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Signs of the Times

By Holly Tavel
Neuroscape Editor

city_reliquary_05At the City Reliquary on Grand Street in Williamsburg, handwritten directions scrawled in a vertical column down one side of the building's brick face provide lost, wandering souls with a helpful map of the territory, offering directions to/from the major landmarks (McCarren Park, the Bridge) and intersections (this way to Bedford, Metropolitan, Roebling). "For the people" reads a sign lettered above windows crammed with lovingly arranged displays of eyecandy junk --penny collections, crumbling statuary, plants in bathtubs-- and indeed, there is something about this unasked-for, impromptu street guide that embodies a certain indefatigable generosity of spirit. It's the impulse towards community reduced to its basic unit. This is cartography at its most lo-fi: words on a wall. Signs and symbols used to aid, to direct, to point out, to show the way, anonymously and free to all, and to say to whoever makes use of it: you are here.

There's something more here than just a warm-and-fuzzy random act of kindness, however. As a personal take on mapping the immediate landscape, the City Reliquary's DIY signage serves not only as a guidepost for the direction-impaired, but signals what matters in the surrounding environment. And like graffiti, it seeks autonomy, a way of personalizing that environment.

other_arrow_02At a time in which our everyday landscape is increasingly mediated and ad-saturated, in which we slog daily through a densely cluttered visual and sonic landscape of loudly competing messages, it comes as no surprise that more and more artists are looking for ways to simplify, make sense of, and organize the chaos rather than simply to add to it; and to find ways to use commercial symbols and language in individual, personal ways. At the same time though, technology blurs these distinctions, and there are tensions between where one ends and the other begins.

If street art and handmade signage are the no-tech end of the spectrum, then groups like Proboscis inhabit the extreme other end, one among a diverse array of artists, new media companies, researchers and psychogeographers exploring how technology --especially wireless-- can offer new ways of interacting with and marking the landscape. Proboscis' website asks the following questions:
How are our visions and understandings of landscape created and how do they affect the way we then alter the landscape to fit that vision?
How do communication technologies affect our perceptions of territory?
In what ways are languages tied to experiences of the landscapes their speakers inhabit ?

city_reliquary_02The YellowArrow project offers a unique example of an ambitious, expansive project that explores some of these questions. It blurs the line between public and private space, between the lowest of lo-fi and the possibilities afforded by technology. Using one of the simplest and most universally recognizable graphic symbols --so ubiquitous it seems to have always existed -- a loose-knit group of artists, promoters, and new media types aims to saturate the environment in an effort to create "real-life hyperlinks" and a way for people to interact with the environment in new ways.

The idea is why-didn't-I-think-of-that simple: paper Yellow Arrow stickers printed with the word "counts" and an ID number are strategically distributed; participants use the stickers to "tag" points of interest or places of personal significance, and use the ID number to leave a short note, directive, or anecdote which others can read by typing the number into THEIR phones. The bright yellow stickers are all about visibility: they effectively create a visual plane upon which seemingly random things are grouped together at a remove from the surrounding environs. A favorite deli, a park bench that affords a particularly beautiful view, a piece of funny graffiti that might go unnoticed, these are the kinds of things that might be singled out. The arrows function as a kind of visual annotation, a header or footnote, a labelling of some particular element as “special” -- in some way, to someone, somewhere.

other_arrow_01I spoke to two of the artists involved in the project; their desire to remain anonymous brings up another concern: issues of authorship. The Yellow Arrow looks like a great equalizer -- it's a tool to be used, that's all, a way to foster communication and collaboration; it's about whatever individuals decide to do with it. No doubt it could be ideal as a simple form of advertising or promotion for someone's space or event; but it's uniquely suited to the creation of real-time, real-life narratives, and possesses fascinating potential --hopefully to provoke amazing stories, observations, images, and memories.

[note: If you're in NYC next week, pick up YellowArrows and participate in the project: details here.

01:42 PM | Permalink


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I was in Peru recently and noticed that in Lima all of the telephone poles were scrawled with increasingly complex calculations and numerical columns of data. At the time it led me to believe that every corner, every pole, was the province of some enterprising bookmaker, running numbers and never writing anything down - at least not on his or her person. Now I come to read about the instructions on the walll I wonder if instead what we are dealing with is a collection of amateur cartographers, mapping out the city, knuckling numbers in its planes ... constructing the real from the invisible.

for more on curating the invisible, take a look at dispatx art collective

... regards

Posted by: dispatx | Aug 26, 2004 5:16:57 AM

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