“Yo, who f***ed with the sign?”
That was the first concern my friend (we’ll call him Rob, because that’s his name) had when he saw the first one of the installation signs on a cold Friday night. I was of course obligated by moral compunction and my Pitzer citizenship to remind him that the spelling was intentional, as was the reversal of “CALIFORNIA”. To this, he responded that the sign was “gimmicky”, and detracted from its own point by not clearly stating its intent anywhere. Rob is a hard-headed science major who doesn’t place much value in anything not analyzed for him, but his words made me realize how very little I knew about the sign, or signs, or series, or whatever they were. So, I resolved to go home as soon as I could and find out more about the signs.
Unfortunately, I was too lazy to conduct research at that point in time. Over the next few months, I did do a bit of a closer reading. Here’s what I could tell, and my answers from what I’ve found out since then:
- Why haven’t I heard about these signs from the administration? I don’t really know how to answer this one; Pitzer did publish a piece (that’s since been removed) and a short film on Vimeo about the project. My bad, I guess.
- The word “CALIFORNIA” is reversed, making it look unnatural and counterintuitive. Is this meant to show that California is a backward place? Or that there’s something unnatural about the word? “Language is very simple and direct and very quick,” said artist Edgar Heap of Birds in the aforementioned short film. His reversal was a way to both “perplex” as a part of his “puncture” (not to be confused with the “punctum”, an entirely different idea) and to make the accepted name more alien, which it should be. The first seems a bit gimmicky, but I believe the ends justify the means. The second is much more to my liking, and hopefully will be the one I remember.
- The names of the “HOST”s are anything I recognize, and look vaguely Native American. Are they related to indigenous people? Are they hosting us? They are indeed Native American names, placed on “sacred sites” like rivers, mountains, and other natural sites. The artist focused on the Tongva in his video, but this is not displayed to my knowledge in the signs.
- The amount of these signs all over campus suggest that this is a large installation. Are there more sites where these signs are being displayed? Are they in California? The signs are also present at the University of British Columbia, but with “BRITISH COLUMBIA” replacing “CALIFORNIA”. According to their site, “These signs use text in an imaginative and disconcerting way to stimulate thoughts about issues of history, public space, land claims, and even generosity and sharing.” This is the message I understand the best, and I think it is the one that I will try to take away and explain to anyone who asks me in the future.
- People regularly steal signs on campuses, and this one looks easily removable. If someone did that, are they appropriating it? Is that spoiling the message? I can’t speak to the potential thieve’s motives; personally, the idea of defiling something sacred even accidentally is unthinkable. But I know students do this type of thing, just for the trophy. Hopefully, the thrill-seekers would have decency enough to not take the sign, but if a student were attempting to appropriate the sign for different uses? A sign whose grant comes out of a $600,000 fund for art while the Pitzer endowment shrinks every year? I can’t see myself doing anything to this sign, but I could empathize with a frustrated radical.