Something happens when an elusive, world-encircling hyperobject, usually pushed into the background ubiquity, gets moved into the spotlight. A new gestalt forms. Generally, when we turn any part of our environment into art, we reframe ourselves too, and shift into a wider, deeper perspective, what philosophers call “decentered consciousness;” we can become sensitive to new-environments and can catch new ideas. It’s again as Marshal McLuhan says: “The previous environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment.”
An artist who can help us see traffic light environments as art is Hans Op de Beeck, who builds tiny installations like this one called Location I where we walk into the gallery, turn the corner, and are confronted by a foggy, dark intersection. Due to the shift in scale, we’re positioned in a bird’s eye view; slightly above traffic light level. Inside is now outside, and the exact edges of the artwork disappear in the foggy darkness.
Silent stillness surrounds the only activity in the room: the switching on and off of traffic lights. They pulsate. The whole image feels allegorical and sacred, like a painting.
Another work of art that can help us understand the significance of the traffic light, especially in the US, is this 1992 painting by Ojibwe Artist Carl Beam called Columbus Chronicles.
1992 was a big year for Indigenous art all over the world, as it was the Columbian Quincentenary. In the upper left corner of this Robert Rauschenberg-esque painting, the word “Hiroshima” is stenciled in white letters over a famous image of Hiroshima City after the bombing. In the opposite corner is a traffic light with the red light on. In the center is what looks like a five-dollar bill, so Abraham Lincoln! But no, it’s not him. It’s Hunkpapa Lakota chief Running Antelope on the 1899 five-dollar silver note, wearing the completely wrong style of headdress. On top of all this imagery mined from our collective memory is splattered titanium white paint, the most popular paint in the world. Look around right now and you’ll see some titanium white. Among other things, the drips beautifully bridge the gap between Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism.
Are traffic lights comparable to the bombing of Hiroshima? Interestingly, they did apparently trigger something in Leó Szilárd.
Another artist who elevates traffic light imagery is Columbian sculptor Edgar Negret. In fact, most of his sculptures are remixed versions of traffic lights. He calls them “magical machines”, “masks,” or here, a “kachina.”
Kachinas are popular symbols for Native America, like dream catchers, arrowheads, and the flute-playing Kokopelli. They’ve become stereotypes and collector’s items, but they’re also very real, living Pueblo spirits — or I like the term metapersons, defined as “other-than-human persons with greater-than-human powers” — they’re holy people from the Southwest who sometimes take the form of human “dancers” and other times as “dolls,” carved out of sacred cottonwood root; numinous dolls who are avatars or indexes of the dancers, who are themselves avatars of the local gods, who are themselves avatars of the deeper mysteries and forces.
I wonder if Negret, who also calls them “miracles,” and compares the very first ones he ever saw in New York City to Greek gods, I wonder if he thinks these American-made machines are, in a sense, the evil doppelgängers of the Indigenous metapersons from New Mexico. Philosopher Bill Psarras also calls traffic lights, “the frozen incarnation of Hermes god — messengers and-indicators-of-the-transient.”
Why does the traffic light inspire such big ideas in all these different disciplines? Psarras explains that due to their design, traffic lights naturally become:
poetic links for the intellectual mind — triggers of the unnoticed beauty — semicolons bounded to place but rites of passage for the next to happen.
Rights of passage for the next to happen. They’re found in this eerie installation by George Segal called The Red Light (1972), who often creates what some critics call “artificial hells” of people waiting at traffic signals. This is a readymade installation so everything is real except for the person, who is, well, a real, plaster cast or an imprint; a ghost image.
I want to consider them as sort of Dadaist works of art, as strange tools (philosopher Alva Noë’s term for art), always signally, floating above us like planets; apertures; eyeballs; oculi.
We can approach stoplights as readymades, and, due to the inevitable rise of self-driving car technology, the lights are soon-to-be negated-yet-preserved Hyperart Thomassons, which is to say, they’re gonna be treated like potted plants. It’s again as William Irwin Thompson says: “We kill with technology and save the victim with art.”
When we approach everyday things as art, or as complex magical entities in and of themselves, it’s real easy to flip our perspectives, decenter the human, and see ‘material agency,’ and ‘actor-networks.’
For more, see Traffic Light Mind.