Observer: Paper Trails

I was traveling back to London from the
French region of Provence when I saw the
posters. The Eurostar train leaves from
Avignon; I had some time to kill before its
departure, so I left the bags at the station
and wandered in the direction of the Cours
Jean Jaurès, which leads into town.

The posters start up immediately as you
enter the city walls through the Porte de
la République. Every street sign, every lamppost
along the road ahead is festooned
with printed paper. Not just one poster per
pole, but six, seven, or more announcements
in different sizes, often glued to pieces of
cardboard to give them extra support, and
haphazardly lashed to the street furniture
with lengths of string. It’s obvious that
these flimsy, makeshift constructions have
developed in stages over several weeks.
Someone will see a patch of remaining space
between two posters, seize the opportunity,
and put up yet another one. Most of the
posters advertise plays, concerts, and other
public events.

Few of the designs have any great merit,
when judged by the standards of international
competitions, but that’s not the point.
The combined effect of hundreds of posters
riotously mashed together is amazing, as
though your workaday, flat-surface bill plasterer
has morphed into some kind of wild
installation artist and is now aiming to
achieve total viewer immersion in a multidirectional
environmental experience that
fills the entire street.
There are many of these vertical assemblages.
Farther along, this collage improvised
by many hands becomes more of a
frieze. Temporary fences around construction
sites and iron railings in front of park
areas and buildings become a bright, clashing
patchwork of images. Strings slung
between the lampposts and trees like back-alley
clotheslines display row upon row of
posters, sometimes one above another, and
the same image of an actor or singer is often
repeated many times just to make sure you
notice. These fantastical garlands of paper
run alongside a street market selling paperback
classics, old bound volumes about
art and travel, piles of ancient issues of Paris
meticulously arranged in chronological
order, and—you would expect nothing
else in a place so deliciously papery—
thousands of postcards and posters.


What is so remarkable about this scene
is the way that unofficial graphics are permitted to overrun the official postings. The
posters multiply on the tarmac and climb
like weeds. Words and arrows intended to
direct traffic and maintain order fight a
losing battle with the hand bills. The same
thing happens to the official street advertising
posters in frames. Even the pedestrian stop-and-go sign at a junction has no more status than the casual layers of graphic flotsam that threaten to engulf it. You
might think that rigorously enforced safety
laws would prohibit any reduction in visibility,
but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
When you look along the street, none of the
official signs are covered up, yet they still
disappear into the babble of messages that
surrounds them.

I haven’t seen anything like this anywhere
else (though it might happen in other parts
of France). In the rest of Europe and the U.S.,
the authorities tend to come down hard on
unsanctioned poster-sticking in city streets,
if they can find the perpetrators, while paid for
advertising naturally flourishes without
restriction. Elaborate street assemblages
like those found in this part of Avignon are
unthinkable elsewhere.

In some ways, this vision of French
graphic anarchy stands against everything
that designers often hold dear. Official
signage strives to make the city “legible” by
imposing a planned structure on it. While
such graphics solve a real problem, there are
other desires and needs—other mentalities,
other possible ways of living in the city—
that these postings necessarily disregard
and perhaps even help to suppress.

Car traffic, also, often dominates urban
space, especially in European towns with
smaller streets that weren’t built for motor
vehicles. In this section of Avignon, the
people seem to say, “Let’s do something else
here, because this is the way we feel and it
could be a lot of fun.” The authorities appear
to be going along with it, and it works.
For once, what you see is not administrative
attempts at control (represented by street
signs), or commercial attempts at control
(represented by large-scale advertising),
but the energetic and playful graphic expression
of a local culture. Yes, these posters
are also a form of advertising. They simply
invite you to go to an event. True, the
streets look messy. They also look joyfully
alive. You would have to be a stuffed shirt,
or a cranky ad person, to regard this as
visual pollution.


There was another side of this for me.
I had spent the previous two weeks in Arles,
where a huge photography festival takes
place every summer—this year it ran to
more than 60 exhibitions. I brought along
my camera, planning to take some pictures
of my own, but hadn’t come up with much
I liked. The more photographs you look
at, the harder it becomes to take any picture
that isn’t a repetition of other pictures—
professional and amateur—you’ve seen
many times before. Just as it often seems
that our language “speaks us,” rather than
the other way around—in an endless recycling
of stock phrases and sentiments we
have heard elsewhere—so do our photos.
A good graphic example of a photographic
convention is the torn-poster picture. I love
such pictures myself, but Walker Evans
and Aaron Siskind explored the form long
ago, and every new example we take simply
endorses and prolongs a mode of seeing
that they defined.

On the way back to the station to catch
the train, I decided it would be crazy not to
take some pictures of the posters. The subject
matter was similar to countless other
street-poster photographs, but the way
it all hung together was different. I didn’t
have long, so I started shooting anything
that looked interesting.

Somewhere in the back of my mind were
some pictures I had seen in a book shown
in an exhibition of about 500 recent photography volumes, which concluded the Arles
festival. One example in the book, from
German photographer Wolfgang Zurborn,
appealed to me. His image seemed to drift
off course—hence the book title, Drift
sliding from one subject to another and
combining different, sometimes wildly disjunctive
planes of experience and aesthetic
reality within the same shot, rather than
singling them out and making the world
seem consistent and coherent, as photographs
often do.

Since then, I have bought a copy of the
book, and Zurborn’s pictures, taken between
1999 and 2005, strike me as genuinely
original: They capture something essential
about contemporary experience in a new
way. They show how, despite our best efforts
to design, style, and regulate the visual environment,
it stubbornly fails to cooperate,
perhaps because people actually prefer its
disorder. This is how we see things for much
of the time, too, except we usually take it for
granted. It is smoothness, rather than discontinuity,
that catches the eye.

Later, looking at some of my pictures of
the Avignon posters, it seemed that the more
interesting ones had picked up traces of
Zurborn’s way of seeing—mostly by chance,
since they were taken on the fly with little
calculation. It was only then, away from
the fierce glare of the Provence sun, that I
saw how oddly these strangely formed paper
totems, sprouting on the sidewalk, relate
to their backgrounds. The spatial divisions
are angular, irregular, broken. The parts
won’t fit together. I especially like what the
pictures do to the traffic: The cars become
blurred elements relegated to the back and
margins of the images. It makes the city
seem more human.