Sign of the Times
Last spring while working in the garden I made an archaeological find. In loosening some tree roots, I uncovered a ‘flippo’, the kind of printed plastic disc once included in packets of Smiths crisps. The disc is intact but the colours have faded a little and the printed image is slightly worn, from which I deduce that it has been buried in the earth for a couple of decades. I know that flippos were all the rage in the mid-1990s. As an eighteen year old at that time I was not part of the flippo’s target audience but the object nonetheless immediately evokes a feeling of that period: the Netherlands was enjoying economic prosperity and companies were devising various creative marketing strategies to generate brand loyalty among consumers.
Flippos were meant to be collected. I remember children walking around with large folders with plastic sleeves filled with them. Each disc with a well-known Looney Tunes cartoon character had a particular value. Kids knew these characters from the television; they had barely heard of the internet.
Today we receive many expressions of (popular) culture through the screens of our computers, tablets or smartphones. We increasingly use images for direct communication through fast, interpersonal connections via social-media platforms. One iconic example of this is the emoji, introduced in 2010. As it spread from Japan, it quickly became a part of our everyday communications. As a universal visual language, emojis are ideal for a globalised culture: language barriers are torn down.
In November 2015 the authoritative Oxford Dictionaries chose the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji as its ‘word’ of the year. This raises the question whether this meaningful icon represents a serious alternative to text-based communications in a networked society. Can we imagine a world in which words no longer have meaning and our thoughts and desire are expressed purely though images?
In 2011 the Zeeuws Museum hosted the exhibition UNDERGROUND about archaeological finds in Zeeland. During the preparations for the exhibition, I met with various amateur archaeologists, each with their own unique collection. One particular kind of object was especially well represented in these collection: medieval badges: lead-tin alloy pendants attached with a pin or eye to the wearer’s clothing or hat. These strange, mysterious ‘pictograms’ come from a period in which most people could neither read nor write. As objects, many of these emblems had a magical value and referred to an extensive system of narratives and meanings.
The badges were worn by all sections of society for several centuries. Some were believed to bring good luck; others identified the wearers as pilgrims, who were reliant for their survival on the generosity of others. The badges thus had an important signalling function.
The production and use of these badges dwindled in the fifteenth century with the introduction of the printed book. This moment is seen as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of a new, modern epoch. This method of reproduction enabled the rapid wide-scale distribution of knowledge and ideas. In combination with a growing literate population, this gave an unprecedented boost to social mobility for large groups of people. The badges predate this revolution but also heralded it. The badges were also manufactured in large numbers: a single mould could be used to make hundreds of badges. Badges were the first mass-produced reproductions for communication in all strata of society.
Sign of the Times
Proportionately, more badges have been found in Zeeland than in any other area. Some of them have survived for as many as 800 years in Zeeland’s clay-rich soil. Nonetheless, many of them are not easy to decipher. Their meanings have become blurred as the culture of shared narratives and values has disappeared. Like other signs and symbols, their meaning and interpretation is closely tied to the period in which they were made.
This e-publication is a follow-up to the exhibition Sign of the Times: Social Media of the Middle Ages held at the Zeeuws Museum in 2015, which brought together several hundred badges from private and public collections. It contains contributions from artists Constant Dullaart, Dennis de Bel and Roel Roscam Abbing, who look at the signs of our own time and consider what they say about our changing society.
Looking closely at the pilgrims’ badges, we see the transition from the illiterate Middle Ages to the modern epoch. In turn, the symbols we now communicate with are emblematic of the transition from the pre-internet age to a society in which digital technologies are now indispensible. For me, the title Sign of the Times refers to signs and symbols that, at first glimpse, communicate a modest message but which simultaneously reflect larger social movements and revolutions.
For this e-publication, the Zeeuws Museum has asked experts from a range of visual disciplines to write about the images that, for them, are emblematic of our time.
Graphic designer and author of the recent book The Politics of Design, Ruben Pater discusses the (mis)interpretation of graphic logos and symbols in relation to cultural differences.
Hanneke van Asperen, art historian and lecturer at the Radboud University, demonstrates how religious badges were subject to plagiarism and counterfeiting.
Artist and researcher Roel Roscam Abbing undertakes a detailed examination of emojis, the Unicode Consortium and how well-intended (but very American) perspectives on diversity encode racism.
Willy Piron, head of the Centre for Art-Historical Documentation at the Radboud University, gives an overview of existing theories about the meanings of sexual badges and introduces a new theory.
Janelle Ward, assistant professor at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, draws upon her own interviews with Tinder users to explore how they present themselves on the popular dating app.
Constant Dullaart contributes an artwork. Dullaart studied at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and lives and works in Berlin. In 2015 he received the Prix Net Art, a leading international prize for innovative Internet art.