manoeuvres of illicit flyposting, they realised they couldn’t afford to keep this up, nor risk arrest for covering over other’s paid for adverts. So they decided to go legitimate and launched a Crowdfunder campaign, thinking they would be lucky to get the £10,000 limit they had set for themselves. With a Twitter feed promoting what they were doing, it only took 3 hours to raise an incredible £50,000. Very quickly they realised that they had hit upon a hugely popular idea.

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Graphic commons: Bucharest, a bohemian rhapsody

Recently I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel to Bucharest, Romania, for work. The trip was so that I could attend an art and design education fair and to talk at a couple of high schools about our courses. This was my first such recruitment trip abroad, and I’m told you often only get to see a city from a car window and in the evening before flying back the next day. Thankfully though, because of the timings of our itinerary, I managed to get a little time to myself to wander the city and soak up Bucharest’s visual culture.

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This was my first visit to Eastern Europe, and one, given the timing of the trip, that was over-shadowed by Brexit. Our host, locals and delegates from other countries all had an opinion, with none of them positive. The majority of Romanians I spoke to about it, (and Romania isn’t a country afraid of change, it could be argued), all thought Britain was putting itself in a ridiculous position.

One of the things that struck me about Bucharest from the outset, was that it is a country that is happy to wear its history on its sleeve—it is there in plain sight for everyone to see. Our hotel was very close to Revolution Square, the site of the uprising that saw Nicolae Ceaușescu toppled from power nearly 30 years ago.

Monuments to these tumultuous times have seen better days, and the local anarchists appear to show little respect for those that lost their lives fighting against the dictator. Some locals said the current government is the most corrupt in 100 years, so it appears a struggle continues. Given we were a week away from national celebrations of 100 years of independence for Romania, this is some claim given their more recent history.

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Graphic commons: analogue community

Lostwithiel, Cornwall, (affectionately known as Losty by the locals), was the nearest town on our recent summer holiday.

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As I have mentioned in a previous post I have an interest in noticeboards, and Lostwithiel has not one, but two that I could find. What struck me more than this though was that 2 noticeboards did not seem to be enough for its towns-folk. For on our first proper wander around Losty, every single telegraph-pole seemed to be adorned in posters of varying quality and displaying a cornucopia of events and information. These flyposters didn’t seem to be an alternative to what was on the ‘official’ noticeboards—in fact, it looked like there was a lot of repetition.

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Reclaim the sheets

While some may praise Lush for its recent #SpyCops poster campaign, having your own shop window to deliver a political campaign message in is a luxury most do not have. Now, the non-shop owning agitpropper can turn to Brandalism, who have launched a Subvertising Manual that shows anyone how to reclaim visual spaces from advertisers by replacing 6-sheet adverts with their own artwork.

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Taking aim at the backlit hoardings most frequently seen at bus stops, the manual tells you everything you need to know to hang your own work in these spaces. Subtitled What You Need And How To Do It, it discusses what tools are required to open the displays; artwork sizes for the majority of bus shelter hoardings, (advertising lingo calls these 6-sheets); what to wear and the best times of day to hang your work to avoid getting caught; and where you can find information online so your work stays up as long as possible.

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Graphic commons: Oxford streets

For many, traipsing historic academic cobbles and starring at spires, let alone dreaming of them, would define any visit to Oxford. For me, on a family weekend there recently, it was an opportunity to study its graphic commons.

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Looking for its vernacular, I mostly steered clear of high-street parades, and came away finding the city’s contradictions being easy bedfellows; hi and lo culture mix comfortably, on the streets at least. Testament to this are the highbrow events flyposted on chipboard, acting as a temporary hoardings for college concerts where no sacred wall can be damaged.

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These sat just around the corner from the usual tattered pastings I more typically photograph. Technically the same in purpose and application, each arguably despoiling/enhancing the streets, depending on your point of view. The only difference being that those on chipboard could be moved out of sight quickly. While on display though, from a visual perspective, they are exactly the same.

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Pockets of resistance were also visible. Some philanthropically recognised, others unofficially bubbling up from the underground.

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