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Background Noise

Advertising space. Space available. Space to occupy. Space for the plant nursery, the mechanic, the tyre fitter, the bank. Space for the biscuit factory, the butcher, the sandwich shop. Space for fireplace installers, solar panel dealers, vibrator sellers. Space for new apartments, for closing down sales, for 50% discounts, for the new shop opening just five minutes from the motorway exit. Space for the garden show, the musical, the porn star’s guest appearance in town. Space for the mayoral candidate, for the local politician, for those who hate immigrants, for those who want to sell you land, and advertising space. Empty space, available space, space to occupy.

“La Macroregione è una giungla che schiaffeggia il viaggiatore con messaggi pubblicitari ai lati delle strade.”

Production and promotion. The Macro-region is a jungle of advertising signs that accost travellers from the roadside, creating a sort of incessant, crude, repetitive background noise. In the Macro-region’s forest there are no trees, but rows of galvanized metal poles holding signs of various sizes that the paladins of the local economy use to stand out from the rest and grab the customer’s attention. This metal forest hates smooth traffic, and loves a gridlock, because drivers have more of a chance to be distracted by the roadside panels, the advertising vans parked on dirt tracks and the billboards attached to derelict farm buildings. It knows that a well placed message is more noticeable than a pedestrian who wants to cross the road. It hates smart phones, social networks, texting and online chat, because they steal the precious attention of drivers, who now spend their time flipping back and forth between their screens and the car in front, to avoid hitting it while continuing to read and write messages. The signs love capitals and loud colour combinations; they shout to make themselves heard and cover what remains of the horizon.

“chi gestisce e controlla le affissioni è diverso a seconda della classificazione della strada.”

The Macro-region is a jungle of signs managed and controlled by a host of different administrators, depending on what kind of road they are on: municipal, provincial, regional, state or granted by concession, like the motorways. Along the 36,000 kilometres of tarmac that cross the region authorised advertising space jostles with unauthorised space, easy money for the companies selling the space and the local administrations, who cash in on the permits for occupying public space, the taxes on advertising and the fines for those don’t follow the rules. But in actual fact the system can’t keep up with the proliferation of signs and billboards, not to mention the fact that the few licensees there are have long-standing links with local politicians, whose election campaign spaces they manage, and public officials.

There is no shortage of rules: the Highway Code details proximity rules, safeguards for motorists and areas which are out of bounds, for example, but there is relative interest in enforcing these rules and when necessary they can be waived by municipal or provincial authorities. It is easier to remedy illegalities by passing new local laws. Removing unauthorised signage costs money that local governments are unwilling to spend. Then there are ways to get around the rules: on ringroads, where advertising is not permitted, advertising can be attached to flyovers, or you can always convince a local farmer to put up a sign at the edge of a field. As this is private land it is by no means simple to get it taken down. Another strategem is the fake, never-ending renovation: take a building, cover it in scaffolding and use the resulting surfaces to stick up apartment-sized billboards. The renovation? There’s no rush. This is also done on monuments, and occupying any available space with advertising is now such an all-pervasive practice that it has become normal. It is hardly surprising.

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It’s not just a matter of the space that doesn’t exist anymore. There is also the space that wasn’t there before, and now is. Created where nobody could have ever imagined, where once the void would have been the void was replaced by a void soon to be filled. Consumption and production of space, an upsetting feeling about anything not exploited. Space bought and sold as empty, but already filled in practical terms.

“Il loop di produzione e promozione genera una trance che ha creato un paesaggio nuovo, alternativo, presidiato dalla comunicazione.”

In a survey of the streets of Milan, the association Italia Nostra, which was set up to protect the landscape, estimated that around 80% of billboards is unauthorised, above all in the outskirts, along the slow-moving roads that link the capital of the Macro-region with the hinterland. Milan’s Provincial Administration itself launched an illegal initiative of epic proportions, offering 945 billboards on 100 roundabouts, in exchange for taking care of the greenery on each traffic island. After being brought to public attention, to a general outcry, the Provincial Council halved the number of billboards available, yet the fact remains that the Highway Code prohibits advertising on roundabouts. But as money is always handy and administrations are short of cash for roadside maintenance, why not take a tolerant approach?

The background noise is increasing, signage advances and every clean-up is followed by new plantings, adding to the jungle. Chiming into the cacophony of billboards are the signs of shops, wholesalers, restaurants and companies, that spring up at random intervals along the roadside. Signs that step up the clamour and tend to be increasingly tawdry, printed on laminated panels to save time and money. The constant loop of production and promotion has given rise to a new, alternative landscape, where communication is king. A landscape where you can sometimes come across blank signs, covered in blue paper or tattered remnants of torn posters: a little hiatus of silence in a jangling racket conjured out of mid air, in the middle of nowhere, rectangles that Padania man has stolen from the sky and the land to tout himself and his goods, a slap in the face for his peers and himself.

80%

Percentuale affissioni abusive a Milano
(Italia Nostra)