Reconstructing the Temporary Autonomous Zone pt.3

After my relatively unfruitful trip to the Greenwich Heritage Centre I started concentrating on the signs again.

It would have been fairly easy to mock them, and in some ways quite predictable, so I wanted to go sort of deeper into them and make something more meaningful than that. Despite the sketches I’ve been doing on the margin of my annotations, I never really thought that my work would go in this direction. Here’s a small gallery of them, just for the sake of documentation:

The next step I took was to try to analyse existing signs: since I was going to work with them, I really wanted to understand how they are constructed. Surprisingly, I never formalised this analysis in any sort of image except for this big patchwork of the weirdest ones that I found on the internet:

patchwork of signs

Some of these signs would have been funny or disturbing in the context of the tunnel, and to some extent you could say that it would have been enough to put up one of them there to fulfil the brief. For some reason, I wasn’t satisfied with the idea, and noticing that all these signs were set in Helvetica, proceeded to do some futile “detypefacing” (i.e. trying out different typefaces on the same sign and seeing what happens), trying to expose the connection between authority and “neutrality” as embodied by such a classic typeface as Helvetica. The result was meaningless at best.

I still think it is a valid observation that authority will be expressed in a visual language understood to be neutral, but this way of pointing that out was a bit too much of a typographer’s joke, and a bit of a dead end for my work really.

I figured out that if I did want to intervene into the space I was working with, not knowing where to go after all this research and work, I might try and map the behaviours that I had experienced in the tunnel and try to find out something about the use that people were making of it.

behaviours' map

This is a sketch of what you generally go through and what type of interaction you have with others when you’re in the tunnel. The bit about interaction was sparked by this incident in which I stopped to take some pictures in the tunnel and the person walking behind me, probably not expecting anyone to stop there halfway through the subway underneath the Thames, bumped into me. As I stood there for the pictures I saw people looking at me in a really suspicious way and trying not to come too close to me (which was kind of impossible – the tunnel is only a couple of meters wide). Coming back to this made me refocus on actual issues of the tunnel, since the whole interest for the signs had taken me on a sort of tangent. I started thinking more and more of of authority in connection with a perceived issue of safety in the tunnel, and what relationship tunnel-users have to it. I found lots of instances in which these boldly stated prohibitions for the tunnel were ignored or actively trampled over, and the only ones that were kind of respected were ones that I would call unwritten rules or common sense for behaviour in public spaces (or at least in 400m-long underwater tunnels).

So I started to differentiate between types of signs and rules and make maps of their relationships to each other.

map_prohibitions_02(these sketches eventually made it into the final presentation)

At that point I started to see those signs not only as an informational device (communicating what is forbidden and what is not), but also as objects that would respond to the perceived issue of safety by asserting the very presence of authority: you can feel safe because if something is so clearly forbidden, there must be someone to enforce this prohibition. This acknowledgment gave me a wonderful target to poke fun at!

So I decided to design some signs stating an unclear or contradictory prohibition to make clear that the form of the prohibition would have a meaning of itself regardless of the rule being stated (actually, I quite doubt that this statement has come across in my final work, unless you’re some sort of critical geek that sees reality through the lens of foucauldian texts).

Searching for more signs to draw an inspiration from, I came across this (it used to be one single article on Wikipedia with vector files for all german traffic signs, but it was reorganised into different categories on wikimedia commons). At first I thought I’d tweak the graphics or add weird things to them to make them more interesting, but lacking any really good ideas or inspiration eventually I just came up with something completely different: a flash device to generate random signs.

(unfortunately wordpress.com seems not to accept embedded flash, so you’ll have to click your way to the last slide of the presentation if you want to see what I’m talking about)

Basically I divided all the traffic signs I found in two halves and fed them into this static frame. Technically, the device doesn’t generate the signs, but helps you combine different bits of them in a fairly quick and simple way. I put this thing together as a tool for myself to try out things and draw inspiration from chance encounters between images rather than as something to present in itself.

The result was a series of signs that actually made their way onto the tunnel’s walls.

The actual intervention and documentation are worth of a post of themselves, plus I’m running out of time so I’ll have to continue at some point in the future :-)

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