Essay by Chloé Wolifson

Seeking Patterns Within Pundemonium* – The Cartonographer’s Quest
by Chloé Wolifson

There is a strange tension between fruit and vegetable cartons and their contents. The star of the show, the produce itself, is rendered ephemeral by its perishable nature. The cartons, on the other hand, are not just the roadies but enduring ambassadors for their edible cargo. Using a number of semiotic and linguistic devices (explored and extrapolated by Sean Rafferty through his Cartonographic research), the grower of fruit & vegetables seeks to assert their identity, and differentiate and give permanency to their product via these cardboard casings.

Australia is well known for its valorising of edible produce through an iconic and esoteric series of oversized tourist attractions. But if sites like the Big Banana and the Big Pineapple celebrate Australians’ universal adoration for our abundance of quality produce, the cartons that contain the bananas and pineapples themselves represent the industry’s coalface. Travelling with the product from grower to grocer, the cartons bring a colourful facet of rural and regional life to urban areas.

Rafferty’s project and subject make a fine conceptual match. He has sought and found tangible and longstanding historical, social and cultural threads within an industry where the product and processes have an incredibly fast turnover. This has resulted in the creation of a kind of soft museum of soft produce. For, like its organic muses, the practice of Cartonography is malleable rather than museological. While collecting and archiving are tactics of preservation, mapping on the other hand is a practice of discovery – of searching for patterns and embracing anomalies. Rafferty’s map and accompanying blog musings are a testament to this.

By seeking out and establishing relationships with growers, Rafferty has taken on an ethnographic approach which can evolve with new findings. Although his research is represented by a physical collection of fruit boxes, its innovation lays in the mapping of these farms, itself an evolving collection. Not only does this cartographic process allow Rafferty to discover connections between the aesthetics of various fruit and vegetable cartons, in doing so it also locates their respective farmers as part of a number of different communities. Indeed, in some cases it has given an online presence to previously un-Googleable farms. In this age of supermarket duopoly, it is increasingly important to hear the voices of individual growers and to understand their work in a context beyond our immediate needs as urban consumers who are ‘going for two and five’.

Through his research The Cartonographer has uncovered how various aspects of the human condition are embodied within the iconography of the fruit box. From religion and spirituality to sexuality and gender, from self-identification to the place of humans within nature and the role of the elements – it’s all there, printed in two or three colours. For Rafferty one of the most pertinent of these elements has been the story of European migration. Rafferty has identified with the stories of these farmers due to his own personal history as a migrant.

This connection has made a significant contribution to the development of The Cartonographic, in which Rafferty has distilled the wealth of information uncovered thus far in his investigation of fruit & vegetable cartons. Raisin d’Etre – A New Beginning celebrates the new life forged by migrant farmers in a new land. The sun’s rays, instantly recognisable as fruit box insignia as well as religious iconography, radiate from behind a raisin as it rises above a gently undulating landscape. This celebration of the sun as giver of life is of course underpinned by a whopping great pun.

But there is more to this wordplay than just whimsy. The notion that a grape can experience a second coming as a sultana is of course wholly indicative of the fun growers have when designing their cartons. Fresh produce plays a vital role in Australian life, and whether it’s the anthropomorphic seduction of lady finger bananas, or the pundemonium of Cross Farms’ assortment of displeased mascots, the cartons’ graphics are these farmers’ way of celebrating their success on the land and making their mark at the markets. And Raisin d’Etre is The Cartonographer’s way of acknowledging, with dry wit, this connection between carton and place.

*Credit for this term must go to Paul Clarke and Joan Sauers, authors of Pundemonium: The Step-by-Schlep Guide to Humour’s Lowest Form, pub. William Heinemann Australia, 1996