Summer 2007

Messages from the city’s soul

For ten days in March, the billboards of Hobart were given over to the voices of its inhabitants

Imagine your own city stripped of the inevitable and predictable billboard advertising, and instead reading fragments of poignant, moving and personal text. For ten days the write / here project did just that in the Australian city of Hobart, with a large-scale graphic intervention colonising its billboards and generating an alternative reprieve from advertising.

The inspiration of Justy Phillips, the British-born artist, writer and lecturer at the Tasmanian School of Art, this ambitious project came to fruition during the Tasmanian Arts festival, ‘Ten Days on the Island’ (23 March–1 April 2007). In collaboration with the local artist James Newitt, she set out to create what the latter calls a ‘city-wide narrative’, interrupting and replacing the ubiquitous visual noise of advertising with citizens’ stories, thoughts and reflections. The billboards appeared around the city centre without clues or attributions: just anonymous white text reversed out of a conspicuous red background, triggering myriad reactions.

The write / here project had a dramatic impact on the cultural and visual landscape of Hobart. With a population of 195,000, the capital of the island state of Tasmania provided a compact urban backdrop for the project, making it feasible to inhabit all its billboard advertising sites, which would have been logistically impossible in a larger city.

Beer, tourism and real estate
Over the three years it took to organise this landmark project, Phillips and Newitt persuaded local businesses both to relinquish their current billboard sites for ten days and to sponsor the printing of the replacement text ‘skins’. ‘We could not have achieved so much with the project without the early assistance of local businesses,’ says Phillips. ‘We approached individual organisations that had contracts on the sites we wanted to use, and forged relationships with each one, until we had secured all of the sites . . . It was the ambition and scale of the project that drew most of our sponsors to make their contribution, either in kind or site rental or cash. We never gave up. If one company said no, we just found another way of asking them.’

With additional funding from arts organisations and the city council, the project was able to occupy all bar one of the city’s central billboards, and one at the airport, making a total of 27.

Contributions from Hobart’s residents, including recent immigrants and refugees, aboriginal elders, prison inmates and old people in a nursing home, were to offer an alternative commentary to that projected by global advertising, government and developers. Conceptually and logistically this was a major achievement in a state where half the city’s billboard sites are owned by breweries, and where images of a pristine natural environment dominate the marketing of beer, tourism and real estate.

‘For me, this project has always been about being able to present a community’s voice back to the home to which it belongs,’ Phillips says. ‘To engage with this place at a deeper, more personal and more real way, than by the falsities of brand advertising and the stereotypes and inaccuracies this way of presenting the world can offer.’

Phillips and Newitt gathered comments from the public through one-to-one interviews, workshops, and exhibitions, and even opened a ‘story shop’ offering passers-by a dollar for their thoughts. Carefully framed questions – ‘What does Hobart mean to you?’, ‘Do you have any regrets?’, ‘What are your hopes for the future?’ – elicited responses that were honest, potent and moving. From the 1000 responses that they generated, 27 anonymous texts were selected, one for each of the billboard sites.

Using a uniform sans-serif typeface (Gotham, designed by Tobias Frere-Jones, see Eye no. 54 vol. 14) on an opaque red background reminiscent of corporate advertising campaigns, these billboards delivered highly personal and poignant messages, causing the public to speculate about their origins. Despite their anonymity, the speakers’ lives are often clearly intimated. One describes old age: ‘I can’t see anything in my drawers any more. I have to feel. I have to get people to come in and ask “Is that blue or black” or “Can you see anything green in there?”?’ Another is unmistakably in prison: ‘In my cell at night I think about that. My daughter turns thirteen this year and I don’t ever want her to touch drugs. I don’t ever want her to sleep with people just to feel wanted.’ Others are more ambiguous, or communicate a wry sense of humour, such as ‘Could be magnificent’ or ‘Everything’s rigged’.

Below the surface
A companion map was distributed throughout the city’s cafés and institutions, and a well orchestrated publicity campaign used other media platforms to contextualise and extend the life of the project beyond its ten days. As talkback radio listeners, email forums and people in the street speculated about the billboards, Phillips and Newitt appeared on radio shows explaining the origins and intentions of the project. Reactions included confusion, tears, cynicism and praise. ‘Powerful prose. Well positioned and worth drinking… a reminder to celebrate transparency, democracy, etc. Billboards will never be the same for me again,’ was one of the comments on individual billboards documented on the project’s website

A book documenting the project will be published in August and the vinyl skins will have a second life through re-selling on eBay, either as artworks, or to be recycled into bags and clothing – and providing the dust cover for the forthcoming issue of the Australian design magazine Typotastic.

There was some criticism that the overall tone of the selected texts was too negative and gloomy. Phillips and Newitt replied that, while seeking to include other voices, they never claimed to represent an entire community with write / here. Rather, they saw their ‘editorial’ role as one that allowed them to penetrate the images constructed by the Utopias of the tourism industry, to go below the surface of a picturesque, natural environment to reveal a social environment that was made up of many diverse elements.

Designers are frequently criticised for being complicit in shaping social and geographic stereotypes. The write / here project is a strategically sophisticated reminder that design also has the capacity to instigate and reflect social comment.

First published in Eye no. 64 vol. 16 2007

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