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Warning: Absurd warning sign ahead
Trevor Butterworth, August 7, 2009

A British activist group – The Manifesto Club – wants you to pay attention to the way you’re being scared by warning signs.

The cause of freedom is one long ticker tape of heated and often perilous news: the crackdown in Iran on government opponents, the surprising release of two American journalists from the prospect of 12 years of hell in a North Korean jail, and even the health care debate in the U.S., which in light of its complexity has turned from arguments over policy to arguments over liberty. But traffic cones around a patch of mud?

To the Manifesto Club, traffic cones, yellow tape, and the profusion of warning signs in Britain are symbols of a culture sacrificing freedom in the name of risk aversion. And to highlight just how pervasive the symbols of risk have become in society, they turned to the web to ask members of the public to submit excessive and often absurd warning signs.

The result has been turned into a book of photographs “Attention Please,” but many of the pictures can be seen on the club’s website. They include such gems as signs warning that cactuses “are covered in sharp spikes that may puncture the skin if touched,” a large sign warning parents to “Beware – Building Sites Can Be Dangerous,” and that a bench being painted next to the seafront is a “multi-hazardous area.” As sociologist Frank Furedi notes in a comment on the website:

“…In a world where safety has become an end in itself, society constantly promotes symbols and rituals to transmit the need for caution. Since we can never be too careful we need health warnings that remind us to beware. The photos provide striking illustrations of how risk management has turned into a performance. Warning signs cluttering the streets serve the role of a stage set where life as a risky drama can be negotiated. Probably we take the performance of risk management for granted so that we no longer notice the warnings that stand between us and the real experience. That is why this essay provides such a useful visual reminder of a world that turns daily routine into a trial for life.”

The project kicked off with a photo essay “Attention Please: A Walk Interrupted by Safety Signage” by Tom Mower, a graduate of the Royal College of Art. “You have to wonder were you could go with this. We could end up with signs saying:

People in path
Boats in river
Planes in sky
Stairs in building
Chairs in room
Waves in sea”

The Manifesto Club was profiled in a Financial Times series on how “a new and unconventional breed of campaigner is transforming the art of protest.” The club hosts salons and debates in dangerous settings that encourage the consumption of toxic substances – i.e., pubs. As Josie Appleton, club convenor told the FT that the club is trying to provide a political theory for the anger people feel over the way government bureaucracy is encroaching on daily life.

As such, the club is not simply agitating about the profusion of warning signs, but about other risk regulation, including the new rules requiring adults who work with children to be vetted to prevent the possibility of sexual abuse. The draft legislation which will make it a criminal offense for anyone to work with children who has not been vetted and registered on a government database has already led children’s writers such as Philip Pullman to say they would no longer visit schools.

The club is also engaged in a series of pan European events to raise awareness about the hyper-regulation of everyday life, dubbed “Freedom Summer.”


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