“When I first moved to Montreal I had an apartment at Jeanne Mance and Milton. I used to look up at the mountain and I could see the cross and what I thought was the devil’s pitchfork—I guess it’s a radio tower but it’s all red lights and the cross is all white lights. I would go out at night, look up at the cross, look up at the pitchfork and wonder to myself, Which one is going to win tonight?”
Collecting stories like this one is part of Matt Soar’s job. Soar, a professor of communications at Concordia University, is the creator of Logo Cities, a multi-media project that began three years ago as an effort to catalogue the commercial logos that dot Montreal’s downtown skyline. However, he soon discovered that Montrealers have an interesting relationship with the signs and symbols that lurk above the city’s streets, which led Soar to ponder the links between signage, graphic design and public space.
Early next month, the Logo Cities project will culminate with a symposium that will bring together academics, artists and designers from around the world. Along with presentations and discussions from more than 30 panelists, the conference will include an exhibition of iconic Montreal signs, an interactive art project called Cityspeak and the Quebec premiere of the acclaimed documentary Helvetica.
“(Logo Cities) encompasses everything from the Farine Five Roses sign down on the waterfront up to the cross on the mountain,” said Soar. “In a way it’s like looking down the wrong end of a telescope” at issues like economic growth, culture, heritage and the branding of public space. “You come across the Champlain Bridge at night and look at all of those logos. It’s an inventory of the city’s investments. It’s a fingerprint.”
Signs and logos resonate strongly with many people, Soar explained, especially old ones that have been around for decades: “They’re iconic. Lives have been lived in their shadows.” For that reason, the Logo Cities conference will showcase a number of well-known signs that have vanished from the Montreal landscape, including those of Warshaw, Simcha’s Fruit Market and the Monkland Tavern.
People not only feel a connection to signs, they are also intrigued by their design. A font might be an unlikely subject for a film, but Helvetica, a documentary by Gary Hustwit on the world’s most widely used typeface, has sold out at virtually every one of its screenings around the world. It follows Hustwit as he travels the globe to find out why Helvetica became so widespread. The film’s holistic view of design and cities makes it “a natural fit with the Logo Cities symposium,” said Soar, who managed to book its first Quebec screening.
But Logo Cities will focus on more than just design: it will also look at the politics of signs and public space. Matthew Blackett, publisher of Spacing magazine, will speak about “ad creep” in Toronto’s streets. As advertisers realize that traditional media are no longer effective, they are turning to billboards, video screens and sidewalk installations to market their brands. “Corporations and private interests are encroaching on the public realm to the point where we, as residents, are losing control of our infrastructure and our streets,” said Blackett, adding that as many as one-third of Toronto’s billboards are illegal.
For Blackett, Logo Cities offers an opportunity to “fine-tune our ideas about logos, about branding, about signage in our cities, and realizing what is appropriate and what’s not.” What makes the symposium even more important, he adds, is its relevance at a point in time when new technology, especially new advertising technology, is “absolutely transforming the way cities can be viewed and how they can be interpreted.”
A case in point is Cityspeak, a communications art project developed two years ago by Jason Lewis, a Concordia professor of design and computation arts, and Maroussia Lévesque, one of his students. Building on the growing popularity of video screens as a medium for ads and information, Cityspeak lets passersby send text messages to be displayed on a public screen. In doing so, it subverts the normally one-sided nature of the video screen by using it as a tool for a public conversation. “It allows people to talk back to the screen, to broadcast with their mobile devices. Even if text messages are not the best way of writing a manifesto, I’m happy with people just sending small thoughts,” said Lévesque.
So far, she and Lewis have tested Cityspeak at 14 installations around the world, mostly indoors, and people have used it much as they would an online bulletin board, to trade personal messages, make anonymous self-proclamations and comment critically on goings-on. Potentially, if it is used outdoors, Cityspeak could bring an unprecedented level of public discourse to the streets, enthused Lévesque.
Ultimately, that kind of discussion is also what Matt Soar hopes to achieve with the Logo Cities symposium. “There are pockets of interest in this stuff,” he said. “I’m trying to bring them together.”
The Logo Cities symposium will be held at Concordia University on May 4 and 5. The registration fee for both days is $40. Cityspeak and the signage exhibition will be on display at the VAV Gallery, 1395 René Lévesque Blvd. W., on both days. Helvetica will premiere at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 5 in Room H-110 of Concordia University’s Hall Building, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W..
Tags: Montreal, Signs