Urban Distortions: from The Naked City to Sin City

John O´Reilly


"There are eight million stories in the naked city and this has been one of them," says the narrator concluding The Naked City, a 1948 movie set in New York. In the last line of the movie, voiced by the narrator, the citizens become metaphors, `eight million stories', a reverse transubstantiation, from flesh-and-blood into stories, from many singular stories into one big naked city, one big idea. It's an idea that has run from Plato's Republic where Socrates links the different psychological components of an individual and how they add up, to the different types of citizens that add up to his ideal city, all the way through to Milton Glaser who visualized New York with typography and a symbol.

The Naked City

Whether it's The Republic, or "I Love New York" or The Naked City individual stories are always swallowed up, given a purpose, by the idea of the city as `organic'. The concept of the "Naked City" is the ultimate version of this idea, as the title itself suggests that the city has an essential core that can be revealed. In the 1970s the myth of the "Naked City" began to break down with the publication of Learning from Las Vegas which not only championed the vernacular but championed the idea of multiple visual languages.

The Graphopolis

By the 1980s with the appearance of designer objects and clothes and the idea of lifestyle we entered the age of the `graphopolis'. The "Naked City" might have had eight million stories but by the 1980s people's homes and clothes and accessories became stories and narratives, walking billboards, every purchasing decision becoming a lifestyle choice, whether it was magazines and newspapers, the logos and signage on t-shirts, trainers, watches, the readable design of suits, the cut and cloth, the graphics of accessories, and in the new millennium that included the colour coding of cellphones and iPods.


There never really was a "Naked City", just the idea of one. Even the skyscraper, the cathe- dral of Modernism, the architecture of nudism stripped of ornament, became for Saul Bass in the title sequence for North By Norhwest a minimalist grid of intersecting lines, trains tracks, lines of longitude and latitude, before dissolving as the building itself appears.

Everything and nothing communicates, and all cities are a heaving, bustling, beautiful mess of signs and expressions that are mildly noted, lusted after, brushed over, stared at and ignored. But something is shifting in the graphopolis. A visual trend in design and graphics that suggests the city is rapidly taking on a new form. It's based around trompe l'oeil, `the trick of the eye', and here is its visual language.

The visual language of urban distortions

1. Distorted space

Banksy is well known as a graphic agitator. His work belongs to the tradition of recontextualizing space and situations. It's applied Duchamp. When his work is hot he deconstructs space, he showcases the political and social paradoxes at work. In a trivial way, on the back of his book Wall and Piece he has a bit of blurb from a London policeman saying, "There's no way you're going to get a quote from us to use on your book cover." In 2006, the dark arts of the graphic designer can even turn anti-blurb into blurb.

Or Banksy's `rock' that looks like a cave artifact, picturing a caveman spearing a bull while pushing a shopping trolley. He placed it in the British museum with the caption, "This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era and is thought to depict early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds." The shopping mall. But the irony, is that even though it only lasted as an exhibit for eight days it is now in the permanent collection.

And that leads to the other inevitable paradox of Banksy's work (he secretly wants to be a graphic nudist). "They make flippant comments from buses", he writes, "that imply you're not sexy enough and all the fun is happening somewhere else. They're on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you."

It's funny and from the perspective of agit-prop he has a point. But `Banksy', is not just the signature underneath the political and social comment, it's also an advertisement for himself, for his own work, for his own stenciled brand, B A N K S Y.

The spiralling paradoxes of Banksy's work reach their limit in his deconstruction of the city space through the practice of trompe l'oeil, and where his work shadows a strange new visual mutation of the graphopolis. Like Banksy's shadow girl with balloons on the wall in Palestine, or the kids playing with a bucket and spade underneath a hole into beautiful beach on the same wall, and even his re-directed information graphics like the icon pointing a petrol pump at his own head as if it was a gun that makes you look twice before you register it as `fake', `wrong' or `untrue'. Banksy re-arranges space, generates space, create a hole in the fabric of reality onto somewhere else.

2. Distorted transport

It's not just graphic agitators who are carving out this strange hallucinatory space in the city. DDB Paris created an advert for Longchamps racecourse, where you come up the escalators from an underground train and you are faced with an image across the barriers that transports your vision to the horse stalls on a racecourse. The race track and grandstand itself come into view and scales back into the horizon. But wait! As you approach the stalls open and you are on your way out of the Paris Metro, via this hole, this tear in reality..

3. Distorted architecture

In the new world of trompe l'oeil it´s not only space that is counterfeited but materials. French design group Easyweb have also been generating a little graphic magic and illusion projecting sophisticated graphics onto buildings, not just images, but objects and animals that appear to give the buildings extraordinary textures and depths and visual forms. Their street level US non-professional equivalents are a group called Graffiti Research Lab whose manifesto is simply "dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists with open source technologies for urban communication." They create sculptural graffiti, producing neon graffiti that's placed high above the street on lamp-posts, or neon typography that glows on the side of shopfronts such as `Jesus 2.0'.

4. Distorted shopping

Most bizarrely of all there is the activist group Improveverywhere who simply used colour to unpick the reality of the urban shopping experience. They are not graphic designers in the conventional sense. They improvise the central message of The Matrix dissolving the boundaries between professional and amateur, which is key to this entire trend of trompe l'oeil.

In April 2006 eighty Improveverywhere volunteers gathered together all wearing blue polo shirts and khaki trousers and entered a store of the Best Buy chain. You know the experience of never being able to find a sales assistant when you want one? Improveverywhere provided a solution. The colours of their clothes matched those of the employees and confusion reined among staff and consumers as the everyday semiotic rules of clothes wear broke down. Some security screamed "Thomas Crown Affair" down walkie-talkies fearful that just like the Steve McQueen film, there was a heist about to take place where the thieves were all dressed in the same clothes. Customers simply asked the `assistants' for help and directions. What's fascinating about Improveverywhere was not the prank itself but its creative use of colour that unthreaded the fabric of this urban space.

5. Distorted prophets

Trompe l'oeil is an art of imitation, counterfeiting even, trying to pass off 2 dimensional graphics and 3 dimensional space. It counterfeits space. This trend around trompe l'oeil suggests we have what the philosophers used to call an `epistemological problem', that we are no longer certain about what we know, or what we know about the city, or even where is the city?

All this trompe l'oeil, this faking of urban reality is more than simply `candid camera', of which there is certainly an element of in Banksy's graphics. And it's about more than our taste for illusion, for magic and games, which David Blaine originally staged on urban streets and continues to use the city as his stage. Blaine is the street prophet of trompel'oeil, the John the Baptist a herald of the city as a new arena of magic, the new circus of signs.

6. Distorted images

Unsure of what the city is what space itself, urban space has become fluid and flexible, peculiar and odd, and unreal. There are so many other examples such as the artist Swoon who `populates' areas of New York with life-size cut-outs. Or part architect part photographer Thomas Demand who constructs life-size models based on media history and photographs them, reality and space reconstructed and highlighted.

And photographer Danwen Xing who shoots constructed models of urban spaces, apartment blocks, the high-rise concrete flowers blooming in the big new cities in China, changing the landscape and changing our idea of the city as a chronopolis, a space that evolves over centuries rather than years or even months. Inside her large scale images of buildings micro-sized human figures are dropped in, creating scenarios. Interviewed on www.contactphoto.com, Xing says of the models in the Urban Fiction project, "The models of these new living spaces are perfect and clean and beautiful but they are also so empty and detached of human drama. When you take these models and begin to add real life ­ even a single drop of it ­ so much changes. The figures act out totally imaginative roles as part of different plots and in different spaces that I visualize when I look at these models. For example, `I' am sometimes a white collar office worker brought to despair by job pressures and spiritual emptiness. Sometimes `I' am a materialistic woman enjoying a life of pleasure and dissipation. Or `I' am a young girl who has accidentally killed her lover in a mood of anger. Together the resulting pictures compose the episodes of the urban fiction." Urban Fiction is Hitchcock's Rear Window for a post-urban age. The difference is that where the stories in Hitchcock's piece added up, Xing's Urban Fiction breaks the narrative of city down into disconnected episodes.

7. Distorted geography

And what happens at the very moment the city appears to disappear, to re-appear as gaps in the wall, as cut-outs, as fake shop assistants, is that advertisers and designers and people need to map it, to mark it, to nail it down. It's why you get advertising which graphically marks out the city in some way.

Take for example the Target campaign in The New Yorker. Target, a stylish, middle class Wal-Mart in the US, (Target's Mrs Robinson to Wal Mart's Marge Simpson) took over the entire advertising space in the New Yorker magazine, and gave each page over to a designer or illustrator such as Milton Glaser, M&Co and Bill Brown.

The ads were all drawn in three colours, red and white for the Target bull's eye logo, and black. The illustrations were of typical New York scenes built from or built around the Target logo. There were no words, no slogans, no copy, they were pure visual illustration. From the scary skyscraper vertigo of M&Co to Katherine Streeter's collaged Mermaid with a `bob' on the boardwalk, to the sophisticated streetwise forms of Melinda Beck's New York fashionista, to the magic of James Jean's subway rush hour, Target curated a glorious show of illustration, of the grapholopolis. But it was also very much a sign of the times, as if Target needed post-it notes on New York, as if the geography was about to disappear.

8. Distorted etiquette

The city used to be a key target zone for advertising, but now in the internet 2.0 era, in the age of the iPod people zone out of the city space into their own psycho-sonic zone. Which is perhaps why we need a book on urban manners, even if it is fake information graphics. Matt Vescovo's Instructo Art, is a series of information graphics on modern manners demonstrating how to act in urban spaces, that ran originally as animation on MTV. Using classic `airline' info graphics panels show how to close an elevator door on someone, how to airkiss, or how to act properly at supermarket checkouts. It's ironic and funny but it suggests that the rules we knew instinctively about how to act in a city aren't quite as instinctive as they used to be.

9. Distorted promo

Beck's video for his single Girl, by Motion Theory, on the surface, and it's all about `surface', is a homage to the rich ethnic and cultural mix of Beck's LA. But it also visualizes face-changing streets, streets that collapse in on themselves to reveal entirely different messages based on the MAD magazine back-page fold-in by cartoon legend Al Jaffee. In the promo magazines, walls, and even pavements fold-in, and sentences such as `Big Ass Limo' become `Less is More'. It pictures the urban distortion of the psycho-podder created by music, who drifts in and out of the given urban environment and his own version of it.

10. Distorted Parks

Stefan Sagmeister's typographic project "Trying/ to look/ good/ limits/ my life" is a part of a series of `life lessons', which is broken down into five parts and displayed on large scale billboards in parks. It looks as if it belongs there. It also looks like a post-card from somewhere else. Or a post card from here. Sagmeister's piece is key to understanding the origins of this shift in how the city is pictured, perceived and represented. It's an example of the trend of `me-media', the media of self-expression that defines our age like myspace and friendster.

Distorted Endspace

The visual culture of the city is changing. Trompe l'oeil is its temporary visual language. And it's to do with commerce. The visual culture is changing because it is no longer perceived by everyone as the centre of commerce. People not only buy online, shop online, we sell online. Ebay is part of a wider trend that has transformed consumers from spectators into actors. Think back to Walter Benjamin's flaneur, the original urban tourist, the dandy who swanned around the arcades of the city browsing, looking, sucking in the new culture of commerce. Today's flaneur could equally live on the web, browsing, looking, but also probably selling.

Which is the second big factor in the current urban distortion, we want to be producers rather than consumers, we want to create, whether it's our own blogs, our own movies, our own schedules. We are moving to a post-consumer world. We haven't got the words to describe what we are or where we will be going. What we have are signs and visual, graphic symptoms.

What we do know is that the visual language of the urban space will radically alter, and the idea of the city having an organic story will disappear. The model is no longer the Naked City, but Sin City, half-real, half-computer-generated, a place where everything is larger than life where the stories overlap, don't quite add up. Where the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. Where the visual communications intensify experience rather than smoothing it over. Where visual storytelling becomes more open, more fluid, more adventurous. More, more.


Article for the Urban Distortions book, Basurama06.
La Casa Encendida. Madrid, the 14th of September 2006.

Traducción: Natalie Gómez Handford y Ana Fernandez-Caparrós Turina



On completing a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Warwick, John O'Reilly became an editor at The Modern Review, was a regular feature writer on Art, Pop Music and Media for The Guardian and Independent newspapers, and is a contributor to Eye magazine and Varoom! As editor of Colors magazine he worked with Oliviero Toscani, has written design books, and has been an award-wining copywriter at Intro design agency in London. He is currently working at Getty Images as editor of their award-winning magazine Edit, and co-author of the Getty Images MAP (what Makes A Picture) Report on trends in the visual language.