Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Fashion of Color on Fifth Avenue

It’s a rare day when I trek over to the East Side to see my friend at NYU Uptown. I always glance at the Empire State Building during the long trudge from the 6 Station to her 1st Avenue apartment. Last week the group of us that had gathered at her place debated the significance of the evening’s lighting colors. Red, yellow and black signaled the start of Oktoberfest to some and nothing to others, but a quick Google search confirmed that we were all wrong. The lights commemorated the 54th annual Steuben Day Parade which, while perhaps related to Oktoberfest, was still lost on us when we interpreted the color scheme from a mere glimpse.
The Empire State Building, as its website claims, is one of the most seen buildings in the world. To become a “lighting partner”—or, to have the ability to choose a night’s lighting color scheme—demands a detailed application and an approval from the private group that owns the building. Charitable and nonprofit groups are most often accepted. (Famously the Empire State Building displays red and green lights for Christmas and blue and white for Hanukkah, but religious requests are unilaterally denied.) Even the competition as to whose technology has the privilege to light the building is fierce.
Mark Kingwell, author of Nearest Thing to Heaven: The Empire State Building and American Dreams, described the Empire State Building as “the distinctive image of mythic New York,” an image that is “totally irresistible.” (Although it’s a bit old, this commemorative section in the New York Times elaborates on the Empire State Building’s inner workings, its social meaning and its importance to New York’s skyline.) It is difficult to resist the urge to advertise one’s cause on the top of a billboard that reaches millions of people nightly. While these lights are surely seen, the transmission of their intended message is often ambiguous, sometimes obtuse and even incomprehensible.
Some of the lighting arrangements are universally identifiable: red, white and blue for Independence Day, green for St. Patrick’s, orange and black for Halloween. Yet, often divergences from the classic white (which itself signals a lack of a lighting partner for the day) are more obscure and therefore puzzling. Could you guess what this lighting scheme represented?
It’s Hanukkah and Christmas put together, on December 24, 2008. What about this one?
This was in honor of the various countries competing in the 2006 Olympics, where each side represented a different nation. In celebration of a particular school’s commencement every year, we get this:
While Columbia students easily recognize this sign, the typical city resident may have no idea what it indicates. Luckily for the stumped and irked, the Empire State Building publishes the lighting schedule and its significance online. You can even create your own color combination with a unique meaning and send it to a friend using the e-card maker.
Colors serve as indicators for many unspoken concepts in New York City. The colors of the subway lines signify which express and local lines travel on the same paths, or even the character of the station (the powder blue tiles at 116th Street come to mind). Colored traffic lights direct trains, vehicles and pedestrians (although they are not strictly obeyed). Wear red at a New York Yankees game and prepare to face ridicule, even if you do not intend to associate with the Red Sox. The coppery green patina of the Statue of Liberty not only secures its status as another recognizable symbol of the New York skyline but also its old age.
The Empire State Building and its lights are paradoxical: they are ubiquitous and recognizable, yet their nightly color-coded message can be confusing and even unintelligible. One person may see one meaning while others see another. Unlike the letters of language or the colors of a traffic light, there is no predetermined paradigm for what the Empire State Building’s color arrangement represents. Whether or not we understand its significance is independent of our identification of the colors in and of themselves. The sign may be visible to all, but the code is not always easy to crack.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Written City

"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun"2

I run my fingers over the broad ripples of a tooth and read “deer” as clearly as if the ridges were Braille. Rain is written in the darkness of the oncoming clouds, the sun’s late position adding an urgent exclamation point of punctuation, subtle shifts in temperature with the coming of evening a footnote referencing hail. In the mountains of New Mexico, days can pass without so much as a stop sign, and so one reads other signs instead—the language of the landscape, the passing of time, the allofacts1 of artifacts. One of the myriad adjustments I had to make upon returning from archaeological fieldwork to New York City this fall was in the way I see signs, mainly in exchanging sensory input for the here-ubiquitous use of the written word.  

Written language is one of the most overtly used semiotic systems in our culture.  The city is saturated with it, from the neatly labeled vertices of each street to the storefronts of bodegas barely visible through a wall of prices, advertisements, fliers, and graffiti.  However, while its volume never varies from Harlem to the Village, the language in which signs are written reflects individual neighborhoods within Manhattan, creating a sense of community, and conversely otherness, depending on whether one can understand the locally-used language.

Such a distinction between being a member or outsider in relation to a certain cultural pocket of the city is not felt so strongly when indicated by other signs, such as changes in audition (music), smell (foods), sight (architecture and fashion), or even spoken language. This is because written language carries the most authority of all these indicators, and is the least adaptable—one can appreciate foreign music or food without recognizing the instruments or spices, but it is impossible to appreciate the essence of a foreign language (that is, its nature as a form of communication and not just pretty sounds and symbols) without deeper understanding.  

Whenever we cannot interpret the primary signs we encounter, we inevitably rely on secondary signs. In archaeology, an example would be to depend on size, shape, and proximity to other artifacts to hypothesize the origin and function of a piece of pottery whose distinguishing markings had worn away. On the streets of New York, one can rely on the sight of an apple and a numerical price in lieu of being able to read “Apples—on sale.” This is analogous to how, when people who use different spoken languages try to communicate, they each have to forfeit their primary verbal method in exchange for a secondary means—such as a shared third language, or the use of gestures.

In a city as literate and regulated as New York, the written word is the most accessible and reliable medium of information. Written signs overpower most natural signs, images, and speech because they convey authority—any loon in the subway can predict the end of days; a NO PARKING sign represents the legislation and local government responsible for its existence—written words show greater intent, and therefore greater validity (on a sliding scale, from this to home-made signs in a bakery).

In signs we can also see snapshots of our language’s progression. “Donuts” and “THRUWAY” are considered acceptable, though they still make this logophile wince, and the current trend in signs is away from language entirely. Because of written language’s exclusive nature, many public messages have transitioned to using symbols. Examples of this include how the pedestrian WALK signs at intersections now often communicate pictorially (which is fine with me, since the written signs couldn’t fit an apostrophe in their DONT WALK, again, wince), and the recent anti-smoking campaign whose posters feature images of cancerous lungs in greater prominence than their textual warnings.

Rose Matzkin

Sings in Chinatown cater to the linguistic diversity of the area 
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An art installment illustrates different WALK symbols from around the world
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An anti-smoking advertisement typical of those currently seen around the city
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1. Deetz, James. Invitation to Archaeology. New York: The Natural History Press, 1967. 
2. Preucel, Robert W. Archaeological Semiotics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.