I decided to do some intentional meandering on the South Side today. Nice to get around and explore areas I’m less familiar with, and of course I appreciate coming across some unexpected public art along the way. (This is exactly the sort of chance finding that makes the trip worthwhile.) As I was waiting to cross Carson St. around the Birmingham Bridge I found this “modified” (how I’d put it) or “defaced” (how Public Works would put it) street sign advising pedestrians about how to cross:

art is art

A few things going on here. One of them is that unfortunately I was so worried about capturing my own gaze that I didn’t get the whole sign in my frame, which was a mistake. The words have been partially crossed out so that the sign has a new message on it: “DO ART is art.” While there is a risk to obscuring the message of a public safety sign, I don’t think anybody’s getting confused by this one being messed with a bit.

Look at the beauty of the circular mirror. It’s got these rays of short lines flying out of it in all directions, just with the word “FLASHING” below it. Someone had the vision to see that a circular mirror would elevate this sign to a much more interesting place and the result is beautiful and arresting. This intervention isn’t, to my mind, especially instrumental1. It’s not about making a point, at least so far as I read it. It’s about bringing beauty and exploration to a typically staid place. Maybe I’m wrong! Perhaps the artist meant me to read their blackout poetry and form a beautiful whole from it. I don’t know.

I don’t aim to make quite this type of work; I like to focus on more literally interactive pieces that aren’t so static as this. (Also I’d like to think that the work I’m interested in wouldn’t be mistaken for defacement, though clearly that is in the eye of the beholder.) But I think the spirit of it is admirable and at least I, as a city dweller, find my explorations greatly enriched by coming across these stray traces of irreverence.

  1. I mean this in the sociological sense. Social historians speak of the advent of instrumental rationality, originally Weber’s term, meaning the choice of choosing a course of action based on the premeditated outcome someone expects it to produce. This seems trivial but is very signficant in the history of thought and social behavior.