Sunday, 12:00am
5 November 2006


Kapitaal renders the cityscape as a waking dream of signs and symbols. Critique by Rick Poynor

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It has become a cliché of visual communication to claim that we are exposed to 2000 or even 3000 advertising messages every day. But where did this figure come from? Was there a study where a sufficiently large group of test subjects was followed around by researchers with clipboards, who counted up all the things they looked at in the course of a day? Or is the figure merely based on estimates of how many messages people might encounter in a typical 24 hours, assuming they took a trip down a busy shopping street, visited a supermarket, read a newspaper or magazine, and spent the evening watching TV?

As a daily running total, the figure has always sounded implausibly high, but perhaps this is because, surrounded as we are wherever we go by graphic messages of every kind, we simply don’t realise quite how many pass through our field of vision, or just pass us by.

A seven-minute film by three Dutch animators – Ton Meijdam, Thom Snels and Béla Zsigmond, also known as Studio Smack – obliges anyone sceptical about the quantity of visual messages to think again. Since Museum de Beyerd in Breda commissioned it in 2005, Kapitaal (Capital) has created quite a buzz on the web – and with good reason. It is one of those ideas so obvious once you have seen it, so incisive in concept and execution, that you wonder why no one has done it before. Anyone interested in how graphic communication operates in the city and what its effects are should see Kapitaal. It deserves to become required viewing on cultural studies and media studies courses everywhere.

The film shows a passenger train pulling into a station, followed by a walk along the platform, through the station hall, and out into the city. We see every scene from the point of view of the person taking the journey. What makes Kapitaal so gripping is that the film image has been purged of everything except for the visual language of signs and symbols. Logos, street ads, information graphics, labels, packaging and graffiti are all shown in white, while anything non-graphic is reduced to solid black. Even the people have become featureless silhouettes – perambulating voids – that barely register. No device could more clearly reveal the overwhelming volume of graphic information loaded on to every available urban surface. There is barely a frame in the film that doesn’t have 30 or 50 or more spectral white signals drifting by, every one of them bidding for attention.

The startling thing about seeing the city laid bare is that even when all the solid material that holds the urban environment together has been subtracted, the ‘space’ that remains is perfectly legible, marked out by images, letterforms and symbols. Nowhere in Kapitaal’s artificial, black and white universe, in which the only light issues from graphic beacons, do you ever lose your bearings.

Studio Smack draws no distinction between types of information: railway timetables and parking signs receive the same treatment as logos for Coke, Mars, Ikea, Nokia and Orange. We can see that in this panoramic spectacle, commercial signs replicate like viruses. The camera swings between a McDonald’s asserting its presence with the usual barrage of golden arches and a Burger King equally saturated with branding across the street. If utilitarian and persuasive graphics had been rendered in different colours, there can be no doubt what would have dominated, but this is not necessary. The entire interpenetrating sign system exists to contain and direct public behaviour.

On its website, Studio Smack observes that ‘Kapitaal is an impression of the enormous amount of stimuli that we are harassed by every day.’ It doubts that such a surfeit of messages can be effective, yet the film uses an original new mode of description to show just how effective it is. On the train, several passengers are reading copies of Karl Marx’s Capital and this is the one clumsy note. More telling is the way that the protagonist is shown as inescapably locked into the world of signs. A hand floats up into view to use a mobile phone against a backdrop of logos in the street. Then it gets money out of a cash machine and spends the evening pouring Heineken down its owner’s throat in a bar. Outside, we catch a glimpse of the advertising slogan ‘Think different’ as a group of silhouette people walk by. It hardly needs saying that the hand also belongs to the viewer.

Rick Poynor, writer, founder of Eye, London

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.