The politicization of the design of these most common designators of place on cars, the license plate, is hardly surprising. After all, the rise of the proprietorial sense of designing ones own plates is not a far jump to that of viewing the format of the license plats as if this designation of plate were not forms of public writing. Even without considering the broad notion of what sort of writing this constitutes, the readiness to treat license plate design as an avenue for freedom of speech as a form of expression reveals a pronounced shift not only in the aesthetics but in the use and construction of license plate design in the past.
For during the past twenty years, we have come to identify the content of one’s plates as transcends a tag of where one’s from, taking it as an occasion to raise state revenues and provide vanity illustrations of individualization on the highway and driveway at considerable costs. Perhaps it is worth asking how this relates not only to freedom of expression, but to our sense of place. It is perhaps on account of the massive growth of graphic designers and graphic arts, as well as the ease of printing airbrush designs on metallic surfaces, that the license plate, that modest of all surfaces, has recently become something of an advertisement–along the lines of U-Haul moves; the images on license plates have become evocative landscapes that almost embed viewers in their content, depicting a sense of place that seems more alluring than neutrally mapped. Indeed, the growth of new landscape icons on the license plates that are seen on the road seems to have inspired the coterie of graphic designers at Ars Tecnica to assign an award for the “ugliest license plate” to appear, at the start of the new millenium.
The call to action was in response to the proliferation of digitized plates in what once was a stable signifier of location and regional provenance. Beyond being a form of taxonomic classification, or an add-on for vehicle registration, the personalization of plates have brought a search to capture the essence of place of patently nauseating kitsch–
–that summons the struggle for place to still exist in a post-map world, as much as it conjures a sense of place that we might really recognize, as if an affective image that tries to appeal to the state’s residents, but is removed from the geographical map. Indeed, the victory of such airbrushed images of landscapes–instead of maps–seem all too often akin to advertisements for tourist travel, airbrushed imagery, which as much as claiming to evoke a sense of place suggests something akin to perpetual placelessness of an alteration of rural and urbanized landscapes blending into one another, almost suggestive of an appeal for place before the increasing lack of differentiation of the national landscape, even when evoking a map to give stability to a fleeting sense of place.
Indeed, despite the radically limited cartographical content of the raised state pictured on the New York State license plate, a considerable effort was invested in affirming the iconic centrality of the state, even it it is a barely recognizable or distinguished blob of paint when raised metal when at close hand. TO be sure, New York license plate design is distinguished by its ability to comprehend a broad geographic unity, and functions as a mapping as an illusion shrinking the geographical distances between, say, Niagara Falls and Manhattan in a somewhat short-lived attempt to spread across the economically and culturally quite diverse state–
–as if to champion the miracle of the transport of water in its hydro;pgiocal infrastructure: the parking of two vignettes of quite different scenes, demographics, and even political inclinations, links the upper state and the metropolis of New York City (or Manhattan), by moving from the bucolic scene of Niagara Falls, an abundant cascade of water and iconic from postcard view, to the image of the Empire State Building in the concrete skyline, linking built and natural environments in persuasive ways that the state map may in some ways fail to do so effectively any more, using the old role of vignettes to construct a new affective regional identity–
–that trumps actual geographic continuity, if embedding both in an imagined skyline, itself bridged by the words “New York.” more than reality. The license plate relies on the map, even if only as an atrophied remained, as a hyphen between alphanumeric license numbers, to create this bridge, and remind us of the affective relation to a region!
Although these dramatically reduced maps are but tokens, a visual pause between digits, numbers, or letters, and have lost geographic identifying functions for most states, they affirm a sense of unity. The placement of small, raised maps in northeast states–New York; New Jersey; Connecticut; and, to an extent, but in a different fashion, Pennsylvania–suggests a survival of the cartographical as a remainder of which some states are not ready to let go or consign to the dustbin of history, even in an age of GPS and digitized maps. Not really a visual fetish, but a designator of place, distinguished by an exaggerated appendix of Long Island, the New York image is no doubt the most familiar and recognizable, even if its edges are quite abstractly smoothed so that they provide little resemblance to an actual map, which is reduced to a mere token.
While the map is paired by a similar centrality of New Jersey in license plates in the greater metropolitan area–and in the image of the ‘keystone state’ that is used to punctuate Pennsylvania plates, the diminished centrality of the map in license plates suggests a certain sense of loss, and a sense of bolstering the symbolic currency of the meaning of the old jigsaw puzzle map.