spatial poetics, travel notes

A Small Collection of Obnoxious Public Writing

In 2011, I started taking photos of public writing around Australia that I noticed was characterized by a particular TONE of overt, dictatorial nastiness. Of overstatement. Of non-negotiation. I was reminded of this project recently, while reading this post on Mikael wrote:

When I was in Australia last summer I was surprised, daily, at the tone of the signage. I’ve never seen such strict, nanny-like texts on warning signs. Sure, in the States there are warnings on everything but in most cases they are just “Coffee is extemely hot” kind of stuff. In Melbourne, the Authorities are keen to play headmaster, it seems. But thank god they have signs explaining in detail how to operate a pedestrian crossings. Because people are too stupid to figure that out for themselves. I got a kick out of all these warning signs in restaurants and bars. Penalty: Intoxication! $13,000!

Trying to define what sets the tone of this writing apart from what one might get in other countries, here is a tentative list:

1. THEY ARE ORDERS. They are not, technically speaking, warning. There is no appeal to common sense, individual judgement, or assessment of risk, and there is no discretionary element to your decision. ‘Heavy traffic. Cross with care’ is a warning. ‘Crossing tracks is strictly prohibited’ is an order.

2. THEY DON’T EXPLAIN THEMSELVES. When they do, it is simply to say that something is ‘AN OFFENSE’ or ‘AGAINST THE LAW’ or that ‘PENALTIES APPLY.’

3. THEY ADVERTISE A LAW, NOT GOOD CITIZENSHIP. And because of that, they don’t explain themselves, there is no argument behind these regulations other than ‘this and that is illegal.’ ‘IT IS IN BREACH OF HEALTH AND SAFETY REGULATIONS TO PARK YOUR BIKES HERE’, rather than ‘don’t inconvenience your co-workers’. When rules of conduct are advertised in Berlin, they tend to be little illustrations of why you should behave in certain ways: ‘Don’t make other people have to listen to your private phone conversations’ or ‘don’t make your heavy luggage other people’s problem.’ In Melbourne, the equivalent is ‘NO FEET ON SEATS. PENALTIES APPLY.’ Why? ‘IT IS AN OFFENSE TO BE…’

4. THEY ARE LEGAL ICEBERGS: there is often much more to the law than is said. For example, the invisible nine tenths of ‘NO FEET ON SEATS’ is that ‘anything other than the floor’ classifies as ‘seats’ for the Melbourne transport system. You would never know that from the sign. Let me speak here as an employee of a Faculty of Architecture and say that ‘anything but the floor’ is NOT a common-sense definition of a seat. But these signs do not explain themselves. Indeed, demanding they do is often seen as extremely disrespectful attitude. One issue arising from the hidden 9/10 is that one often feels defeated in advance.

5. THEY ARE OFTEN UNNECESSARILY BROAD. Sometimes it’s unclear how you could live without breaking some of these regulations. ‘Intoxication: Penalty $13,000’ is an example. Is one always guilty when drunk? Are you guilty if you haven’t been fined? Is one guilty everywhere, or only in some places and at some times? Whom to ask? Is it disrespectful to ask?

6. THEY ARE OFTEN VERY PETTY, BUT IN OMINOUS LANGUAGE. For example, ‘HOLD THE RAIL’ on public transport. Or the signs telling you how to use a zebra crossing, or how to leave a bus. Is that necessary? Is that a law? Can I be fined? Am I allowed to choose?

7. THERE IS NEVER, EVER AN APOLOGY. I have never seen a ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE DELAY’ sign on a train schedule screen, or ‘WE APOLOGISE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE’ on a sign blocking off a footpath.

8. EVERY SO OFTEN, THEY ARE PATRONIZING AND RUDE. For example, the ‘swap your stop and walk part of the way’ sign, apparently to prevent one’s risk of chronic illness. There is an incredible wealth of scientific evidence out there showing that people who regularly use public transport walk much more than those who don’t (because they walk to and from the stop). When I’m on a tram that’s running infrequently and is often late, I don’t want anyone to worry about whether I’m walking enough. I would much rather be reminded of the efforts to improve the public transport system. There is no possible excuse for that sign (or for that campaign).

So here is my growing collection.


One thought on “A Small Collection of Obnoxious Public Writing

  1. I’ve just returned to Australia after living for two years in New Zealand, and one thing I noticed that there are some small examples of courtesy … for example I saw buses that weren’t on the clock and they displayed “Sorry, off service” or similar on the LED display. Also after roadworks you might see a “Thank you” sign.

    These things stood out to me, because you never see that in Australia.

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