Plop, plop, plop, plop

Laura Waddell, Exit

Bloomsbury, 176pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781501358159

reviewed by A.V. Marraccini

It is telling that Laura Waddell’s Exit, a volume in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, has a blurb from both the first minister of Scotland and a well-known architectural writer. The series is popular across a wide cross-section of the curious-minded, not least because all the books are sized conveniently as objects themselves for a pocket or tote, and can be read easily on the go, even as they are serious contributions to the discourse. Waddell’s Exit is happily no exception; though physically small, its scope is at once sweeping and intimate, darting ably from urban spaces to individual case studies.

The beginning of Exit takes the reader by surprise with its poignancy. Expecting a clear-eyed history of signage (which Waddell saves this for later), one is instead faced with the problem of transience and migration, forced and otherwise. She asks, thinking of photographs of pack ships, trains, and border crossing lines full of people: ‘How often do we look need right in the eye?’

Waddell makes us look just so directly, painfully, at the exit that is also an entrance. She invokes a six-year-old girl held in immigration detention without her mother for 128 days, Magnus Hirschfeld’s burnt archive of Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin, Zweig, and the fact that she herself is ‘. . . always certain of the destination on my ticket. Other than disaster, I trust my exits will be followed by entrance.’ By contrast, for Zweig and for others, she sees ‘Exit as endless, perpetual, fatal. Exit felt in the bones.’ The compelling introductory matter in the first few chapters is such that I could imagine another book, on the transient Jewishness of Joseph Roth in Hotel Years, perhaps also on Brodsky and Nabokov. This is both a strength and a fault of the Object Lessons series. It is expansive enough to suggest whole other titles and at the same time withholds them in the name of necessary brevity. In this sense, Exit is also a tease, an entrance to what Waddell might write in future.

After using the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to link the history of migration and labour to that of signs themselves, Waddell gets to iconic green exit sign on the book’s cover. She informs us that it was designed in the 1970s by Yukio Oto, but quickly pivots again to the stardardising role of pictograms and how sign technology has reacted to different kinds of disaster and needs. Following a long digression on the infamous IKEA routing signs, she asserts: ‘Sign design, like the safety codes, must always be updated. Design responds to atmosphere.’ This claim gives me pause. Does sign design not also create atmosphere? Is this a chicken-and-egg paradox, perhaps? Then again, this is not a question for a brief essay, and one of the strengths of Waddell’s prose is that she raises precisely this type of question.

Waddell occasionally falters on materiality and close reading of individual objects and art installations. The observation that the artist Jenny Holzer ‘hacks the idea of signs, by placing her own, frequently with anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist messaging’ is very art-school-senior-thesis; true yes, but what of it? Indeed, what of the juxtapositions Holzer creates with signs and bodies, as when she sited the truism ‘PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT’ in Times Square during the years 1985-86, when it was also known as a place for picking up prostitutes? Later readings of Fiona Tan and Marina Abramović are similarly flat. Footnotes indicate that sources are mostly journalistic short reads here, and while Waddell recounts many conversations with an architect friend, the book might have benefitted from more research into existing art and architectural writing on the objects she discusses.

Waddell is provocative when it comes to defacing signs. She finds on YouTube a series of videos of teenagers destroying exit signs, which she terms ‘. . . the kind of mindless, petty destruction that blights schools everywhere.’ I do wonder though, if there isn’t a broader place for destruction both in this book, and in the Object Lessons series in general. If the destruction is petty and mindless, why bother to film and upload it? And when does smashing an exit sign, or any other public property that signifies, become politically meaningful? If it is done by rioters as the language of the unheard? If it is done by Reformation iconoclasts breaking with Rome? If the teenagers had said they were protesting the carceral structure of the physical school and its nature as part of the school-to-prison pipeline on Foucauldian terms, would that change the act? After all, smashing an exit sign in particular suggests a social structure from which there is indeed, no exit, whether one particular teenager vandal cares or not.

The latter portions of Exit — on structures and cities — are a consistent pleasure. A brilliant analysis of the ‘expansive trash universe’ of Oscar the Grouch and its connection to the ‘. . . small, sensual, and temporary’ wins of the celebration of anarchic trash animals on the internet will stick with me for a long time. A description of Ponte City in South Africa juxtaposed with Ballard’s High Rise, and then the Kowloon Walled City, is incredibly light-footed and deft. Waddell’s sensitive attention to class and its representations is notable here, and transitions into well-made points about the nature of climate disaster — an exit from the planetary norm. In this exit, as with many others of its historical type, Waddell, echoing the earlier chapter on the death of the mostly immigrant working women in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, notes that ‘Exits are a class issue, across money, race, bodies, and more.’ To me, this evokes Kathryn Yussoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, and provides a much broader audience than the typical academic one, with an entry point into the discourse of whose body benefits from the city and the global structure of capitalism, and why. That Waddell manages to do this in a book nominally about exit signs, without any strain, is an impressive feat.

The final section of Exit is dazzling, and unusual for the Object Lessons series on the whole. It reads almost as if Object Oriented Ontology were a lyrical prose poem. Entitled ‘Existential Exits’ and written entirely in the second person it contains paragraphs in which ‘You are ground corn juddering down a conveyor belt. . .’; ‘You are Henry I of England and you have eaten too many lampreys’; and ‘You are many apples falling from an orchard’s worth of trees. Plop, plop, plop, plop. . .’ It ends with a paragraph in which the reader is a newborn child coming into the world, linking exits with entrances thematically as Waddell has all along. This is a bravura turn and an unexpected ending to a nominally explanatory book.
A.V. Marraccini is a research associate at the Bilderfahzeuge Project, Warburg Institute, University of London. She is also an essayist and critic.