In 1956, Alison and Peter Smithson, then enfants terribles on the British architecture scene, penned a treatise for Ark magazine celebrating the popular art of advertising and effectively collapsing distinctions between lowly and venerated forms of cultural production: “For us it would be the objects on the beaches, the piece of paper blowing about the street, the throw-away object and the pop-package. For today we collect ads.”
That last line, effectively also the title of their essay, resonates with an optimism absent from our moment, one saturated in capitalist spectacle, where every surface from street to screen comes with a sales pitch.
The Smithsons’ treatise is credited with introducing the phrase “Pop art” into the world. In the decades since, there have been endless debates on the highs and lows of advertising as art and the benefits, or cautions, of urban life steeped in media. Guy Debord, Marshall McLuhan, and Rem Koolhaas, among many others, have all weighed in. The Spanish photographer Oscar Monzon enters this discourse not with words but with images.
His book ORDER (RVB, 2021; 120 pages, $57), in fact, includes no text (not even page numbers) minus the enigmatic title. If Pop art entreated that we appreciate the beauty in the ubiquitous aesthetic of advertising, Monzon offers global cities full of pathos. A slim, tabloid-sized paperback, ORDER is a floppy and slightly unwieldy object. The opening series ofblack-andwhite photographs, each sprawled across a double-page spread, share similar compositions and subjects: individual pedestrians, centered in the frame, walk down the street of a bustling city. An office worker clutches a mobile phone. A man trots with a backpack. A modelesque woman swings a shopping bag. Their eyes are downturned, seemingly shut—sleepwalkers of the metropolis. In later pages, closed eyes are replaced by dark sunglasses.
Only advertisements direct their gaze to the camera. One image, printed on a black page, shows an ominous, single eye staring out from a watery gutter, as if the veil of reality has been pulled back and corporate gods are peeking through. In the single, full-bleed color photograph that punctuates the book, a lurid, idol-sized face is reflected in the windshield of a taxi, obscuring its driver. The photographs in ORDER were taken between 2014 and 2019 in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Berlin, Rome, and Madrid. This is the smooth space of globalized, capitalized urbanism. Place, defined by retail storefronts and marketing campaigns, is anyplace.
ORDER concludes with a series of black-and-white duotones presented on bright, canary-yellow pages, where subjects, no longer blind recipients, broadcast their own messages via their clothing’s mantralike slogans—STAY REAL. BLIND FOR LOVE. OBEY. One image in this section stands out: A protester is being carried away by two men and a police officer. In her hands is what we might assume to be a protest sign, turned backward, its words obscured. Unlike the subjects on previous pages who docilely move through cities, blind and acquiescing to the media swirling around them, she alone presents a point of resistance. But then is quickly absorbed back into the crowd.