Interviewed by Emily Berçir Zimmerman
Zimmerman: Please describe your process for crafting the text for one of your street signs.
Discenza: Unlike much of my other work, which tends to use a more codified structure in its creation, the development of the street sign texts is somewhat hard to describe—I'm not sure there's any specific process behind it, or if there is, it's pretty submerged. My experience of it is intuitive; typically, ideas for texts usually pop up when I'm at my day job at a law office. I think they emerge out of a reactive field that lives in the background of my consciousness, and which is continually sorting through the sea of textual detritus we're always moving through. Sometimes certain text catches my eye, which triggers an associative chain that leads to the creation of a specific text...
Zimmerman: Could you talk a little about why you decided to take up the street sign as the vehicle for these messages?
Discenza: To be honest, there was a large element of serendipity involved. I was trolling around on the Internet one day looking for something wholly unrelated when I stumbled onto a site that allowed you to order a regulation style traffic sign with your own text. On an impulse, I decided to have one made with a fragment of text I had scribbled down on a Post-it one day at work. After I got the finished sign, I started to pay a lot more attention to traffic signs in general—their ubiquity, and the experiential space they create. I saw how it might be interesting to introduce a note of disjuncture into this space, and it suddenly seemed like I had found an interesting vehicle for these various fragments of text I'd been accumulating over the past few years.
Zimmerman: You said recently that your text pieces, including the street signs, were intended to act like scores, "enticing the mind to construct scenarios that don't exist elsewhere... at a time when the imagination itself is becoming increasingly colonized by external structures." Could you talk a little about the desire to trigger the mind in a different imaginative thread, than say an advertisement?
Discenza: I think that of all my recent text-based projects, the signs probably function less that way than some other projects—they don't seek to employ descriptive language as directly as, say, my audio installation Untitled (The Effect), which really attempts to function as a kind of score for the production of interior imagery and scenarios. But I do think that the street signs still implicate something in the mind; it's not a narrative, exactly; it's more like a potential for narrative—a sort of scenario-waiting-to-be.
That said, there is unquestionably a significant area of overlap between the street sign texts and the sorts of texts that we would encounter in an ad—indeed, the project specifically seeks to trade in that sensibility. But here I think we encounter that kind of pithy language through a delivery pathway which firstly, we don't typically associate with advertising, and secondly, which is somehow much more unmoored and free-floating than in an ad—there's more of a deliberate conflation of different modes of address.
In general, though, I think what has drawn me to the use of text so much is the idea of text as a transport system, or a kind of script, rather than an end unto itself. I'm interested in the way a piece of text can act as a kind of command-line directive that triggers your brain to construct some transient scenario, even if you can't say exactly what that scenario is. In the case of the signs, that scenario might be humorous, or vaguely ominous, or both. In some case, it may just be a fragment of text that, when detached from any context, becomes cognitively ambiguous in such a way that it keeps bouncing around in your mind.
Zimmerman: The placement of these works in a non-art context seems to be particularly important for them to function. Why is this?
Discenza: I think the signs trade in a certain ambiguity that becomes more effective when you're not quite sure of the nature of the agency behind them. Encountering a sign like "Future Site Of Low Intensity Conflict" is a very different experience when you see it on the street, amidst dozens of other official signs, which it completely mimics. There's an uncertainty factor—"Is this real?"—that acts as a hook for the chance viewer, a mix of humor and unease. In a more traditional "art exhibition" setting, the signs too easily become just another piece of art—in other words, part of a field of human activity that can too easily be written off by those who don't wish to engage with it. I remember seeing a documentary about Stan Douglas' Television Spots, in which a couple was interviewed about their encounter with the spots on late night TV. Until they knew it was a project by an artist, they were deeply curious and engaged—were these advertisements? Trailers for a film? Was there some larger story that the different vignettes tied into? But once the spots became assigned in their mind to the category of artistic production, their reaction to them became almost totally disinterested. It was art; art was weird, thus there was no point or need to figure it out. Of course, that's certainly not true of everyone. But I think it's an interesting phenomenon.
Zimmerman: It is interesting that you bring up the vast quantities of text that we are asked to sort through these days, the countless words circulating over email, cell phones, advertising, and the Internet; it's a timely issue. Your text fragments appear to address this frenzy of communication, and how unusual worries insinuate themselves into our thought patterns—for instance, in "MORE IN A SERIES OF POSSIBILITIES." Are your texts meant to be rooted in a particular political, economic, or cultural climate?
Discenza: I'm not sure it's that specific, beyond being reflective of our current situation in the US. We are living in what I feel is a state of perpetual, deep (if often diffused) anxiety, and the signs channel that feeling to some degree. I don't see that this condition is something that's likely to change any time in the foreseeable future. Our world has become dense with mediated information, and (partly as a result of that) has become a very anxious place.
Zimmerman: Particular signs that you have created for this exhibition suggest an official language of emergency—for instance "Please Stand By" or "Notice: Additional Information Regarding The Current Situation Will Be Made Available At Some Point In The Near Future." Was this something you wished to convey?
Discenza: The seemingly official nature of several of the signs in the exhibition was a result of thinking about the specific context of the show, and also about how the signs might be presented. Since I was interested in a space of ambiguity, playing into the inherently authoritative aspect of street signage seemed like it might function in two ways—on one level, it would possibly generate more uncertainty about who or what the agency was behind these signs. At the same time, within the text themselves, there is an attempt to produce uncertainty through a statement that on the surface purports to be reassuring, but which has been detached from any specific situation. Hence something as simple as "Please Stand By" can create unease when it suggests that "standing by" might be a permanent condition, or when you don't know what it is you might be waiting for. Certainly, there's a humorous aspect in subverting the authoritative voice, but the humor itself is derived, I think, from our recognition of the potentially ominous aspect of such a basic communication. As I noted in an earlier discussion of the signs, one of the things that's interesting about traffic signs is the way that they presume our obedience, and thus serve to produce or (at least) normalize it.