May 20, 2020
by Matthieu Noucher is a geographer, a CNRS researcher (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), working at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne.
by Élise Olmedo is a geographer, post-doc researcher at Corcordia University in Montréal.
Boards, signs, notices are omnipresent objects in public spaces. Despite attempts at institutional directives and control, communication in urban environments is becoming more complicated because of the increasing number of active participants in town. During a pandemic, this competition between urban writings seems to be exacerbated. Though the coronavirus itself is invisible, a number of graphic and text messages are physically imprinting its presence in the public spaces.
One of the most noticeable changes in the center of Montreal has to do with the reconfiguration of the means of communication. In order to propose alternatives to people who have to get around, in order to avoid the overcrowding in public transportation and be able to respect social distancing (two meters / six feet in Canada), several large multi-laned motorized roads have been split: barriers isolate the furthest right hand lane, so that it becomes a bike lane or to widen the pedestrian sidewalk. "Buy local! Buy on-line!" can be read on orange signs tied to the metal barriers on the first "health corridor" tested on Mont Royal avenue. Successfully, since the city decided on April 17 to create dozens of other pedestrian spaces, spread accross nine districts.
These arrangements and all the subtle imprints that follow in public spaces are sometimes coordinated by the authorities, but more often are the fruit of individual initiatives. In Montreal, as in many other cities today, there are more and more signs on the ground to help with social distancing close to stores selling essential products. Just like the North American storekeepers that have gotten into the habit of doing it for the past few years , some stores (grocery and convenience) have encroached on the public space by putting portapotties on the sidewalk, often with signs and delimited by colored tape, forcing customers to respect security distance and disinfect their hands, under the watchful eye of security guards who are often gloved and masked.
This disorganized layout of signs seems to make up for the void left by all the abandoned signage from the beginning of the confinement. This profusion of graphic and scriptural designs that are emerging today encourages us to take a fresh look at this body of symbols and new writings directed at the inhabitants. In this unique period, it constitutes one of the important patterns of a new urban condition. Scriptopolis , an authorless object-book that came out in 2019, had already gathered a significant collection of photos of disparate writings that constituted the infra-ordinary of the city. In pandemic times, the extra-ordinary of the city and its public spaces is also shaped by writings.
So, recommendations on "preventive measures" are seen a little bit everywhere, on posts, on gates and fences and especially at the entrances of playgrounds and schools (though closed until Fall per a decision made by the Quebec government for the Montreal region, hit hard by the epidemic). These messages are also present in public transportation, in particular at temporary bus stops that appeared at the same time as the confinement and also in store windows. These messages, as insignificant as they may seem, are highly effective. They are at the root of new ways of being and of getting around in Montreal's public spaces. In particular, they have an effect on bodies, modifying social behaviors, limiting physical contacts, disrupting and hindering daily habits, whether in itineraries or in activities.
These recommendations come from local, provincial and federal authorities, but as can be seen on an ice cream shop's directional map, putting them in place is left to the discretion of the stores themselves, leading to a slew of rules sometimes excessive, and to an increase in check points inside as in outside of its space, even on public property. From the adjacent area to the inside of the store, over 12 messages are directed at the customers, on social distance and hygiene, while other directives not linked to hygiene rules are also present, such as the refusal of certain types of payment and a choice of products being sold - here ice cream flavors - which also predetermine, as usual, possible consumer choices. An employee at the entrance asks questions relating to Covid-19: "Do you have a fever? A cough? Have you been to a foreign country in the past 14 days?". It is only by respecting this route that customers can access the sales outlet, given a variable wait time.
Ice cream store route map in a Plateau neighborhood. In color: recommendations given to visitors by means of very visible and colorful signage and notices (signs at the entrance, at the sink and at the cash register); in blue and gray: store space, in particular windows, employees present and the counter. Made by Élise Olmedo, May 2020.
Just like new music scores and dances to follow, this flood of writings directed at the inhabitants transforms - perhaps long-term - the city and its habits. Much more commandeering than usual, these urban scores, very directive, do not allow for much free will. Posted or painted on this store's floor, these brightly colored messages rythmically placed along the itinerary personify a guidance system of bodies manipulated by a new kind of writing. This writing orients the customer's attention and actions, determines and constructs a new relationship to sensitivity in stores and public spaces. Adding these arrangements also shows how the store's usual space is now secondary and how the employees' presence has become unimportant and invisibilized in these extra-ordinary layouts, totally oriented toward the customers. In some cases, outside of the official recommendations, the injunctions sometimes even veer toward an explicitly authoritarian tone, if not aggressive, as in this sexist poster at the entrance of a Mont Royal Plateau grocery store.
On top of this outporing of writings, rainbow drawings are flourishing a little bit everywhere. Accompagnied with the slogan #ÇaVaBienAller (#AllWillBeWell) and displayed in windows of houses and stores, painted or drawn by children who haven't been to school for several weeks, the rainbow colors a city that emptied itself little by little, thank the confinement. It has become an emblem of hope imported from Italy. A witness to the success of this logo, its use for commercial and institutional purposes quickly followed. So the rainbow has recenty appeared on some of Montreal city's billboards, and a number of restaurants now propose delivery and take-out menus with the rainbow "label" which seems to subrepticiously represent a token of trust...
Left column: rainbow drawings with the slogan #ÇaVaBienAller (AllWillBeWell) stuck on stores and houses of the Villeray and Mont Royal Plateau neighborhoods. Middle and right hand columns: use of the rainbow for marketing purposes in stores, delivery services and drive-throughs or for territorial marketing in the town hall of Montreal (top right). © Matthieu Noucher, Élise Olmedo, May 2020
As a contrast to the official instructions, comforting posters or advertisements showing up in public spaces during this health crisis, other written forms of isoteric graphics, often unsigned, are popping up here and there. These posters, banners and stickers discreetly stuck under bridges, on bus shelters or garbage cans, shout out demands, in a more or less poetic way, or propose a few solutions to get out of the crisis. A few of these grievances, such as universal access to healthcare or rent control, are old but the on-going pandemic has given them a new resonance. Even during confinement and despite militant pratices being disrupted, such as the ban on gatherings, public spaces are still places for alternative expressions.
The complexification of the scriptural landscape of the town during this pandemic has therefore led to a competition between institutional, commercial and militant messaging. It creates a certain saturation of injunctions and incantations of which the hegemonic presence and the impact on the body and the spirit deserve to be questionned, while other demands, barely visible in the public space, have a hard time being heard by the authorities. It remains to be seen what will also be left...in the "after world".
 One example of tactical urbanism is the concept of "parklet" which consists in transforming a parking space into new uses. Started in San Francisco during the Park(ing) Day, an event that started in 2005 on the initiative of the Californian ReBar group, the first "parklet" was installed on Saint-Laurent boulevard in the center of Montreal in 2013.
 Scriptopolis, Editions Non Standard, 2019, 832 p.
Matthieu Noucher is a geographer, a CNRS researcher at UMR Passages (University of Bordeaux Montaigne). He is working on the social-political issues around the use of geographic information technologies and published at the end of 2017 "Les Petites cartes du Web. Approche critique des nouvelles fabriques cartographiques", Editions de la rue d’Ulm – Presses de l’ENS. From December 2019 to April 2020, he was in Montreal with the French program "international mobility" of the "Excellence Initiative" of the University of Bordeaux.
Élise Olmedo is a geographer, post-doc researcher at Concordia University in Montreal for the research project Banting at the Department of Geography, Planning, Environment and the Geomedia Lab. She finished her thesis in 2015 at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne, "Cartographie sensible. Tracer une géographie du vécu par la recherche-création". Her research is on the development of sensitivity mapping as a human and social sciences tool to trace the experience of the territory and give it a sensitivity dimension.