Capturing my attention this week is a rather remarkable art trend I see emerging in public spaces. Last week, sitting at a cafe along a sidewalk, I noticed at my table something incongruous with the no-smoking sticker that was stuck down on the center of the table. We’ve all seen these stickers – smoldering black cigarette on white background with a red circle and diagonal red line ceremoniously and ominously stamped atop it.
Well, looking at this particular incongruous sticker more closely, I noticed someone had taken a black marker to it and drawn a line between the smoldering tip of the cigarette to one of the ends of the diagonal red line. This formed some sort of a new triangular shape. Underneath were written the words: “Pie Yum”. On reading the words, the adulterated image of the no smoking sign was instantly transformed in my mind that of a hot-baked smoldering piece of pie – apple, as I personally imagined it.
Instantly, I saw in it a statement being made by an artist. As I chuckled, I felt I was joining in a good laugh at public policy-makers’ expense. For, low and behold, there I was along with others at surrounding tables enjoying coffee and smoking cigarettes. None of us were in any apparent fear of being ticketed or even chastised for smoking. Clear to mind came the ridiculousness of public anti-smoking legislation as, clearly, it was not being enforced.
I stayed only a moment, as I had an appointment to get to, but, as left, I noticed how of all the other no-smoking stickers on all of the other tables along the sidewalk were disfigured, somehow. “Pie Yum” seemed to be the only one which showed no signs of being partially peeled-off; “Pie Yum” was the only no smoking sticker which had no indication of someone having used it to butt-out their cigarette (used in lieu of ashtrays which were no longer being provided by the cafe).
Now, I know many might disagree that “Pie Yum” is art. Many would see it, rather, as just meaningless vandalism or graffiti. Yet, from my perspective, “Pie Yum” performed, at least to me, as art: it raised questions, at least in my mind, as to the effectiveness of a public policy, a feat that much contemporary art attempts to accomplish; it was itself public, which a lot of contemporary art is; its statement is bold and instantly understood on one level and yet also subtly evocative of further contemplation and interpretation on other, deeper levels.
“Pie Yum” draws one into considering not only the effectiveness of public anti-smoking legislation but also begs the question as to the effectiveness of other all public policies which aren’t enforced. Moreover, like much contemporary art, it was entertaining. Lastly, it has prompted a writer (myself) to write something in mention of it, which a lot of successful art tends to elicit.
But more than just being art, “Pie Yum” has opened my mind to the possibility of there being other similar forms of art like it out there. It has opened my mind to the possibility of there being an art movement ongoing, whereby artists express themselves in the public arena through public displays of soft-vandalism or beneficial – ‘graffiti’ which carry messages of potential great effect and import.
As such, I’ve recalled other incongruences I have seen during my day-to-day jaunts through happenstance around town, and have come to recognize that I have perceived many such public displays of ‘art’; that essentially, on walking around town I have been walking through a post-modernist art exhibition by a new, yet unnamed, artist’s movement and was doing so thoroughly unawares.
These anonymous artists’ messages to the public are everywhere. And they are carrying similar messages or statements that are generally characterized as drawing public attention to ethics-focused matters of concern, especially in so far as they relate to established systems in our societies.
Their statements are not of the ambiguous the sort of indecipherable, abstract graffiti which might demark respective gangs’ home turfs. Rather, these are authentic forms of art, carrying messages of multiple levels of meaning. They are bold, unambiguous, entertaining, and increasingly ubiquitous.
Some of such art is even interactive and a part of or even an improvement over societal systems. For instance, in walking around town and coming to a cross-walk, I noticed someone had placed a yellow smiley-face sticker on the cross-walk button. At another intersection on another occasion, I noticed someone had put a ‘thumb-up’ sticker on the cross walk button, one similar to Facebook’s like button. On subsequent occasions since, at various intersections around town, I have noticed many such rather colorful stickers of various sorts on cross-walk buttons.
There is a deep, dark irony in this piece of ‘art.’ Everyone knows (at least pedestrians who frequent such intersections) that cross-walk buttons cause frustration and confusion among pedestrians. They are certainly not things that one would ‘like.’ For instance, when one gets to a corner and there is someone already standing there waiting to cross, one has no idea whether or not the other person has pressed the cross-walk button. The person could have forgotten, or never noticed the button in the first place, or be waiting to cross in the other direction, or thought the pedestrian signal would start automatically without pressing the button, or had pressed the button because the person was intending to jay-walk.
As such, to avoid difficulties, most people simply make sure the signal is activated by pressing the button themselves. It’s often that each person who comes upon a corner inevitably presses the button again and again, one after another. They all know it is probably unnecessary for them to do so, but they press the button nonetheless. I suppose they do so because they’ve all experienced the situation at least once in their lives when nobody has pushed the button and everyone either has to wait in chagrin for another cycle or follow the crowd in jay-walking across.
Another example of frustration for many pedestrians is when they walk up to the corner when no one is there and arrive at the corner just as the signal should be changing. They press the button and stand there in hope that they had done so in time, but, alas, as the signal doesn’t change, they realise that they are going to have to waiting through an entire signal cycle before crossing, or risk jaywalking. They might think it is perfectly safe for them to cross the street, and, knowing that jay-walking isn’t really enforced anyway, that there is little chance of getting a ticket. Of more concern, perhaps, is the possibility of infuriating a motorist. Inevitably, so many of us are too often in such a rush in our increasingly fast-paced society that we cross regardless of what the signal says.
Motorists turning left (who are also often in a rush to get somewhere) are then surprised and themselves frustrated to see pedestrians invading what they feel is their right of way. They clearly see the crosswalk signal indicates that pedestrians shouldn’t be crossing the street, and if they are already suffering from road-rage, they might be inclined to honk or voice their outrage. The pedestrians are likewise frustrated at having to risk getting a jaywalking ticket, or by being late for work, or simply, aggravated at the stupidity of a system that would make them wait simply because they were a millisecond too late in getting to the crossing, or perhaps outraged because nobody had taken it upon themselves to push the button in the first place. Thus, sometimes both pedestrian and motorist are inclined to respond in kind with their respective traffic-system-design-induced road-rage.
The happy-face and / or Facebook-like thumbs-up stickers on the cross-walk buttons, then, if viewed in this context, can be seen as having potentially enormously positive effect. Consider the millions if not billions of people out there who are crossing at such intersections all the time, and imagine how many people might get into conflicts or might literally be killed in such situations. Might little happy-face or thumb-up-like stickers be saving lives by incentivising pedestrians to cheer up, just push the stupid button and wait? Would it be, therefore, wrong for city crews to remove such stickers?
Like “Pie Yum,” “smiley-thumbs-up-like-crosswalk-button-sticker” are art because they raise issues and elicit deeper contemplation on topics of ethical concern, affect for the artistic, eliciting expression unambiguous interpretations on the ridiculousness of established systems, do so in a fun and entertaining way, all too possible great effect and import.
To the artist responsible for “Pie Yum,” whoever you might be, I would like to send out my thanks for the chuckle and for at the very least bringing up the issue of the ridiculousness of public policies that aren’t or cannot be adequately enforced. To the artist of the cross-walk button stickers, I would likewise send thanks for the humorous, ironic play on the ridiculousness of traffic systems design, for brightening my otherwise very hectic day, and, perhaps, for even saving my life.