The role of accident, the role of time, and memory can be an inadvertent creative force. This came across powerfully to me last week as I went to a FedEx office in Manhattan to drop off a package. We recognized the anniversary of 9/11 in New York City last month, but we hardly need a reminder here. So, I ran across this image, a reference to the event of a number of years ago, and it still caught my attention, even more so. But the image had literally faded over time, some inks fade more from the ultraviolet rays from the sun than others, and in doing so, a story was transformed, poetically or simply ironically.
Never forget our. Our what? The sun has erased the message. This bumper sticker has been there for years, the sun has taken its toll and erased every color but the blue. And there it remains, a testament, but to what? It leaves it to you to fill in the blank. But no New Yorker is at a loss here; their memory fills in the blank. And, yes, there is the blue field of our flag there, and the text United We Stand, but this is hardly necessary.
But, this isn’t all. Yes, we recognize the message despite the ravages of sun and time. That’s the easy part. But there is something else happening, and yes, it is simultaneously an act of visual irony. Half of the message is gone, erased. It’s as if we have forgotten what we vowed never to forget. It’s funny. It’s funny and serious/emotive at the same time. It violates our sense of propriety. Surely, we can’t embrace both the solemnness of the sentiment and the implicit humor at the same time; that would be disrespectful. And what is there is there now is an image that no one ever intended to produce.
This clash between intent and effect could hardly have been expected. The poster of this sticker had no idea that over time the message would fade and could be co-opted by a new meaning. He/she also had no idea that the original message would stand firm despite the loss of half the message.
What makes it funny? Think of Abe Simpson forgetting a story in the middle of it, think about a comedian telling a story about an aunt with Alzheimer’s disease, think about how we might make a similar comment late one night in a bar among friends. We never forget our . . .
When we produce graphic imagery and messages, we have an intention behind them. We seek to communicate something; we seek to tell a story, and we expect others to read it, internalize it and relate to it. But sometimes something happens to that message and it gets affected by elements beyond our control. And this isn’t necessarily a loss. We need to be open to and appreciate the confusion, the ambiguity, the surprise, and read that for what it is worth. And revel in that confusing moment, and appreciate the new reality that happens beyond our control.