The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?

Who’s Reading Who?

My interest in text and the city started by walking around downtown Vancouver and noticing poems on buildings—words on a space different than what we’re used to. I still stop for words (like Here Comes, A Window Story) and this building seen while roaming around the East Side Culture Crawl:

So when I heard the Contemporary Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver was featuring a window exhibit by Turkish artist Meriç Algün Ringborg called Metatext, I went to check it out, to read it.

The exhibit is literally written into the front façade of the building (as shown above), on several different window panels. You read it from left to right, like you would a novel. And as you read it, you feel you are reading something like a novel.

And then you feel you really have no idea what you’re reading. A string of words—or definitions—is closer to what it is. Here’s the description from the CAG:

The new work at the Contemporary Art Gallery takes the English dictionary as its starting point. Using only selected definitions of specific words, this ambitious commission appears as a series of inter-related sentences notionally composing mini-narratives and realized in a way that seems to incorporate different voices and characters. As such the work evolves out of the dictionary akin to a fragmentary novel or short story, a series of episodes branching out into a loose meta-narrative concerning writing as a creative act as implied through the use of this ‘found’ language.

It is a strange experience reading the text(s) because each line relates slightly to what’s around it, but also completely interrupts it with something new. Metatext plays with the idea of being a novel and yet lacks any of the cohesiveness we look for in novels. It is terribly self-conscious and long-winded about what it is doing—writing about writing, and a little pompous about it too: “the book that I’ve just written. considering the conditions, it’s very good” . . . “the book is a thoroughly entertaining read. it’s the best novel I’ve ever read”. The whole thing reads very ironically because by the end, we realize we have just read the novel being talked about (this metatext on the windows) and it isn’t very good but the author(s) thinks it is, and do we feel pity for the deluded writer, or sympathy because no doubt we’ve been there too, or annoyance for having spent twenty minutes reading this text that makes no sense, and what kind of dictionary is she using anyway?

IMG_6626Since the text is embedded into a building in downtown Vancouver, it makes us consider narratives of the city and the people who inhabit its space. How do our narratives of private and public overlap? The picture below showing my reflection, along with the buildings in the background, speak to this confluence of private and public. The act of writing a novel is typically a solitary activity, done in the privacy of a home, with typewriter/computer and one’s own thoughts late at night or early in the morning. What happens when it is exposed in a public space, a city space where we use words and construct narratives on a daily basis? How do our inner and outer words interact, especially in Vancouver, a city that never lets you escape your reflection as you’re walking to the office, walking to the grocery store, walking to and from home? We see ourselves in the window and wonder, who’s reading who?