Richmond has an image problem, both of self-perception and the way the world perceives us. But nothing we do to solve it seems to work very well.
In the latest Style Weekly, mention is made of yet another attempt to “brand” the city with some kind of phrase that impossibly sums up what the city is and what it means. That we’re the home of Nutzy the Squirrel just doesn’t say enough.
RVA Creates and Venture Richmond announced a competition to come up with a phrase that says, “We’re not a stuffy old city. We are hip, young, weird, fun.” I’d say, we can be hip, weird and fun because we live in a stuffy old city. Just like the geological processes create diamonds, geysers and earthquakes, so too is the culture of Richmond made: Stress and pressure underground eventually bursts out, to the surprise of those who happen to be around to experience it.
The article says:
“Venture Richmond challenged a group of Brandcenter students to come up with a concept that reflected the city’s creative identity. The result was an invitation for city residents to take a template — “RVA [blank]” — and fill in their own images and words. Riffs on this logo are expected to appear on residents’ Facebook pages, street banners, a traditional advertising campaign and city garbage trucks.”
RVA [blank]? What?
I’ve long advocated a campaign built around the city’s pre-1972 motto, “Sic Itur Ad Astra.” The phrase possesses sufficient gravitas and lineage, out of Virgil's epic The Aeneid (a real epic, not the colloquial description popular of late); its literal meaning is "thus you shall go to the stars," but the poetic, metaphorical meaning is "thus is immortality gained.” The god Apollo is congratulating the triumphant warrior Anchises, saying: This is how you will achieve eternal memorial in the glowing firmament. It can also in the vernacular sort of sound like the anthem toFame.
And then there’s that unfortunate Kasey Kasem tagline: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Or Buzz Lightyear’s exclamation, "To infinity and Beyond!" (And this sequence seems very Richmond to me, by the way.) That is, using a complicated method to get exactly back to where we started.
Or the Back to the Future mantra: "Where we're going, we don't need roads."
So yeah, all of you can make fun. But really, let's be honest. What is going to come out of "RVA [blank]?"
The best place to see “Sic Itur Ad Astra” is on the sad, decrepit remnants of the Fulton Gas Works, at Main Street and Williamsburg Avenue. This plant that converted coal into gas for the city closed on Nov. 27, 1950, and "Sic Itur Ad Astra" is displayed on a ceramic medallion near themain building’s roofline.
So I know, I know, I can hear audible eye-rolling from the young, hip and weird out there. “ButHa-reeee, it’s from dead Greek guys! And it’s about war and 'n’ bad stuff! YUK! Apollo was a hottie, but he was a cult leader! Plus, it’s in freaking Latin! Latin is a dead language. There’s nothing hip, young, weird or fun about it!”
I say: Translate it.
Use a visual transition from the Fulton Gas Works medallion and its goddess to young, hip, weird dancers at RVAlution (which has moved to Thursday nights as “Destroy Your Idols").
Use the IMAX Dome and Planetarium at the Science Museum of Virginia to project images of our history, our triumphs, the people who’ve made a difference. Interview some artists, writers and culture makers, and get some good pithy statements about why they do what they do in Richmond — RVA: The Way to the Future. Nobody will believe it — at first — but this is advertising. Have a roster of people in a diverse United Colors of Benetton lineup situated in interesting Richmond settings, say the phrase with earnest belief, and that, or something resembling such, would take hold. And then we’d have to try and live up to it, kind of like, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Run a series of ads and lay each on a bed of danceable upbeat music made by Richmond groups, each spot different.
Rather than concoct some random statement that has no connection to the city or its venerated/complicated history, retread an ancient sentiment and blow it up big. Now that would be hip, weird, young and fun.
If you hate my idea, Mark Brady and his Alchemy group a couple years ago tried to get people to listen to "Richmond: If it matters, it happened here. It still does." Which is the best way I've heard it put. I watched Mark discuss this in front of a group of Richmond's most eminent Easter Island Heads, who said nothing and wouldn't talk about it afterward.
You don't get anywhere, not to the fuure and not to the stars, by rejecting good ideas.