City for Sale
Outdoor advertising in Warsaw's public space from 19th century till now
In its fourth edition, the WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION festival will be revolving around the theme of outdoor advertising in cities.
As in previous years, the festival draws attention of the capital’s dwellers to the key aspects of urban life: architectural legacy, housing and the use of public space. Outdoor advertising has definitely become a predominant element in the landscape of Warsaw. The history of advertising, its impact on urban space and the everyday life of city dwellers are presented in the exhibition entitled “City for Sale”, which has been set up in the building of the former Furniture Store Emilia. It is the new seat of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, organizer of the WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION festival.
A well designed advertisement co-creates the image of modern life-style as well as the metropolitan spirit. However, if no frameworks are in place to regulate it, it can become its own caricature and spoil the space. Warsaw streets, both those of a century ago and of today, have permanently been overwhelmed with vivid omnipresence of advertisements. What the “City for Sale” exhibition does, next to presenting some very ambitious ideas of arranging the rush of signboards, labels and graphics or modern billboards, is evoke the history of colorful store windows, metropolitan shopping arcades and vibrant glow signs. It shows proofs of a successful alliance between advertising and art. The exhibition introduces the visitors to the small graphic studios of the interwar period and glow signs designs from the 1960s. It is an opportunity to see what Warsaw streets were like in the first years after the collapse of PRL (People’s Republic of Poland), when every new advertisement was welcomed with enthusiasm. Today, people protest against the excess of large format banners and billboards covering entire buildings. The situation may change in the nearest future when another revolution in technology discredits gigantic billboards and replaces them with the so-called Augmented Reality. The new technical opportunities are bound to trigger new controversies – these have also been given some space in the exhibition.
The construction of the exhibition, created by WWAA designers allows the visitors to travel through advertising history as seen in the context of transformation of the street, commerce and consumption. This story is set inside the former Furniture Store Emilia. After dusk, the entire building transforms into an architectural advertisement of WARSAW UNDER CONSTRUCTION.
Parallel to the exhibition, numerous events dedicated to advertisement in public space will be taking place.
The Expansion of Advertising
The history of Warsaw's outdoor advertising goes back to over a century ago. At the time, Warsaw was in the top ten of Europe's largest cities. It was not, however, a modern metropolis, but a provincial capital subordinate to St. Petersburg. It grew haphazardly, without a plan, and was tightly confined within its fortifications. The streets were becoming littered with increasing numbers of shop signs and advertisements. An order issued in 1844 which deemed that all signs must be in Polish and Russian contributed to the proliferation of outdoor signage.
It made merchants add signs to their shops, often painting over parts of building façades. At the end of the 19th century, advertising was rampant and it obscured the city's architecture. More than a century later, the problem of advertising chaos is no less relevant. Perhaps this was best evidenced by Euro 2012, during which the centrally-located Plac Defilad [Parade Square] and the railway bridge were transformed into huge advertising spaces reserved for a select few sponsors.
In this part of the exhibition, we present concepts aimed at taming the spread of advertising in different periods of Warsaw's history. In 1915, German authorities ordered that all Russian signs be removed, and that shop signs be reduced in size. However, most merchants just painted over the unwanted signs, thereby disfiguring the city even more. A year later, Warsaw city hall was approached by local architect Francis Lilpop, who presented a draft set of "new rules on hanging shop signs and commercial advertising." He proposed that signs be standardized by reducing their size and simplifying their form; he also sought to limit the number of advertising posters on historic buildings. The posting of signs on buildings of historical significance would require the consent of city officials, who could deny applications and request the removal of existing signboards.
In 1918, the Warsaw Courier stated that, "the name of the store, the owner's name, the street number, and – last but not last – the year of establishment: that is all a sign needs." Advertising was subject to taxes. Only then did the Russian subtitles disappear, and ads were moved from the walls of buildings to shop windows. During the Interbellum, the issue of informational plaques on the façades of public offices was also regulated.
During the communist era, the issue of advertising chaos disappeared together with a reduction in private commercial activity. Neon signs, murals and signboards became part of the central planning policy.
The problem returned with the 1989 political transformation and the economic freedom that ensued. Urban standards disappeared, with the free market and private property becoming fetishes. Authorities turned a blind eye to lawless architectural decisions and the disorderly expansion of both buildings and advertising. The Department of Aesthetics and the organizers of public campaigns tried in vain to regulate the presence of advertising in urban space.
Advertising is art
Warsaw's architects, painters and graphic artists often designed commercial posters, shop window displays and murals. These not only contributed to increased sales and profits for advertisers, but also improved the aesthetics of the city. The 1920s saw discussions about the artistic value of advertising. Small graphic art studio popped up and advertising duos formed, often originating from the architectural milieu. Members of the Advertising Graphic Artists Group and the Polish Advertising Association aimed to counteract the "flood of cheap artistic trash along with the indifference and/or artistic ignorance of so-called customers." They wanted to "bestow upon advertising the right to exist openly" and turn it into a subject taught at trade schools so as to educate local experts in this field.
Through specialized magazines, exhibitions and participation in international advertising congresses, Polish advertising artists advanced in stature while Warsaw became the site of many interesting projects.
In this part of the exhibition, we also showcase modern advertising which utilizes the possibilities offered by new communication channels (social media, expanded reality).
Streets under control
After the Second World War, urban space and consumption – like all spheres of life – were subject to state supervision. In a centrally-planned economy, there was no room for fragmented and diversified commercial activity, and in 1947 the fight against unsanctioned commerce began under the slogan "battle for trade."
Advertising returned to the mainstream during the so-called thaw – "mainly the need to boost trade and spur on the growth of production and consumption determined the need to reactivate advertisements." Guides and handbooks were published, devoted to such topics as display window decoration and shop arrangement, full of examples from the West. The pre-WWII magazine entitled Reklama (Advertising) began to be published once again. In 1956, a centrally-controlled factory producing neon lights (PUR "Reklama") was set up, and the Visual Arts Studios operating since 1949 began preparing advertising concepts.
On the streets of Warsaw advertising mingled with political propaganda. Shop displays were meant to showcase the product itself, and not depict man in a paradise of consumption. Official recommendations instructed users on how to create and install advertisements in urban space. The profession of designer was also subordinated to the centrally-planned advertisement production system. On the one hand, the growth of poster art was supported; on the other hand, however, the advertisements produced were dull and predictable.
"Large format" city
In the 1990’s, Warsaw's streets changed beyond recognition. Old neon signs and murals were destroyed, though the occasional ones still stick out from between new buildings. Along with freedom, consumption also returned to everyday life. The functions of the traditionally-conceived urban space were gradually taken over by shopping centres (with the first one opening in 1993), which nonetheless mimic familiar shopping street patterns and try to artificially create an urban character (by organizing exhibitions, "festivals" and other similar events) with a view to attracting customers.
The streets, meanwhile, were hit by a tidal wave of large format advertising. This feature sometimes gets a stronger reaction from visitors than the capital's tourist attractions. It represents an unresolved problem: there is a lack of uniform legislation, while the laws that do exist are not enforced, with outdoor advertising companies managing to bypass them effectively.
The exhibition showcases documents devoted to outdoor advertising in Warsaw over the last 10 years.
Say no to outdoor!
The issue of regulating outdoor advertising continues to be put off indefinitely. Meanwhile, outdoor advertising degrades urban space and provokes extreme reactions: from people cutting holes in the wallscapes covering up their windows and protests of human rights organizations, to artistic and anarchistic initiatives. The last part of the exhibition is thus devoted to the fight against outdoor advertising led by building residents and artists, and provides examples of countries which have succeeded in saving their urban space from becoming an advertising medium.
The technological revolution (e.g. biometric tests) and the implosion of consumption across time and space may lead to significant changes in the advertising market. Advertising stands a chance to become be less invasive: after all, it will be addressed to specific consumers on the basis of their needs, and will be subject to "screen versions of reality" and changes dictated by the growth of social media. Today it is difficult to predict the future shape of the city. Will we walk down the street, stopping to enjoy well-designed shop window displays and unobscured architecture? With the availability of new research and technologies, should the entire urban space still belong to advertising?