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Day-Glo Love RIP
by Rob Engels| Sydney, Australia
Friday, 17 January 2014
tags: art & design, australasia, consumer culture, culture, fuzzy sets, making sense
I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, IT’S JUST THAT THE ANTIPODES ARE EMERGING FROM SOMETHING OF A FLUORESCENCE FEST; a cavorting carnival of day-glo where, around every corner, something harmfully orange or green lies in wait to colourfully mug you. But, scratching beneath the surface, this brash urban grammar is semiotically rich. Ramrodded into a semiotic square, it might look something like this:
OFFLINE NOTORIETY: With the likes of Tumblr elevating fashions and personalities out of obscurity, fluoro is the offline equivalent. Just as night athletes and workmen leverage fluorescent strips to achieve high vis standout, and a highlighter pen is used to illuminate valuable text, fluorescent fashion and goods yield instant personal notoriety in a culture that is saturated with aesthetic noise. A little bit loud, a little bit lary. This power of saliency was recently exploited by Australian Aboriginal artist, Reko Rennie, who covered the façade of a prominent Sydney building with the traditional geometric markings of the Gadigal people. Using a strikingly fluorescent colour palette he defiantly foregrounded the issue of Aboriginal land rights and more broadly re-illuminated the ongoing suppression of Australia’s first people. Widespread embrace of fluoro by youth may also reflect a generational chink in the armour of Antipodean Tall Poppy culture. A recognition in youth circles that individualism, entrepreneurialism or overt displays of success no longer contravene the right to belong. Here fluoro codes a kind of collective individualism.
MANIFESTO: The conspicuous absence of fluorescence from classical art (to be fair, fluorescent paint was only conceived in the 1930s), and its growing incorporation into the contemporary scene (e.g. Archibald prize winner, Adam Cullen’s controversial work) highlights the power of day-glo to disrupt convention and to earmark acts of transgression. This is rooted in a historical association between fluoro and rebellion: 90s rave party glow sticks, the death-head lunatics in Batman Forever and the anarchic punk of Rubella Ballet, all delivering fat doses of day-glo and inciting us to rise up in the urban malaise. In this light, fluoro is a handy visual mantra for youth agitators, serving as muse, catalyst and weapon. In rude health, an orange fluoro blouse phatically arrests the gaze of innocent bystanders and, on a good day, conatively precipitates protest (averting the eyes, mental scorn, polite tutting, wild sarcasm …). This consolidates the wearer’s role as outlaw and plots them in opposition to conservative aesthetes, critics and would be oppressors.
IRREPRESSIBLE VIBRANCY & A MATURING RELATIONSHIP WITH REALNESS: The sheer visual physicality of fluorescence – its uncompromising capacity to excite the eye – can also lend brands and consumers brutal cut through in an era where bland Apple minimalism and the dull, earthy tones of the organic and real food movements dominate the aesthetic register. Shopping for natural or healthier alternatives in the supermarket, we’ve been bogged in a pious quagmire of squalid browns, reproachfully scratchy cardboards and the wiry evil of burlap (a hair shirt for your sins?). However, brands like Kiehl’s and Nudie successfully leverage fluorescence as an index (and icon) of the vitality of nature, transmuting some of its raw photosynthetic power or feel-good emotional vibrancy. Emitting radiation (light) at a higher frequency (energy) than that absorbed, fluoro packs literally bombard the eye whilst promising to wake us up with a natural burst of energy. In the wake of brands like these, the discourse of natural emergently shifts from atonement, renunciation and miserliness to exuberance, vitality and abundance. Fluoro packaging has a semiotic field day, symbolising rebellion against the worthy brown dogma, whilst channelling its alternative via mimicry and direct action.
PRO-ACTIVITY & BLINDING OPTIMISM: The earlier onset of fluoro culture in New Zealand relative to Australia mirrors the economic gap between the two nations. Hit harder by the latest wave of economic turmoil, New Zealand youth appropriated fluorescence en masse as a symbol of counter-cultural optimism and proactivity in a climate of fiscal nay saying. Fluorescent goods helped them to summon the playfulness, excess and abandon of 80s day-glo fashion or the gay naivety of fluoro kids toys, carving out an emotional solace beneath dark economic clouds. Merchants also got in on the act by daubing shop fronts and interiors with day-glo paint, unwittingly evoking corporate neon signage that blazes from the high rises of urban power centres; a message of economic might to quell consumer jitters.
CHROMO SOLIDARITY: Social media has undeniably fractured the consumer landscape, empowering a degree of personal experimentation that was hitherto inaccessible to the herd. An infinity of digital blogs feed a kaleidoscope of hyper-personalised pursuits: from tea ceremony to dogging. But fluorescence entered this heavily splintered world and brought a lick of agreement. Appropriated by legions of youth, fluoro fast became a signifier of tribal solidarity, not dissimilar perhaps to the visual language of bioluminescent jellyfish. Summoning a heady mix of optimism, transgression and unabashed playfulness, day-glo love united a generation coming of age.
© Rob Engels 2013