Observer: Paper Trails

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I was traveling back to London from theFrench region of Provence when I saw theposters. The Eurostar train leaves fromAvignon; I had some time to kill before itsdeparture, so I left the bags at the stationand wandered in the direction of the Cours

Jean Jaurès, which leads into town.

The posters start up immediately as youenter the city walls through the Porte dela République. Every street sign, every lamppostalong the road ahead is festoonedwith printed paper. Not just one poster perpole, but six, seven, or more announcementsin different sizes, often glued to pieces ofcardboard to give them extra support, andhaphazardly lashed to the street furniturewith lengths of string. It’s obvious thatthese flimsy, makeshift constructions havedeveloped in stages over several weeks.Someone will see a patch of remaining spacebetween two posters, seize the opportunity,and put up yet another one. Most of theposters advertise plays, concerts, and otherpublic events.

Few of the designs have any great merit,when judged by the standards of internationalcompetitions, but that’s not the point.The combined effect of hundreds of postersriotously mashed together is amazing, asthough your workaday, flat-surface bill plastererhas morphed into some kind of wildinstallation artist and is now aiming toachieve total viewer immersion in a multidirectionalenvironmental experience thatfills the entire street.There are many of these vertical assemblages.Farther along, this collage improvisedby many hands becomes more of afrieze. Temporary fences around constructionsites and iron railings in front of parkareas and buildings become a bright, clashingpatchwork of images. Strings slungbetween the lampposts and trees like back-alleyclotheslines display row upon row ofposters, sometimes one above another, andthe same image of an actor or singer is oftenrepeated many times just to make sure younotice. These fantastical garlands of paperrun alongside a street market selling paperbackclassics, old bound volumes aboutart and travel, piles of ancient issues of ParisMatch meticulously arranged in chronologicalorder, and—you would expect nothingelse in a place so deliciously papery—thousands of postcards and posters.

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What is so remarkable about this sceneis the way that unofficial graphics are permitted to overrun the official postings. Theposters multiply on the tarmac and climblike weeds. Words and arrows intended todirect traffic and maintain order fight alosing battle with the hand bills. The samething happens to the official street advertisingposters 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. Youmight think that rigorously enforced safetylaws would prohibit any reduction in visibility,but that doesn’t seem to be the case.When you look along the street, none of theofficial signs are covered up, yet they stilldisappear into the babble of messages thatsurrounds them.

I haven’t seen anything like this anywhereelse (though it might happen in other partsof France). In the rest of Europe and the U.S.,the authorities tend to come down hard onunsanctioned poster-sticking in city streets,if they can find the perpetrators, while paid foradvertising naturally flourishes withoutrestriction. Elaborate street assemblageslike those found in this part of Avignon areunthinkable elsewhere.

In some ways, this vision of Frenchgraphic anarchy stands against everythingthat designers often hold dear. Officialsignage strives to make the city “legible” byimposing a planned structure on it. Whilesuch graphics solve a real problem, there areother desires and needs—other mentalities,other possible ways of living in the city—that these postings necessarily disregardand perhaps even help to suppress.

Car traffic, also, often dominates urbanspace, especially in European towns withsmaller streets that weren’t built for motorvehicles. In this section of Avignon, thepeople seem to say, “Let’s do something elsehere, because this is the way we feel and itcould be a lot of fun.” The authorities appearto be going along with it, and it works.For once, what you see is not administrativeattempts at control (represented by streetsigns), or commercial attempts at control(represented by large-scale advertising),but the energetic and playful graphic expressionof a local culture. Yes, these postersare also a form of advertising. They simplyinvite you to go to an event. True, thestreets look messy. They also look joyfullyalive. You would have to be a stuffed shirt,or a cranky ad person, to regard this asvisual pollution.

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There was another side of this for me.I had spent the previous two weeks in Arles,where a huge photography festival takesplace every summer—this year it ran tomore than 60 exhibitions. I brought alongmy camera, planning to take some picturesof my own, but hadn’t come up with muchI liked. The more photographs you lookat, the harder it becomes to take any picturethat isn’t a repetition of other pictures—professional and amateur—you’ve seenmany times before. Just as it often seemsthat our language “speaks us,” rather thanthe other way around—in an
endless recyclingof stock phrases and sentiments wehave heard elsewhere—so do our photos.A good graphic example of a photographicconvention is the torn-poster picture. I lovesuch pictures myself, but Walker Evansand Aaron Siskind explored the form longago, and every new example we take simplyendorses and prolongs a mode of seeingthat they defined.

On the way back to the station to catchthe train, I decided it would be crazy not totake some pictures of the posters. The subjectmatter was similar to countless otherstreet-poster photographs, but the wayit all hung together was different. I didn’thave long, so I started shooting anythingthat looked interesting.

Somewhere in the back of my mind weresome pictures I had seen in a book shownin an exhibition of about 500 recent photography volumes, which concluded the Arlesfestival. One example in the book, fromGerman photographer Wolfgang Zurborn,appealed to me. His image seemed to driftoff course—hence the book title, Drift—sliding from one subject to another andcombining different, sometimes wildly disjunctiveplanes of experience and aestheticreality within the same shot, rather thansingling them out and making the worldseem consistent and coherent, as photographsoften do.

Since then, I have bought a copy of thebook, and Zurborn’s pictures, taken between1999 and 2005, strike me as genuinelyoriginal: They capture something essentialabout contemporary experience in a newway. They show how, despite our best effortsto design, style, and regulate the visual environment,it stubbornly fails to cooperate,perhaps because people actually prefer itsdisorder. This is how we see things for muchof the time, too, except we usually take it forgranted. It is smoothness, rather than discontinuity,that catches the eye.

Later, looking at some of my pictures ofthe Avignon posters, it seemed that the moreinteresting ones had picked up traces ofZurborn’s way of seeing—mostly by chance,since they were taken on the fly with littlecalculation. It was only then, away fromthe fierce glare of the Provence sun, that Isaw how oddly these strangely formed papertotems, sprouting on the sidewalk, relateto their backgrounds. The spatial divisionsare angular, irregular, broken. The partswon’t fit together. I especially like what thepictures do to the traffic: The cars becomeblurred elements relegated to the back andmargins of the images. It makes the cityseem more human.