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COLUMN: This is what your mind looks like without advertising

Electronic billboards on the streets of Paris are shut down as municipal lawmakers try to sort out the rules.
Electronic billboards on the streets of Paris are shut down as municipal lawmakers try to sort out the rules. - The News

DRAWING ON THE ARTS by Magdalena Randal

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

1 Corinthians 13:12 King James Version

For over three weeks there has been an increased calm on the rainy streets of Paris. The forecast is for this quiet to persist. Since the first of the year, 1630 advertising billboards have been silent as a result of a ruling by the state regulatory board. Though the mayor’s office claims that 400 of these billboards were dedicated to providing useful content, like maps and public announcements, I have never seen anything but annoying, promotional junk on them.

The machines were installed by the JC Decaux group, a company that pays the city 30 million euros for the right to advertise on them. The shutdown was caused when the mayor’s office wanted to approve video content for 15 per cent of the screens, claiming it would be used for disseminating important information relevant to citizens.

The state legislators refused the initiative because it violates a 2011 rule limiting “advertising pollution” in the capital. A French newspaper reports that Sebastien, a 25-year-old Parisian, says he never looks at the signs, which litter the streets here, so he didn’t notice they had all suddenly gone blank. Likely he spends most of his time staring down at his smartphone. But for those of us who walk around without devices, and still pay attention to the world we actually live and breathe in, the lull was apparent immediately. The empty “suckers” (as they are called by locals because they are shaped like huge lollipops) are now actually pacifying.

When they are “on,” everything around these poorly cadenced contraptions always feels agitated – smoggy. You can almost hear a devilish whisper: “You don’t have enough time, hurry up, hurry up,” as images are constantly cycled in a rhythm that makes it impossible to really take in the “information.” In other words, they are not tools to inform but to influence.

I was relieved on reading about the wisdom of the justice system and delighted to discover that in the city of Grenoble there is a complete ban on billboards. The shutdown in Paris is slated to last for at least a year while the lawmakers sort things out.

That is enough time for hope to blossom and perhaps prevail over the greed and fear that the ads promote. Jacques Boutault, the environmentally conscious mayor of the second arrondissement, has suggested that saplings should be planted to replace the dormant placards. On the sidewalk in my neighbourhood the dove-grey blank slates already seem to be aligning themselves with the trees instead of assaulting passersby. The peace the now barren squares evoke is the very thing the advertisers are so afraid of: the kind of silence that invites real reflection.

Enjoying the emptiness of the sleeping signs, I am reminded of reassuring winters in the Maritimes. A few days ago, Richard Murphy, a friend in Nova Scotia, sent me a haunting video of an owl who lives near his Pictou County home. (https://vimeo.com/243878939) We communicated about the dilemma involved in sharing bird sightings. Noah Comet, a bird lover from the U.S., recently published a thought-provoking article about enjoying observing birds without being intrusive. He argues that a photo or video of a creature is a positive way to share the experience, to raise awareness, as opposed to sending people to the site to disturb the peace. Comet concludes, “It is hard to care about something you can’t see.”

Why can’t we accept the testimony of people who have experience of something they can see, feel and care about it? Are we living in a world so devoid of trust that we need to rely on “content providers” to tell us what is real or –worse – what is necessary for our enjoyment of life? And why not read about the world instead of constantly seeing it? Well, that would take imagination!

These are some of the things I’ve been considering on walks through quieter Paris streets. The “suckers” transformed make me smile… especially on dim, rainy days, they are like mirrors. You can see your own reflection in the glass unmarred by busy logos. You can also see the reflection of the streets disappearing into the infinity that has always endured beyond the clamour of temptation.

Magdalena Randal is a Nova Scotia artist and filmmaker currently studying in Paris.

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