I was honoured to be asked to write something for the Mainly Museums website recently, and decided very quickly that it would be good to champion Manchester’s Peoples History Museum, (PHM), on the site. My choice was influenced by the fact PHM tells its story through the graphic accoutrements of political activity; from trade union banners to posters, from badges to membership cards, from propaganda leaflets to magazine covers. This visual telling brings the story alive of the fight for social justice, not just in the North of England, but across the UK and internationally. I would urge anyone to visit should they be in the area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pockets of resistance were also visible. Some philanthropically recognised, others unofficially bubbling up from the underground.
I have had a fascination with the Festival of Britain since I came across one of its guidebooks several years ago and wrote an article about it for Eye magazine’s blog. In my day job I have also had the pleasure of hearing Abram Games’ daughter, Naomi Games, talk to students about her father’s work, (for the uninitiated, it was Abram Games that designed the FoB logo). Further to this, I have a keen interest in modernist design principles, and in particular the work of the Design Research Unit who played a key role in the planning and organisation of the 1951 Festival. It is therefore not surprising that when driving through the Lincolnshire village of Barnetby Le Wold while on holiday with my wife recently, that my eye caught sight of the familiar logo. However, the fact it was set into the concrete of a bench by a very busy roundabout was the last place I expected to see it.
In October last year I wrote about the visual identity for Hull City of Culture 2017. I’d mostly only ever heard negative things about the city but vowed to go there this year after seeing this deliberately attention grabbing piece of branding. Claire and I duly booked our summer holiday in the beautiful Lincolnshire Wolds for last week so that we could take a day out in Yorkshire, and Hull did not disappoint.
Crossing the Humber Bridge on the day its Grade 1 listing was announced, the Museum Quarter made for our first destination on reaching Hull, with the Streetlife Museum dramatically depicting the town’s everyday history. Time limited, we then veered towards the Fruitmarket ‘cultural quarter’ that friends had recommended, via some fine brutalist structures.
Notes on current research As my graphic commons project grows and I’m formulating links between different urban studies and theories, I’m finding out how little research there appears to be into graphic design in shared environments, (within both current or historic thinking around the topic). This may obviously be because I just haven’t found it yet, and others may be able to fill the holes in my studies, (please post in comments or DM me via the contacts page if you do have any research pointers). A 2017 report by the Design Commission titled People & Places: Design of the Built Environment and Behaviour, makes reference to how urban environments can influence mental health, but fails to mention anything in regard to how everyday visual culture may impact on this. Such references tend to be more explicitly discussed in anti-advertising doctrines such as the excellent Advertising Shits In Your Head. However, in doing so, such texts tend to be polemic and agitational in nature and do not make a wider connection to urbanism as a theoretical study.
Others discuss the visualisation of environments in passing, but do so more abstractly by talking either about visual pollution or the commercialisation of space without reference to specific pictorial material, (see Fezer’s Design In & Against the Neoliberal City, obviously Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life—in particular volume 2: Foundations Of Study For A Sociology of the Everyday—and visual pollution is discussed in the introduction to the recent republication of Nelson’s How To See). In relation to how my research on the ground is going, it fits more with some of the projects I am reading about in Campkin and Duijzings’ 2016 publication: Engaged Urbanism: Cities & Methodologies, although none of the featured work is studying graphic design in shared environments per se.
I completed another Graphic Commons walk this week, and I chose a location I’m not overly familiar with: Lowestoft—the Easternmost point in Britain. Like other Graphic Commons posts here, this serves as an immediate document of my drift, and the photos, (only crudely edited at this stage), will feed into a write-up of the walk I plan to do soon. The writing that accompanies the photos will form a key part of any final outcome, but for now I won’t be posting what I write on Field Readings as that aspect is very much a work in progress.
Walk duration: 2.7 miles
Steps taken: 6,077
Start time: 09:17 (train from Ipswich)
Ground covered: Town centre and side streets onto a main road that divides the town from port. Then on to the Ness, the most Easterly point, and back into town via an industrial area and what is known locally as a ‘score’—a narrow alleyway.
A few years ago I wrote an article for Eye magazine blog after coming across a programme for the 1951 Festival of Britain. At the time I was aware of the existence of a series of small guide-books published to coincide with the festival called About Britain, but it was only recently that I actually came across any.