Visual pollution

by Rob Horning

20 April 2007


Via comes this link to an International Herald Tribune story about the ban on outdoor advertising in São Paulo. I don’t have much sympathy for this line of protest against this:

“This is a radical law that damages the rules of a market economy and respect for the rule of law,” said Marcel Solimeo, chief economist of the Commercial Association of São Paulo, which has 32,000 members. “We live in a consumer society and the essence of capitalism is the availability of information about products.”

Billboards aren’t about distributing information; they are about reshaping the limits on our thought, so that it includes the advertised product at the expense of what we might learn were we left to our own fact-finding ability.

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I’m a bit sympathetic to this:

“I think this city is going to become a sadder, duller place,” said Dalton Silvano, who cast the sole dissenting vote and is in the advertising business. “Advertising is both an art form and, when you’re in your car or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom.”

My sympathy makes me wonder if my culture has brainwashed me, and whether that makes laws such as São Paulo’s that much more necessary, as much as the paternalism and free-speech implications of it bother me. Should public space remain blank to remain neutral, to remain a public good to the entire public? Or is the brokered colonization of that space adding value to all as well as creating an industry that keeps people employed and others consuming?

Sometimes, in the most feverish moments of my antiadvertising fervor I would dare to dream about such a ban but found it quite impossible to imagine it, in part because as a child growing up in a sleepy semi-rural part of Pennsylvania, I craved much more visual stimulation in the public sphere and was drawn to what seemed to me the de facto excitement of neon. This signified to me the hustle and bustle of commerce, which I had naturally come to think was the essence of “real” life. Nature? Yawn. Reality, as far as I was concerned (though it’s not like I was consciously conceiving a philosophicla position about it) was the process of exchange, and all the emotions that process inspired. Sometimes I want to blame American culture for instilling this impression in me, but I find I still can’t quite shake it. I still get awfully nervous when I find myself “stranded” in the countryside. (In Mediated Thomas De Zengotita has a good passage relating the unnerving quiescence of finding oneself free of media blare, how one can feel strangely orphaned.)

That feeling led me to live in Las Vegas for several years in an attempt to surfeit myself on neon, and on the abstract notion of “action,” both visual and propositional. It almost worked. Las Vegas seemed like a blank slate invigorated by huckster energy that manifested as flashy come-ons and temptations, but that impression is part of what the town’s vested interests worked to create, the retrospective illusion that there was nothing until they came. But by the time I left there I had grown to have a newfound ardor for “emptiness,” for the grandeur of the high sierras, for Death Valley, for the miles of desert surrounding roads that seem endless, roads so featureless that drivers routinely end up in accidents out of boredom.  Now, I feel both repulsed and attracted to visual noise and the way it can alter our consciousness and our priorities, the way it signals a falsely triumphant subjugation of nature by humankind. But I wonder whether to live in a place where billboards were taken down but their infrastructure remained would feel like living in an urban ruin, in a dead space where vitality had drained away. How long and how much commitment would it take to eventually dispel that feeling?

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