Nick: We are sitting in Bragazzi’s café on Abbeydale Road, Sheffield. You have an espresso, I have a cappuccino. We’re looking out through the window, across the street, at a roadside takeaway restaurant’s sign; an unlit lightbox with ‘Venice Pizza’ emblazoned on it in vinyl. ‘Venice’ is in large text underlined with a kind of water ripple effect. It is set in red cursive with a black stroke around its edge. ‘Pizza’ sits bottom right, underneath a basic clipart-style image of someone standing in a gondola with what looks like an oar, but it could be a pizza oven paddle. The silhouetted figure looks to be wearing what a tourist may expect them to wear. In Arabic, the word ‘Halal’ sits top left.
James: Your formal description of the sign could go on indefinitely and not just in terms of greater and finer details but also because there are just so many different ways to perceive the sign.
N: I am looking from the perspective of a designer. The details I am seeing, and some of the language I am using to describe those observations, are pulled from design-specific knowledge.
J: And there is a tangible consequence to that. Your specific point of view matters because, like with all perspectives, you are bringing a set of assumptions, or we could also call them fore-structures or pre-judgements, to the sign.
N: Why is this important for the average pedestrian or the person reading this?
J: The reason it is important to recognise that your experience of this sign is from one of many possible points of view is because your point of view is unavoidably selective. That means there are aspects of the sign left out during that selective process of perception. Importantly, those things left out, which may be picked up from somebody else’s point of view, still matter because they are not inert, unimportant or inconsequential perceptions. If we are unable to recognise that our experiences are ultimately partial abstractions from a greater whole then we are paralysed when we try to imagine that things can be otherwise, and we are unable to be joyously surprised by difference, or to meaningfully notice change. This is why thinking about things in the world as exhaustible – that is to say as fixed things that we can list the properties of without leaving anything out – is a mistake, it is a mishandling of how we can grasp the sign. Imagine if someone exclusively defined you by your working profession and therefore only interacted with you as if you were a carpenter, for example, and never thought it possible that you are also more than that; a friend, a lover, a passionate musician, for instance.
N: So if we think about this right now, tangibly, in terms of the Venice Pizza sign, we’d say in day-to-day conversation that the sign is everything that is contained within the lightbox on which the graphics are rendered, but if we were to think more cautiously about what extends beyond that limit, quite literally, by just shifting focus slightly above the sign we can see there are drawn curtains behind a grubby window, the curtains are decorated with the repeating pattern of a familiar fashion logo, and then we have the neighbouring shops too. The sign is entangled with all these things.
J: Yes, and with us too. We are all situated in all of this, we are not outside of it. So that means how you feel right now, the clouds in the sky, the history of the street, the people walking by, your last text message, this all matters when it comes to your encounter with Venice Pizza. But, of course, this is all the stuff that we’d normally filter out of daily interactions.
N: Then let’s return to thinking about our situation here in the café. We’re sitting behind a window looking out over some tables and chairs and across a busy road at this Venice Pizza sign. There’s a distinct feeling of separation, of the in here and the out there, particularly if you think of the pane of glass we are looking through and the room we are sitting in. But if I am being more alert, there is a softness to these divisions; the light from outside falls across the table and catches the edge of the coffee cup’s saucer, the din of traffic is clear from in here, the smell of toasted sandwiches from the kitchen drifts through the café and outside to the street.
J: All these things, we tend to erase them from our conscious daily experiences. It is understandable, though, more often than not we need to be able to think in very pragmatic, straight-forward ways otherwise we wouldn’t be able to get dressed and leave the house. So we can say that when we oversimplify something that we are making necessary abstractions, but it doesn’t mean there are no other ways of ‘attending to the world’ – I like that phrase, I get it from Iain McGilchrist. So in day to day life, we can live with the practical illusion that there is this hard edge to stuff, but it would be a dreadful mistake to think that those illusions, those necessary abstractions, are the ultimate, closed, exhausted limit to the reality of how things do actually exist. Maybe we are moving too fast here, I am curious, what made you focus on Venice Pizza?
N: I was sitting here waiting for my parents to arrive one morning looking across the street from this window at the various shopfronts and paused over Venice Pizza. Its kitschness and inauthenticity chimed with me to some extent as I thought how I would salvage some respect from a conversation with my parents, not that I wanted to be disingenuous, but I wanted them to walk away thinking positively of me and that would need a little focus. It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the sign before but on this particular occasion it became more apparent. I am describing qualities of dynamism here in thinking of Venice Pizza as an event, as being evental. That seems unusual to suggest whilst looking at this dull unlit lightbox of faded graphics above a closed takeaway; this is a pretty mundane scene.
J: But it is, nonetheless, changing. As I have said, a ‘thing’, as we tend to think of it in day to day life, is fixed, limited, exhaustible, etc. But when is this Venice Pizza sign fixed? When is our understanding of it absolute or complete? I understand though, the flux of the Venice Pizza sign may not be particularly exciting, and it may not have an obvious value, but I know it is true because I feel it to be true. Although, to be more precise, when we’re thinking of the sign as an event we are saying it’s dynamic, yes, but that dynamism has an intensity, it has qualities that are more or less dynamic.
N: We have spoken about this before, you described this idea of intensity in context to Edale in the Peak District. It’s a place that feels timeless, particularly when you’re hiking over the tops of the barren moors on an overcast day, it’s as if it’s alway been there and has always been there just like it is. However, we know that it has eroded over time, there’s a process of denudation, flowers are coming into bloom and dying off and birds swirl in the thermals. So, pedantically, we can say Edale is dynamic, just like the Venice Pizza sign. The coloured vinyl fades in the sun, grime from passing traffic collects on its surface, its light bulbs flicker at night and so on…
J: Exactly. And when we’re calling the Venice Pizza sign an event, we’re also validating the potential for other perspectives of the sign too. Somebody who is drunk at 3am, or a Michelin starred chef, a Muslim, or an Italian, would all find a different significance to the sign, for instance. However, if you say that it is fixed, rather than an event, you are claiming that it has one thing to say and if you don’t ‘get’ that one thing then you’ve misunderstood it; just imagine telling someone – a Farmer, a clerk, a mountain biker, a geologist – that there is one absolute version of Edale. I think Nietzsche said something like: there are as many ways for the world to exist as there are ways to perceive it. We can say the same about the sign too. The point of view of each encounter, as seen from a passing bus or this café across the street, all offer different constructions, or we could say interpretations, of the sign. This is only possible if we challenge the overbearing importance of absolutist knowledge and exhaustible understandings.
N: This relates to our shared interest in literary realism. I am thinking about Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Carson McCullers and kitchen sink plays by Mike Leigh, and Shelagh Delaney. In these works the non-privileged perspective is taken seriously to have value.
J: There is a great example of this multiplicity of perspectives in Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style. He writes and rewrites this same banal scene about a man on a bus but each time he rewrites it from a different point of view. There is a casual perspective, a perspective from the past, one that focuses on texture, one on smell, and so on. It is a fascinating book. This echoes the plural nature of realism, and importantly, in this pluralism, there’s not one higher order of truth than another. Instead, there are just truths and some will have a greater potency at some historical moments than others. It feels to me like this sort of perspective of the world validates construction and encourages spontaneous interpretations of the world. Thinking more about graphic images, there is a recent example of this sort of perspectivism in Patti Smith’s incredibly tangible but dream-like descriptions of signs in Year of the Monkey.
N: With Patti Smith we are talking about an established writer with a great vocabulary and an ability to articulate experience in a very particular way. This is no more or less interesting than somebody describing this with less writing ability, an amateur for instance, as they are pulling on different understandings which again validates the plural nature of these encounters. I am wondering what our reader may be thinking, what value are they getting from reading this?
J: I guess what we may be provoking is a certain self-consciousness about what it is that we each bring to an experience, even when we are just encountering a mundane street sign like Venice Pizza. I would like people to take their differences seriously and embrace them as creative and necessarily agonistic points of view in daily life.
N: Yes, we are not passive receivers of broadcasted messages, there is something reciprocal going on through these encounters. We are really foregrounding a dialogue that is largely private, but also a dialogue with a material world that for us has felt neglected when we talk about graphic design.
J: I think this came about with an explicit confrontation with the material of the mundane which we usually overlook. For instance, if I ask you now to think about the Apple logo, in your mind you would probably imagine a white void with the logo floating in it somewhere, when really if you have an iPhone and you look at the logo on the back of the case it is scratched, maybe there is some grime caught in it somewhere, maybe it has a sticker over it, a fingerprint, and so on. When we are thinking of our situated, material experiences, there is no manifest Apple logo that is fixed in an ideal state. Instead, what we observe over time are multiple different versions which are all uniquely different. I guess in an art context we can think of Andy Warhol’s screen prints in this way.
N: And Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series. He produced over twenty paintings capturing the same facade at different times of day and year.
J: Yes, we’re doing a similar thing here with the Venice Pizza sign but our intervals are not days and seasons, they are brief moments over a few hours. This is my first time seeing the sign, I was imagining it on the train on the way over here this morning, but you have been talking to me about it for a while now; we are manically aware of its differences.
N: Going back to that literary aspect and language, any expression is always going to be slightly removed from the experience itself because it is restricted by the language we use, but those limitations can have a richness to them.
J: Yes, we can think of a limitation as a reduction, as a concentration, it is a different intensity of focus. Mourning is a good example, you are experiencing your environment with a totally different degree of focus that may not be shared with others around you. If a car drives past and a song you and your lost friend used to listen to is billowing out the windows it would strike you in a way that it would not do on any other day before news of their death. The person driving the car may have had a bad day at work and the loud music is soothing. The person sitting next to you may be irritated that the noise has interrupted your conversation. But you weren't even listening because you are journeying through memories of a lost friend.
N: This is like what we were talking about earlier; somebody drunk and hungry passing the Venice Pizza sign at 3am, and that same person hungover the next day, when they are more sensitive to sight, sound and touch, passing the same sign again. I’m thinking of Jack Kerouac waking by the brook in Big Sur and what was the ‘pleasant thumpthump slap of the creek is now an endless jabbering of blind nature which doesn’t understand anything in the first place’. I like that Kerouac is writing about a creek, nothing obviously sensational. And we’re not talking about the Sistine Chapel here either, but in regards to the sort of literary realism we are invested in, these banal things are equally in need of attention; they don't have to be esteemed cultural objects to justify scrutiny or debate. Of course, you could suggest installing the Venice Pizza sign in the ideal white space of a gallery and raise these dialogues there where it would be enveloped by a completely different context. Taking the Venice Pizza sign into the gallery would also depict it as the artwork to an extent, which is not my intent here. Duchamp’s Fountain for example, was an object stripped of its useful significance, lifted ideologically from its humdrum existence and placed in an art context; the gallery. Pierre Restany, the founder of Nouveau Réalisme, called to erase what he called an ‘abusive distance’ from the real and return to the contingency of the everyday; ‘getting our feet back on the ground’ (standing at a urinal, perhaps?). In a similar way, if we are considering how we encounter these day-to-day things, like the Venice Pizza sign, it follows that the discourse should be raised here rather than uprooting the sign.
J: There’s a good example of that attempt to cleave signs from their settings. A few years ago there was a bit of Banksy graffiti sprayed up in Manchester city centre. They kept it on the street but they put a sheet of perspex over it to preserve it, but the perspex collected moisture and condensation and mould began to grow behind it. In the end they removed the perspex. Last time I checked it was tagged with ‘Banksy woz ere’. Actually, I have another Banksy example, I saw a copy of the now iconic work of the protestor throwing a bouquet of flowers. It was in an art gallery hung amongst opulently framed paintings. The day I was there it had been raining and somebody walked into the room with squeaky shoes on the polished gallery floor, bringing the street in.
N: Attempts to silo the works didn’t prevent idealism slipping into daily reality. With this exhibition – the Venice Pizza sign, this conversation, the reader, the café, the street – the clumsy contingency of the everyday should not be bracketed out as it’s where these evental encounters are enmeshed; in and with the world. I want the mould to creep in and I welcome the squeaky shoes.
Dr James Dyer is senior lecturer of Graphic Design at the University of Huddersfield.
Nick Deakin is senior lecturer of Graphic Design at Leeds Arts University.
They are co-authors of Graphic Events: A Realist Account of Graphic Design
. Published by Onomatopee.