We are understandably fascinated by what our post-COVID-19 future will look like. So it seems sensible to start with a consideration of what things look like at the moment, on a wet weekend when most of the UK joins one huge communal picnic with the blessing of HM Government. Let’s consider the stuff we find around us; the visual detritus created by our response to a global pandemic, born of confusion and fear and refined over weeks of lockdown.
There are times when the past few months have seemed like a hallucination. Empty town and city centres were suddenly strange places to be. Walking around I was immediately struck by the notices posted inside shop windows in abandoned stores. Empty shopfront windows stood like dusty memorials to a forgotten retail past, their Dead Sea Scroll explainers merely single sheets of fast-fading A4 paper taped in haste. Printed in Times New Roman or written in red sharpie shortly before locking up the shop for the day — perhaps ever? — on Tuesday 24th March 2020, they reminded shoppers that the store was closed and that the tills were empty. Over time they have been replaced by hand-drawn notices in convenience stores stipulating no more than three shoppers at one time, or by arrows fashioned of masking tape that indicate the required direction around the shops.
You won’t have missed their domestic equivalents: the kids’ rainbows stuck to the inside of windows that faced streets abandoned by traffic. Thanking the NHS for their efforts to keep us safe. Reminding newly emancipated dog walkers to stay home and save lives. Near us, the Blu-Tack dots in the rear window of a Porsche are the sole remains of a child’s crayoned reminder that its driver was co-parenting; posted no doubt to combat curtain-twitching and tutting.
Or there’s the chalk. So much chalk. Rainbows, NHS hearts and children’s names chalked on pavements. On garden walls, the sides of garages, or turnstiles in the heart of the thickest, greenest woods.
When many restaurants and pubs, er, pivoted to offer take away menus, I made one of my few ventures out of the house to collect a meal from what was previously a busy gastropub with excellent food and a close eye on exceptional service and immaculate presentation. Having paid online, I texted an unfamiliar number from my car and, having received a monosyllabic response, donned gloves and mask. I retrieved the brown bag placed on a rusty garden chair in the middle of the restaurant’s dimly lit car park, avoiding the plastic crates strewn across this new wasteland — placed I assume, to discourage unsafe distancing. Walking back to the car with one eye over my shoulder, I didn’t know whether I would open the bag to find a Michelin starred meal or a bag of coke and some party pills.
If one is minded to read big signs in little matters (and this one is), these examples represent a coherent aesthetic, born of necessity. It’s a form of self-expression as an authentic response to a crisis, rooted both in empathy and trying to make-do. It’s about knuckling down to life inside four walls but recruiting the limited public spaces available to the communal war effort.
This aesthetic underpins the chalk pavement drawings of rainbows and the amateur signs in shop windows. Its the same aesthetic that has been adopted by those pubs and restaurants that have hurriedly set up food collection stations from junk because they have had no cash for professional signage or squeaky new orange traffic cones. Those jarring Wordpress page additions of emergency takeaway menus on what were once slick restaurant websites call on the same aesthetic.
It’s folk art, born of purpose and community. It’s about helping to defeat the pandemic. Staying home. Protecting the NHS. Saving lives. And it explains why one particularly high profile transgression of lockdown provoked such anger and why this Government’s response to the episode has infuriated so many.
On the back of this new coronaesthetic, advertising suddenly looks different. Never one to miss a trick, advertisers know that authenticity is what it’s all about now: they are KEEPING IT REAL. Of course, many had long ago moved to embrace the ‘reality’ of our home lives and to try and better reflect a diverse society and its concerns. But, no longer required to tease and seduce, the default position for nearly all advertisers is to now claim that WE ARE ALL IN IT TOGETHER.
The banks, in particular, have gloried in this faux-authenticity through ads that have reminded us to go online for our banking needs but to be prepared to wait. The pandemic thus neatly providing the perfect cover for a continued programme of bank branch closures, which had made life increasingly difficult for the many older people unable to access the internet way before this all happened. Although given the way COVID-19 has impacted that age group in the UK, there may not much more objection to continued closures.
Another recourse of the advertiser keen to hijack the new aesthetic and join in the COVID-19 group hug is the full-page newspaper ad with a sentence or two of mumbo jumbo on a newly discovered civic purpose beyond the bottom line. Or the constant posts on social media from supermarkets that warn of website delays, yet send any clicks to precisely the same struggling websites. I somehow have more time for the many advertisers on social media selling shonky laptop stands, speedily repurposed-coathanger, touch-free, lift-button pushers, or the £100 food boxes of three-week-old veg.
Filling up the car for the first time in three months yesterday (diesel? petrol? flour?), I got a glimpse of how the prevailing aesthetic is mutating as lockdown is eased. Gone are the illegible notices printed on someone’s inkjet printer, replaced by blinding yellow plastic folding signs and large format professionally-printed signage with 200pt upper case warnings.
Then there are the miles and fucking miles of red and yellow chevron hazard tape that line shop floors and mark out the distances at which it is assumed we are safe from our fellow shoppers. Although looking down to follow these lines puts the shopper at high risk of walking into a chilled cabinet at best, or an infected and indignant shopper, at worst. Which sort of undermines the desired effect.
And it’s not as if the larger signs with their commands and pictograms are easier to read. Christ knows what I’m being asked to do, I thought, as I entered the petrol station’s doors to pay for 70 litres of self-raising. The interior of the BP station looked like that part in E.T. when scientists had turned Elliott’s house into a laboratory. Somehow a mobile number scrawled on a piece of A4 and gaffa taped to a shop window would have been easier to understand.
It’s a fact of life that folk art and popular forms of expression are swallowed up by wider and more powerful cultural forces, so it’s increasingly clear to me that our immediate future isn’t made of rainbow chalk.
No, it’s going to be hi-viz red, orange and yellow. With a smattering of medicinal blue in the now obligatory facemasks and surgical gloves. Like an Altern-8 PA in a rave in Stoke around 1992. But without the hugs from strangers.
And as we leave one pandemic and head for the next crisis — this time a no-deal Brexit — remember all those promises made to get rid of red tape once Britain left Europe? Well, we left Europe, and now there’s more tape than ever. Only it’s red and yellow. It’s ghastly, but get used to it. Our future is so bright you gotta wear shades.