“We Watch You While You Sleep: A Scarfolk Public Information poster”
If you haven’t visited Scarfolk before, you’re in for a treat. The town occupies a corner of the internet perpetually stuck in the 1970s, with a blog that churns out bits of its municipal visual history. I talked to its ‘mayor’, Dr. R. Littler, about creating an online world via graphic design, dark storytelling and an even darker sense of humour…
“A page from Scarfolk’s 1970 tourism literature”
Can you sum up what Scarfolk is, and where it’s located in space and time?
RL: Scarfolk is a town in the North West of England. Its precise location is not entirely clear, but we do know when it is: the town is in a perpetual, decade-long loop of the 1970s. Scarfolk Council recently opened its archives to the public and made available many artifacts at scarfolk.blogspot.co.uk: from public information posters to ice-cream advertisements to screenshots of TV programmes and films. There are also music and field recordings.
Certain themes resurface: the municipal, the occult, childhood and school days, totalitarianism and dystopia, memory and nostalgia, societal paranoia and fear of disease, television and radio.
“This public information message was posted on walls around Scarfolk and published as a full-page ad in the local weekly newspaper, The Scarfolk Crier”
Why do the 1970s in particular have so much potential for such dark reimaginings?
RL: Reimagining the 1970s is a very subjective thing, of course – many people think only of flares, disco and the Fonz – but I do think there were some quite outrageous societal attitudes toward race, gender, and children during that decade.
“This 1972 poster was on my doctor’s waiting room wall as well as the Scarfolk infant school noticeboard next to a poster about the dangers of gonorrhoea and nose picking”
RL: With children, the motto seemed to be: ‘Scare them enough and they’ll behave.’ Many will recall the public information films of the time – the infamous Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water and The Finishing Line – which were often eerie, blackly surreal, albeit unintentionally, and left children feeling distinctly uncomfortable.
“Eating Children: A Scarfolk Science Book”
RL: In publishing, too, the 1970s saw a whole raft of books and magazines which sensationalised occult and supernatural subjects, such as spontaneous human combustion and poltergeists.
“Children and Hallucinogens, Penguin Guide”
RL: The TV news was troubling enough: IRA bombings, strikes, riots, etc. But children’s television seemed to revel in making kids feel uneasy: Dr. Who, or course, as well as Children of the Stones, and The Tomorrow People. And they were frequently accompanied by haunting atonal electronic music by composers such as Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But as spooky as it all was, I think we also loved it and were drawn to it.
“The Inoc-uous vaccination machine. Scarfolk primary school installed one of these Inoc-uous devices in the basement in 1974. The entire school’s pupils queued up for their daily jabs while singing hymns”
RL: I think mentioning Jimmy Savile is inevitable. The recent revelation of his crimes hit us like a gut punch. The Savile case has damaged our cultural and personal memories, shaken our confidence in their believability, and made us question them. There was a message printed on school photographs in the 1970s: “School days are the happiest days of your life,” but now, post-Savile, we ask ourselves: “But what if they weren’t and we didn’t know it?”
I’m very interested in unreliable memory (and therefore identity) and how it allows for a reimagining of history. I think Scarfolk touches on that to some extent, albeit playfully.
“Scarfolk was chosen to take part in a government scheme that tested the latest technology in thought detection”
As well as the town’s mayor, you’re a writer and a designer, and in Scarfolk you can put both these skills to good use in one project. Has the internet proved to be a key part in how you do this? The things that Scarfolk reminds me of most are, if anything, TV programmes, so it’s interesting that you’ve captured this in a blog.
RL: The blog format is ideal for this kind of project. I think people don’t like to read too much text on sites like Scarfolk, so this defines how the content is written. The text brevity on Scarfolk is also probably something screenwriting ingrained in me – the more white space on the page the better – as is juxtaposing images with text [see Littler’s screenwriting page, here].
“Wake Up! road safety public information poster. Naturally, road safety is as important in Scarfolk as it is anywhere else”
RL: I also use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, each of which offers different possibilities. Because Twitter enforces brevity I can also use that to deliver mini-missives from ‘the mayor’ that wouldn’t be substantial enough for the blog.
“I was very lucky to get a copy of Radio Scarfolk’s 10th anniversary annual. They are quite rare because only 8 copies were printed and 5 sold very quickly within a year or two of publication”
The blog format also allows for audio, video, and for me to experiment with non-linear storytelling, or rather vignettes, because a framework, i.e. the town of Scarfolk with all its bizarre attributes, has already been defined and anchors the content. The reader is quickly familiarised with this fictional framework, or ‘brand identity,’ so to speak, so they can jump in and out whenever they want.
“Title screen from early 70s low-budget British ‘sex-ploitation’ documentary by the short-lived Scarfolk Studios”
RL: You suggested that Scarfolk is like a TV programme and I think that makes perfect sense. Perhaps Scarfolk is reminiscent of 1970s TV magazine formats such as Pebble Mill at One, That’s Life, maybe even the ‘late items of news’ from The Two Ronnies, or The Antiques Roadshow, where diverse items/stories are delivered to an audience.
“Scarfolk has a department of mental health but no one works there. Instead they have a series of ‘help cards’ designed to promote a feeling of well-being”
There are many blogs out there featuring reworked/pastiche album or book covers; but Scarfolk is very funny, well observed, and your designs are uncannily realistic. I’m interested in how comedy can work successfully – or be evoked through – graphic design, and wondered if you had any thoughts on that?
RL: When I started creating the images, being funny was not actually the primary objective. Perhaps I was more after an anxious laugh, but not always.
I’ve been trying to recapture a fleeting feeling I had as a child during the 1970s and to find that narrow border between humour and horror, comfort and discomfort. I don’t mind so much which side of the border each post falls as long as there is a bit of both, in whatever ratio. And it’s subjective: it’s inevitable that some won’t see any humour in it at all, just as the references will be alien to some; they’re quite specific.
“Ladybird easy-reading books published in 1972”
RL: For me, the desired effect can only be achieved if the images are visually authentic. The seriousness of presentation and form is absolutely crucial. It lulls the viewer into a false sense of security so that the gap between expectation and reality – the juxtaposition of staidness and absurdity – is as wide as it can be.
The fictional authors, designers and archivists of Scarfolk’s public information material must sincerely believe in the gravity of the message that the subject matter wants to convey and deserves, such as rabies. In addition, the whole concept of Scarfolk has to be internally consistent. There has to be a credible, believable identity.
“Here is a page from Scarfolk Primary School’s maths book for 6 to 7 year olds. It was taken out of the curriculum in 1979”
Where do you source material from to make the various parts of the Scarfolk world? And how do you go about making those parts? Do you tend to have an idea and then construct it, or come across interesting/strange things online and make something else from the raw material?
RL: The source material is a combination of original and found. The original artwork includes elements such as the deformed human illustrations, which I call Burbles [below]. Their faces are fragmented just like real memories.
“This leaflet/flyer was distributed in comic books, at schools, and in toy shops”
RL: I find the period images I use in books, on the internet, or they’re sent to me. In terms of generating ideas, it works both ways: Sometimes I will start with a solid, fully-formed idea in mind and go hunting for the appropriate reference imagery; other times I’ll just stumble across an image that will immediately suggest an idea to me. The latter method is much easier, less time consuming, and allows for those serendipitous ‘found art/object’ possibilities.
The Scarfolk Council archives are at scarfolk.blogspot.co.uk. The mayor also tweets at @richard_littler and maintains a personal site at rlittler.blogspot.co.uk. For more information please reread this blog post.
The April print issue of CR presents the work of three young animators and animation teams to watch. Plus, we go in search of illustrator John Hanna, test out the claims of a new app to have uncovered the secrets of viral ad success and see how visual communications can both help keep us safe and help us recover in hospital
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