Graphic commons: Oxford streets

For many, traipsing historic academic cobbles and staring at spires, let alone dreaming of them, would define any visit to Oxford. For me, on a family weekend there recently, it was an opportunity to study its graphic commons.


Looking for its vernacular, I mostly steered clear of high-street parades, and came away finding the city’s contradictions being easy bedfellows; high and low culture mix comfortably, on the streets at least. Testament to this are the highbrow events flyposted on chipboard, acting as a temporary hoardings for college concerts where no sacred wall can be damaged.


These sat just around the corner from the usual tattered pastings I more typically photograph. Technically the same in purpose and application, each arguably despoiling/enhancing the streets, depending on your point of view. The only difference being that those on chipboard could be moved out of sight quickly. While on display though, from a visual perspective, they are exactly the same.


Pockets of resistance were also visible. Some philanthropically recognised, others unofficially bubbling up from the underground.


Part and parcel of the heritage of a location, it could be argued these graphic voices from the streets, from a historical position, are as important to recognise and celebrate as any blue plaque.

70% of Oxfordshire voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, and clearly some people are proud of the fact. As a bastion of education, you would expect liberal leanings in some quarters, even if its university has been accused of social apartheid and elitism.


Some ludicrous dictates were evident—like telling people not to leave bicycles against walls, while applying an authoritative sign to said wall is fine. This is the opposite of the temporal flyposting boards mentioned above, where the bicycles can be removed, the sign is a more permanent edition*.  These are efficiently mocked though.


The city seemed at ease with itself though, as the hallowed streets of academia ran seamlessly into shopping malls and precincts. I liked the fact that the historical rubs up against the contemporary, that the hi-brow and the lo-brow have found a meeting point. And that made me feel comfortable. I’m absolutely sure that if I lived in Oxford, (or on the outskirts on one of its estates), with very little money I might feel very different. But plaques on walls around the city, stating where important historical debates had taken place and world changing inventions were dreamt up, displayed the pride of academia wanting to demonstrate how important it is to society. As alien as Oxford is from my academic life, I can recognise that pride at least.

* To be fair, this is disingenuous, as I do understand the damage handlebars could do to the stone wall over time.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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