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Joe Comer:Together, soon enough – Love, hope and the passage of time in Melbourne’s COVID landscape

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

"In essence, I am interested in how the use and creation of certain signs by varied individuals and institutions (e.g. the Victorian government, councils, businesses) is often intended not just to reflect emotions expressed by people in ‘the wild’, but actually to bring certain kinds of emotional atmosphere into being. Here, ‘signs’ refers not just to official signs, but all forms of semiosis (meaning-making) in public. "

At some point last year, towards the end of Melbourne’s first coronavirus-induced lockdown (not that we’re counting), I was masked up and walking along Smith Street in inner-city Collingwood, when I looked up and saw a message painted in the window of an apartment, two stories above:


REMEMBER:

1) ❤️ YOU ❤️ ARE ❤️ LOVED ❤️

2) FIND 3 THINGS YOU ARE GRATEFUL FOR EACH DAY!

3) THIS IS NOT FOREVER

4) WE ARE DOING THIS FOR OUR COMMUNITY!


When I first saw these messages, I didn’t have my ‘linguistic landscape researcher’ cap on (inasmuch as I one can ever take that cap off). Indeed, I think I was more preoccupied by the exciting fact I was about to get my hair cut for the first time in three months. However, I do recall being struck by the heartfelt nature of the message, and the fact that it seemed to be a message from a stranger, addressing me as an individual and the entire streetscape, at once. Importantly, it can also be seen as representing all inhabitants of the city speaking in unison: the ‘we’ and ‘our’ in the final line could well have been voiced by Melbourne itself.


Although I did not know it then, these messages above Smith Street were posted not by a stranger, but by an old friend of mine, who later recounted how her message had changed over time. Initially, alongside a picture of a teddy bear, alternative, yet equally reassuring signs were made: ‘This too shall pass’, ‘I love you!’, ‘Move your body!’ and ‘You got this!’ This friend had also walked the streets of the inner-city pasting small stickers on poles and slipping them in letterboxes, with the same message repeated: You are loved.

The sign/s I describe above strike at the heart of a research question I seek to address with this ongoing project (pun intended): how has the linguistic landscape of Melbourne engaged with our emotions during this pandemic? Indeed, more accurately, perhaps the question I am asking is how the linguistic landscape told the city how to feel. And in a somewhat unconventional manner, the research I undertake seeks – as much as possible – to treat the city as a speaking, feeling actor. How is Melbourne telling itself, and being told, how to feel?


In more abstract terms – with ‘affect’ as a way to describe emotions as relational, a product of social interaction – my research examines what sociolinguists have recently begun calling ‘affective-discursive practice’. These practices are forms of linguistic “recruitment, articulation, or enlistment ... [when] bodies, subjectivities, relations, histories, and contexts entangle and intertwine together to form just this affective moment, episode, or atmosphere” (Wetherell, 2015: 160).


In essence, I am interested in how the use and creation of certain signs by varied individuals and institutions (e.g. the Victorian government, councils, businesses) is often intended not just to reflect emotions expressed by people in ‘the wild’, but actually to bring certain kinds of emotional atmosphere into being. Here, ‘signs’ refers not just to official signs, but all forms of semiosis (meaning-making) in public.


In this respect, following the recent overview on this research area by Wee and Goh (2020: 8), the semiotic landscape can be seen as “structuring the affective affordances and positionings of individuals and groups”. In ways that vary according to social context – and are deeply affected by the time they’re articulated – affective-discursive practice creates certain types of space.


Affect is found in messages in apartment windows, government campaigning, stickers on poles, advertising, graffiti and street art, and the placards at the entrance to every shopping centre, reminding us not only to check in and wear a mask, but also that ‘hope needs action to bring change’ (in the case of the Emporium, in Melbourne’s CBD). In all cases, in every city, across a world in crisis over the past 18 months, affect has been enlisted by signs (and the producers of those signs) as a way to instil hope, allay fear, and spread love. My research seeks to dig deeper at how this is done.


Unique in Australia – but by no means exceptional, or catastrophic, when compared to what has occurred worldwide – Melbourne’s experience of the pandemic presents us with an opportunity not just to examine how affective-discursive practices in the landscape operate, but also how these practices change across time.

How does a landscape refer to the pandemic, and influence how people feel regarding it, once the pandemic fades away as an immediate threat – or at least appears to?


As Melbourne grapples with its second hard lockdown in the space of a month, and its fifth iteration of one, it feels strange to try and research what at the time felt like an end to the crisis; a re-awakening of sorts. New variants of the virus, an inefficient and slow vaccine rollout (to put it mildly), and inadequate quarantine arrangements threaten to undermine the statement made by WHO Director Michael Ryan in March 2021, that Australia had “destroyed the curve”. Success, in a time of pandemic, is short-lived.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the massive impact of the second wave of the virus in Australia, concentrated solely in Melbourne, and the attendant lockdown lasting from late June to October. This lockdown has had an indelible effect on Melbourne’s collective psyche. And thus, there is no denying the significance of the joyful, celebratory responses that resulted from Melbourne’s collective “destruction” of the curve.


These sentiments are captured vividly in the below mural by the artist Callum Preston, as found on the side of a pub in inner-city Fitzroy. This mural was painted the day after Melbourne exited its hard lockdown, on October 21.

Through the evocative iconography or praying hands – albeit clasped around a cold one – this mural evocatively expresses the feeling of an entire city. As Preston told me later, the image “felt like the tongue in cheek sigh of relief that [the] majority of people were feeling in that moment”. On the Instagram post which announced his new piece, Preston told his followers, and the city, to “be safe, but be proud!”. The reason was clear, and expressed clearly in the words of his affective-discursive artwork:


WE HAVE GIVEN … & WE HAVE RISEN


In these moments – and in fact all the affective-discursive practices I explore – what scholars call a ‘chronotope’ emerges, a representation of the world which “formulates a sketch of personhood in time and place” (Agha 2007: 321). In simple terms, Melburnians, and Melbourne as an actor itself, are formulated according to the ‘during’ of the second lockdown, and the ‘since’ that has followed. There was a time of giving. Now is a time of rising.


Once restaurants were able to re-open, many local councils around the city adorned outside seating and ‘parklets’ with affective messages of rediscovery, openness and rebirth. City of Monash used colourful images of butterflies: “business is blooming”. Another campaign encouraged residents to “Stay kind and Melbourne on”, and another declared ‘Let’s Melbourne again’. Along with that atmosphere of celebration came messages of congratulations – a litany of signs saying ‘well done’ and ‘good work’.


Clearly, however, the pandemic is not over, and Australia and Melbourne now stand in a precarious position in time and space: at once ahead on the world, apart from it, and still inexorably affected by it. In front of the pace, while getting left behind.


Thus, a third, unsettled chronotope I am calling ‘during/since’ emerges in the signs I have documented: moments, both intentional and accidental, which point to the innate uncertainty of the time we are living in, and the freedom Melbourne enjoys (most of the time). This chronotope emerges in the ways that old signs and affects are repurposed; re-used in the contexts of a new outbreak and new lockdown. One may also argue that this chronotope is even found is the slow decay of the signs I examine – the way their loving, joyful affects fade over time.



The above ‘Hugs’ poster (at left) was produced by the artist Peter Drew during the second lockdown, with people around Melbourne and Australia encouraged to paste up its enduring and simple message of hope: ‘together soon enough’. Its embracing figures soon appeared all around Melbourne, including the suburb of Coburg (as above). The picture at left was taken in May 2021, and the picture at right in July 2021. As can be seen, the message of hope that had been inscribed on this suburban wall can no longer be seen.

The sign is no longer there. Thankfully, however – if I may speak of/for Melbourne, as a Melburnian – I can attest that the affect remains. Our sense of home endures. The hope endures, to be expressed through new signs, in new ways, across the unsettled timespace of this pandemic. As my friend’s window message noted, this is not forever. We – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, and the world – will be together, soon enough.


References:


Agha, A. (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511618284


Wee, L. and Goh, R.B.H (2020) Language, Space and Cultural Play: Theorising Affect in the Semiotic Landscape. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108559515


Wetherell, M. (2015) Trends in the turn to affect: A social psychological critique. Body & Society 21(2): 139–166. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034X14539020


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