Boundary Conditions: Signs and Signage in the Built Environment

As you continue to work on and plan your projects, it is important to think critically about the actual relationship between utopia, dystopia and your life. As I hinted at in the last blog entry, often we conceive of utopian futures as holistic  heavenly places where everyone is happy and everyone’s needs and wishes are fulfilled. Because of that conception, people are quick to dismiss utopia as a pipe dream–an impossible world. The impulse to classify utopia in that way is not necessarily bad, in fact, given that the task is seemingly to make everyone happy, it makes sense to be cynical. How can millions of people in different situations with different needs, wants, hopes, fears, all be made to be happy via one utopian vision? The shear physical and moral scale of the problem suggests a much more complex set of conditions than a singular solution can provide. That being said, let’s try to reorient our view of utopia to make it relate more to not only a possible future, but our immediate present. Instead of thinking of utopia as a large-scale, future social state, lets look at how social interaction is structured now, and how those interactions–how the environment we are building around us NOW constructs utopian and dystopian states of being. Ultimately, utopian fantasy is about choice. It is about a future in which I can get what I need and what I want, to the max. In that possible world, I am successful because the choices that allow me to assert those wants and needs are free for me to make, and even possibly encouraged. But that same conversation–one which asks how free we are to make the choices we want–can be had now. Utopian/dystopian paradigms exist already, as a part of our daily lives. In order to see them, we just have to look closer.

Often the difference between utopia and dystopia, for any given person, has nothing to do with the outside world. Actually, the difference seems to be in the person in question’s relationship to the situation. The difference between winning and losing, between getting the job and not getting it, between success and failure, between utopia and dystopia, is a matter of perspective. Utopia and Dystopia seem to be impossible because as individual ideas they do not make sense–they do not allow for the dualistic, or pluralistic perspectival paradigm that seems to be a necessary condition of not only rationality, but the world. One could argue, Utopia and dystopia are actually the same thing being viewed from different angles. The state of the world, of the country, of your daily life, is something viewed, it is something sensed and then mentally constructed and imbued with meaning. How do we imbue the world with meaning? How does the nature of that meaning, and how we interact with the constructed world, determine the nature of our choices and our successes? Also, what does this have to do with art? In order to answer those questions, we must first discuss the relationship between the environment, ourselves, and meaning. (Please keep in mind that what follows is extremely condenced and simplified. For a more in-depth look at signs, I would encourage enrollment in a Philosophy of Language course.)

What is signage?

We must first make a few distinctions. Namely, we must tease apart the interactions between signs, signage, and symbol. Signage is commonly conceived of as a text, either image or linguistic, which references an action, which you are expected to understand and perform. This is true of stop signs, of traffic lights, information on posters and product labels. Even the sock that your roommate left on the doorknob last night is a form of signage. Signage is all around you, inundating your eyes wherever you go. Signage operates as a directive, as a means of altering action, of constructing individual performance along certain socially defined parameters. Signage tells you to turn left, to be quiet, and where to buy eggs for two dollars, etc. Signage does this through the use of symbols.

What is a symbol?

A symbol is an image whose meaning is assigned to it via socially constructed convention, yet whose meaning, on its own, is unclear or undetermined. A symbol is different from a sign (see below). The red shape of a stop sign operates symbolically. Via repetition and socially constructed convention, an image has been arbitrarily assigned a meaning when it is encountered in a given real world context. The symbol derives its meaning from that context, but it does not actually point to a specific thing in the world. The tent image on a map symbolizes the presence of campsites, and the dotted line symbolizes roads. Outside of that context or others like it, do roads bare any resemblance to dotted lines? Of course not. Symbols abstract away from the world, replacing explanatory or descriptive texts with image. They then reference that abstraction rather than something that is specific and known.

What is a sign?

The 20th century psychoanalyst  Carl Jung differentiated between the symbol and the sign by stipulating that signs, while also initially assigned to their referents via arbitrary convention, do in fact stand for something known and specific once assigned. The word “cat” for example, has a specific referent (thing in the real world) and is inseparable from it. meow.

Look around you. Try to pick out all of the symbols and signs which surround you, which not only make up the built environment , but also construct abstract meaning–meaning that is externally generated and imposed on the world, but which greatly influences how you understand and react to the environment. Who constructs systems of information, who controls those constructs–and how can they be undermined or exposed? This is nothing new. Language carries with it a whole lot of sexual, social, and political baggage. It might help to think of systems of meaning in the way that you think of the rest of the built environment: How do systems of meaning–signs and symbols–operate as either soft or hard boundaries?  Soft boundaries in the built environment are those which offer choice, or appear to offer choice. A line separating lanes or directional lanes on a road is a soft boundary. A road line separating two direction of traffic suggests that crossing from one space into another would be a bad choice, yet the choice remains yours to make. A brick wall on the other hand, is a hard boundary–it does not allow you to choose to acknowledge the constructed rule, or not. A window, on the other hand, could be decidedly hard and soft, depending on the mode of agency in question (I have the choice to see and be seen, but that is the extent of my choice regarding access.) How do symbols and signs function in this way? How do symbols act like soft boundaries? How do they allow for manipulation and subjectivity? How do signs act as hard boundaries when it comes to manipulating meaning?  What role do you play, and what power do you have, as the interpreter of such systems of meaning?

Why should this be important to you?

As was stated earlier, utopian and dystopian ideals are in fact perspectival and multiplicitious. Everyone has their own perspective and their own set of ideas (which are internal and specific to them alone.) That being said, when thinking about your projects and the various art baggage associated with this topic (propaganda posters, clothing, 1984, the list goes on and on), do not just stop at the surface of things. Think about how language–the language that surrounds you, and the symbolic structures which control your choices on a daily basis, your finances, your education, etc, all determine your future and your ability to even make choices. This is the real conversation about utopia and dystopia. This is the conversation that spawns the organizing of the 99%. In your studio practice, how do take a critical look at the world? Take a critical stand about an issue (past, present, or hypothetical future) which is important to you–and think about how that issue has been presented to you. Take that presentation, and turn it on its head.

Manipulate the systems by which people construct and communicate meaning to say something of your choosing.




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