Signs surround us as city dwellers and as travellers on the roadways between our places: warning, directing, suggesting, recommending, inviting, demanding, forbidding, welcoming. There are many languages in the street, from the stern, official dictum of a stop sign to the casual, local slang of a restaurant specials board on the edge of the footpath.From the window of a car, all reading is speed reading. Road signs made for traffic control, road safety and navigation are sometimes stacked in such density that any serious reading of them would be a hazard for the driver, who must be highly selective, choosing to notice (not necessarily obey) only those of the messages which are relevant and needed right now.
Sign language is necessarily compressed, words needing to be as immediately recognisable as icons. Road signs become standard images: legible lettering styles are combined with coded colours and shapes into graphic objects which can be quickly grabbed and digested.
A stop sign is not just the word, with the colour (red) and the shape (hexagonal) combining to make a single impact—and save drivers from an impact! Placing the word GO onto such a sign makes an obvious but original reversal. The new sign becomes a seed for discussion about temptation and restraint, for example, about desires and the laws and social rules of society and the self. This is a constant tension, a stretching balance.
The many word works which I’ve long called the Roadsigned series began in 1979 with Airpoet, created from an existing airport direction sign in Adelaide. This established a ground for imaginaction: physically altering an existing sign to make something new happen. A large blue sign with an arrow upwards and the word ‘Airport’ was changed by the replacement of one letter to ‘Airpoet’, radically shifting the experience of the roadway and surrounding streetscape for travellers as well as locals on the ground. This was illegal, but popular.
These are poetic interventions in the public language of the street, interruptions to the expected, playing with the obvious to reach levels more metaphorical. By physically altering existing signage, and by inventing new signage using the standard design formats as a template, fresh meanings can be generated through surprise, making small shifts in the expected to create catalysts for thought.
There is a possibility within this signworld for creating poetry, which begins from a pleasure in slippage, an appreciation of the ambiguities and ironies which occur when a sign and its context are at odds, or when letters have fallen and given words interesting new meanings. This interest in the paradoxes of the everyday extends further to become direct intervention, affecting the literal efficiency of official messaging through alteration in the mind’s eye, signing the city anew.
People are welcome to visit my web site: www.artpoem.com
Richard Tipping, January 2003