Times of the Signs | icon 054 | December 2007

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Words William Wiles

Have the urban environments of the Far East reached the point of visual saturation yet? They must be close to it by now, as billboards, giant screens, televisions and other advertising media proliferate and compete for attention. Alongside that, city-dwellers can and do access more information in a greater variety of ways – printed matter, mobile phones, PDAs, laptops, internet cafes, SatNav, seat-back screens in cars, trains and planes. But saturation, although perennially close, never seems to be reached, and new spaces for screens and advertising are always found.

For a European, this environment is additionally overwhelming because the information cannot be understood – the Japanese or Mandarin text leaves us illiterate and alienated. But we are also ideally placed to view this 21st-century streetscape free from the distractions of meaning and message, purely as an abstract and arbitrary arrangement of images and textual forms.

This is what Eric Sadin has done, and what a profoundly rewarding field for study he’s picked. He has gathered together more than 2,000 photographs that catalogue the dazzling variety of ways information is presented and accessed in cities. The study is global, but focuses on Japan and the Far East, where visual saturation is closest. It is broken into themes – Giant Screens, Flyers, Signage, Information Facades and so on – but of course these overlap and intermingle. Sadin has an excellent eye for interesting juxtapositions and particularly baffling combinations of signage, but the images are there in support of a thesis laid out in the extraordinarily detailed and thoughtful text. He attempts to subject the streetscape to literary analysis.

Literary readings of advertising slogans and the other banal texts of the street have been made before – a fact that Sadin acknowledges, citing Eugenio Miccini’s Lotta Poetica of 1965, in which the author exhorts poets to listen to the radio and read road signs and brochures to fully understand their art. Sadin is, however, not interested in the meaning of the text, which in most cases we cannot read anyway. He is interested in the layering and superposition of text, and the combined force of the dizzyingly diverse streetscape and the expanding means of individual and collective reading. For Sadin, the “gigantic mutations modifying our relationship with the written word” in this new full-spectrum panorama of data present new opportunities, media, tools and techniques to the practice of writing. The domain of the word has been considerably enlarged, he writes, and meanwhile it is being used in new ways alongside images, the built environment and other text.

All of this results in a beautiful book, an indispensable guide to the written universe of the near future. It will be useful to architects, graphic designers, urbanists, writers and interested city-dwellers alike. Times of the Signs would be worth buying as a purely pictorial survey, but the text makes it a stunning achievement. It is a difficult read – Sadin’s writing dispenses with accessibility in favour of precision and depth – but continually rewarding. To finish it is to want to start it again.

Times of the Signs by Eric Sadin, Birkhauser, £31.89

www.birkhauser.ch

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