FRONT PAGE / POSTS
Phone Box, RIP
by Chris Arning| London, UK
Thursday, 16 December 2010
tags: art & design, consumer culture, europe, making sense, socioeconomics
One of British street artist Banksy's most notorious pieces shows a red phone box prone — dumped in a side street, bent as if it were the twisted corpse of a road accident victim hit at high speed. The phone box has a pick-axe through its dorsal area and its windows are smeared by its own blood and viscera. The awkward angle signifies the squalid nature of its death — as if it were running away from its assailant and halfway round a corner when it ran out of time.
In the context of the gradual privatizing of Britain this is poignant visual commentary indeed — one of several semiotic warning signs showing how far along this process is. The growth of non-spaces signify the warping of the public realm; phone boxes are a victim of this warping.
In his book Multimodality, author Gunther Kress writes about social semiotics: "It is the social which generates the 'cultural' and, in that the 'semiotic'." He goes on to write: "In advanced capitalist conditions, the market actively fosters social fragmentation as a means of maximizing the potential of niche markets… The subjectivity preferred by the market is that of 'consumer'." Like the post box and Post Office, red phone boxes used to be seen as signs of the public polity, as a public good. A call for 10p piece and the small queues you sometimes saw outside even sparked some public discourse. Alas, red phone boxes have taken a beating. First they lost their red coats and became ugly glass vitrines. Then, through the 1990s, as mobile phone penetration robbed them of their utility, they lost their clientele. It was good to talk (said Bob Hoskins in a famous British Telecom ad), but now it is good to text.
Phone boxes have become relics: crass and unsightly ciphers of the materialism of 2010-era Britain. They stand as pointless sentinels on the street ignored by all but the homeless and reckless. They are invariably empty, with the phone either disconnected or the receiver hanging forlornly by its cord. Banner advertising (10th anniversary of Spearmint Rhino anybody?) wrapped on the outside often obscures what is inside. Invariably this will be the calling cards of the sex industry — a gallery of scopophilia. 'Busty brunettes', 'Oriental honeys' and other flotsam thrown up by the latest wave of sex trafficking direct their blandishments at the passerby. The smiles and burnished curves belie the emptiness of a transaction that costs much more than a 10p phone call. Inside they define the word insalubrious, usually smell of urine, and someone has scrawled a slanderous sexual accusations onto the phone console with a key.
Sordid, dilapidated, empty — but selling sex. The phone box is a signifier of the cheapening of life in Britain, hollowing out of public spaces, outsourcing of public services and the vacuum of a Tory cabinet bereft of ideas. It's a proxy for the triumph of consumerism over communication.