Fleet Street of walls
Wall newspapers, with a chequered history stretching from propaganda to protest, are populist and powerful.
In November 2005, Reporters sans frontières (Reporters without boundaries) – a Paris-based campaigning group that monitors press freedom around the world – launched a new publication. Qui-Vive! appears in the capital every Monday, reporting on topical issues at home and abroad, but you will not find it on any newsstand. Instead, copies of this single-sheet news report are mounted into 700 vitrines on the streets of Paris and provincial French cities, free to its readers.
This ‘hebdo mural’ (‘wall weekly’) competing in the visual marketplace of the city street seems to be set against the media tide. Increasingly, newspapers are under pressure from the internet, with editors forced to put much of their print content online in order to satisfy readers’ appetites for instant information (and to attract advertising revenue). Moreover, in an age when news can be distributed to a mobile phone or a handheld PDA, the insistence on the fixed point of the street seems wilfully anachronistic. But Reporters sans frontières’ point is a simple one: the information economy is not, despite the rhetoric of the technophiles, an egalitarian one.
One does not have to look to the developing world to find communities that do not enjoy access to the brave new online world: the poor, the homeless and the illegal immigrants of the West rarely have the opportunity to browse the websites of Le Figaro or The Guardian over their lunch hour or at home in the evening. Moreover, the Western media are increasingly attuned to entertaining their audiences rather than informing them. But knowledge and informed debate are the basis of democracy. The privatisation of knowledge, in both a spatial sense and as commodity, risks the creation of a disenfranchised underclass.
Qui-Vive! identifies the young (17-24) as its key audience, not just another ‘market sector’. When Qui-Vive appeared in 2005 this was, and remains, a pressing matter. At the time, the banlieues were convulsed with riots and car-burning protests by what the then minister of the interior (now President) Nicolas Sarkozy called ‘racaille’ (rabble). The right to be heard in public and the right to be well informed were both high on the political agenda. Qui-Vive! sought to put material with public significance back into public space.
The wall newspaper has a long history, closely connected to the idea of broadcasting the views of ordinary people into the public domain. In the sixteenth century, the citizens of Rome adopted an antique sculpture in Piazza di Pasquino as a site for messages, gossip and satire. Opinions that Romans were once afraid to articulate could be made public in this way (to the extent that one ruler threatened to cast the sculpture into the Tiber). Written communiqués are still posted today on the plinth or even hung around the neck of the statue. But pasting petitions in the street is not the same thing as publishing a newspaper.
The decisive form of the wall newspaper did not emerge until after the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. Wall newspapers (stengazety) could be found on the streets, in factories and hospitals as well as in schools and apartment blocks of Soviet Russia. According to historian Catriona Kelly, they emerged from the grass-roots of Bolshevism in the early 1920s. 1 Workers and schoolchildren were encouraged to paste up news, cartoons, to ‘publish’ documentary photographs and commentaries on the transformation of their world. Soviet citizens were, as the Communist Party loudly trumpeted, living through the greatest social transformation in the history of mankind. The revolution touched every aspect of life. As such, no matter – however small – should escape the columns of the wall newspaper.
While this type of propaganda can be aligned with other forms of Communist agitprop of the 1920s, it was significantly different in one key regard. The wall newspaper was not just a medium for the transmission of ideas: it was, according to its champions, a mechanism for the transformation of consciousness. The stengazeta was to be written by a new kind of journalist, the ‘worker-correspondent’ (also known, in the telegraphic dialect favoured by Soviet ideologues, as a rabkor). Walter Benjamin, the German Marxist philosopher, saw the Soviet media as changing the relations of cultural production: the rabkor was the key figure in this transformation. In his 1934 lecture ‘The Author as Producer’, for instance, Benjamin mythologised the Russian readers who picked up the pen and the camera to contribute material to the post-revolutionary press: ‘We see that the vast melting-down process ... not only destroys the conventional separation between genres, between writer and poet, scholar and populariser, but that it questions even the separation between author and reader.’ 2 In recording and reporting their world, the new Soviet man and woman would become conscious of their own influence on progress in the world.
Benjamin was unduly optimistic about the efflorescence of proletarian creativity triggered by the Revolution: in fact, considerable effort went into providing ‘advice’ about how and what to write for the stengazeta. Although all material had to be cleared by the Communist authorities, this did not mean it had to be professionalised: worker-correspondents were encouraged to write in authentically rough language. Criticism, jokes and mild abuse were not only tolerated but even encouraged in the late 1920s, as were hand-written notices, cartoons and sketches.
It was regulation and control – even if designed to produce authentically working-class expression – that did for the format. Eventually the wall newspaper became a moribund relic of revolutionary socialism, losing touch with Benjamin’s idea of the reader-writer-designer.
By the 1960s, state printers in East Germany were turning out wall newspaper ‘cut and paste’ kits. Printed reports, logos and stencils turned the act of authorship into one of assemblage. If the potential user of the kit was uncertain about the proper relation of the parts, he could always follow the official outlines.
The fossilisation of the wall newspaper in the Soviet bloc was a metaphor for the state of Communism itself. As Czech writer (and later president) Vaclav Havel noted in the 1970s, very few people in the Eastern bloc believed in the utopian rhetoric of Communism: ‘The real meaning of a . . . slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar.’ 3 For Havel, the good comrade who pastes up party slogans ‘declares his loyalty in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual’. Wall newspapers in this world were not only ignored by the public who passed them on the way to the workplace or the classroom, they were even unread by their ‘editors’.
Paper streets and fire walls
Not all Communist slogans were empty code, however. In Mao’s China, the Soviet path – which China had been following since 1949 – had led to bureaucracy, famine and economic crisis. Mao’s answer to his own mismanagement was to launch the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966. A new revolutionary force – the Red Guards – was unleashed on society to destroy any vestiges of older ways of thinking or being. Libraries and Buddhist temples were destroyed; officials were dragged in front of enormous crowds to be mocked and beaten; and different factions engaged in pitched battles in towns and cities. The streets became a frenzied battleground without clearly defined fronts. Moreover, buildings, squares and even pavements were covered in dazibao, posters that declared the aims of the Cultural Revolution and denounced its opponents in huge calligraphic characters.
In the provincial city of Harbin, the official photojournalist Li Zhensheng captured the advance of propaganda as it consumed not only the city but also its citizens. 4 Regional party leaders were forced to stand for hours in the central square wearing dazibao around their necks or as dunce caps to broadcast their ‘crimes’ to the world. These sins were usually inflated, sometimes to Kafkaesque proportions (the governor of the province was guilty of high vanity for styling his hair like Mao). The denounced – chillingly dubbed ‘ghosts’ – became instantaneous illustrations of history in the making.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, a new reformist faction took hold of the Communist Party, and a new use was found for the dazibao. Beijing acquired a ‘democracy wall’ in 1978. Activists pasted articles on it criticising the activities of the ‘Gang of Four’ (the circle around Mao), and called for civil liberties. This electric outburst of free speech was short-lived. The democracy wall was closed down after one year. But since then it has enjoyed occasional revivals. When the Tiananmen Square protests exploded in 1989, the walls of Beijing University were rapidly covered with dazibao calling for democratisation.
Today, in the crypto-capitalism that now prevails in China, the same walls are covered with notices advertising English language courses and high-rise apartments. The debate about democracy in China has moved away from the streets and on to the internet, though the online democracy campaigners are as persecuted as their 1980s predecessors. 5
Reclaiming a public space
The streets of Communist cities were once notoriously blank (though only North Korea and Cuba maintain this ‘tradition’ today), but since the 1990s the cities of Eastern Europe have experienced a rash of billboard advertising, which, often untrammelled by regulation, has been more aggressive than anything found in the West. But the free market of goods promised by the end of communism is inhibited by multinational retailers who control the retailing spaces of the city, and the transformation from a Communist cityscape to a capitalist one has done little to benefit home-grown businesses. At the same time, public discourse is dominated by populist politicians who play up common prejudices, not least against minority groups claiming their human rights. It is perhaps not surprising that young designers and artists in what was once the Eastern bloc are driven to reflect on publicity in the fullest sense of the word – that is, as the condition of being in public – and are therefore interested in working with billboards, posters and newspapers alongside new media.
Consider the extracurricular work of the Czech designer Ondrej Dolezal. For the past couple of years he has been producing occasional typographic posters, which he pastes up on the walls of Brno between election posters and advertisements for nightclubs. Seemingly ‘undesigned’ (by virtue of Dolezal’s use of black and white and his preference for Helvetica), they quote reports of events and opinions that have already had a life in print. Disconnected from their source, unsigned and lacking any of the commercial anchors like brand logotypes, such news reports seem far more strange than in their original context.
Dolezal’s point is enigmatic. Perhaps he asks his readers to reflect on the ‘authority’ of the printed word or the ricochets of association that such texts produce with their graphic neighbours. Below a summary of a Guardian interview with the American ophthalmologist who claimed to have Albert Einstein’s eyes for sale, what can one make of Czech politician Richard Falbr’s campaign material? Are his eyes as cisté (pure) and hloubka (deep) as those of the long-dead theoretical physicist? What is certain, however, is that Dolezal’s reports and posters are an intervention into the flow of infotainment that moves past and through the city every day.
Other artist-designers from Central Europe include Twozywo, a small Warsaw-based design group that have spent the past few years producing their own billboards alongside design work for magazines, publishers and galleries in Poland. Commissioned by a French new media festival in 2005, they took their stencil aesthetic to Paris. There they screen-printed a situationiste injuction to ‘play the media’ – a slogan adopted by the festival’s organisers – on to copies of Polish newspapers. They pasted the resulting newspaper-posters on to the streets of the French capital. This was neither an expression of technophilia nor was it a gesture of nostalgia. Perhaps it can best be understood through Jacques Derrida’s idea of putting a word or image sous rature (under erasure) by striking it through. In this way, both the absence and the presence of the original term are visible: it does not disappear but remains indispensable in the production of meaning. As Twozywo seem to suggest, old media – like newsprint – are not erased by the internet, but they are changed by it.
In many ways, designers like Dolezal and Twozywo are revisiting territory once occupied by postmodern artists such as Jenny Holzer in the West of the 1980s. The difference is one of context. The transformation of the streets in post-Communist Eastern has raised questions that are worth asking of Western Europe, too. Whose streets do we walk down? What makes our public spaces public? And can print still gather a public in a way that is qualitatively different to the largely privatised spaces of the internet? These questions seem to me to be all the more pressing when media corporations broadcast ‘the news’ as soundbites on massive digital screens in railway stations and city squares, and our streets, buses and railway train carriages are carpeted with discarded celebrity sheets masquerading as ‘free newspapers’.
1. Catriona Kelly, ‘A Laboratory for the Manufacture of Proletarian Writers’, in Europe-Asia Studies, June 2002, pp. 573-602.
2. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’‚ in Understanding Brecht, London: New Left Books, 1977) p. 90.
3. Vaclav Havel ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (October 1978), in Open Letters, trans. Paul Wilson. New York: Knopf, 1991, p. 136.
4. Li Zhensheng, Red-Color News Soldier, London: Phaidon, 2003.
5. Journalist Shi Tao is perhaps the best known of these
‘dangerous’ liberals. Three years ago, a government order restraining the Chinese media from marking the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre was forwarded to an overseas pro-democracy website, Asia
Democracy Forum. After Yahoo! Hong Kong gave the authorities details of the traffic from his personal email account Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison. Reporters sans frontières was not alone in the world’s media to criticise the global internet portal of ‘collaborating’ with the Chinese police.