LOS ANGELES — New York has Times Square and Las Vegas has the Strip, but more than any other American metropolis, the City of Angels is a city of signs. From the distinctive (and sadly defunct) brightly colored Colby posters to large-scale freeway billboards, from the neon to the hand-painted and even the rotating, signage is a ubiquitous element of the urban fabric here. We have so many signs that we have to hire people to stand on the corner, flipping and spinning them so their messages stand out above the din. On April 18, artist Richard Kraft unleashed another 200 signs into this visual cacophony for his “100 Walkers, West Hollywood” project.
At 2pm, 100 volunteers wearing sandwich boards and bowler hats assembled in a grid in the West Hollywood Library parking lot. Poetry critic Marjorie Perloff, the maestro of ceremonies, then read a series of phrases, releasing one walker at a time to embark upon their specific walking routes around the neighborhood. They were instructed not to speak if approached by spectators, but to hand out one of a series of business cards with a perplexing combination of text and image. Once they had finished their circuit, each walker returned to the parking lot and stood for a minute before removing their outfit and resting their feet. Kraft has staged similar performances with one, two, twelve, and twenty-five walkers, but he has been planning for an event this large since 2011, when he exhibited a model with 100 figures at Charlie James Gallery.
Unlike roadside signs that entice us to purchase the best, the most, or the cheapest, Kraft’s sandwich boards have no particular message. They are the opposite of concise advertising, offering confusion instead of persuasion. Drawing on a range of sources, from children’s books to news media and evocative texts, the signs encourage the viewer to form their own conclusions. “I felt like we were 100 Chauncey Gardeners panning the streets of LA,” said walker Andrew Scharlatt, referring to the main character of the film Being There, whose simple-mindedness is mistaken for great wisdom. “Just as the elite found him to be this intellectual, based on him really saying nothing, these boards had profound statements, but it was up to the viewer to read into their meaning.”
Kraft was influenced in part by a series of billboards by the late artist Félix González-Torres. “They were so striking in their difference to the plethora of imagery we see all the time,” he told me. “It was so interesting to me that these really quiet, simple, black-and-white images drew one’s attention way more than the amped-up volume of most billboards. Hopefully these sandwich boards, although they’re much smaller, will stand out in a similar way in their difference to what we normally see.”
Another important figure for Kraft was Stanley Green, the “human billboard” who walked around Kraft’s native London for 25 years with a sign advocating a low-protein diet as a means to curb lust. Green’s adoption of a medium associated with advertising to promote his noncommercial message shares a kinship with Kraft’s curious, open-ended signs.
Part of the wonder of the piece was not only seeing how the signs interacted with the landscape, but also how people reacted to them. Construction notices, real-estate ads, and signs for upscale boutiques on Melrose took on a surreal quality in light of the perplexing new arrivals.
Tracing the walkers’ routes I met Curtis, who was setting up a yard sale outside a house on Willoughby. He had seen some walkers but wasn’t aware of the project. Earlier in the day, a blimp with a large eye on it had caught his attention, and he wondered if it was related. In a sense it was. One sign in particular, reading “Beware of the Rabble” — which could have been a subtitle for the entire piece — stuck out to him. “That works any day of the week,” he said.
Further along, on the way back to the start, a family from the Bay Area stood at the corner of Melrose and San Vincente snapping pictures as walkers crossed the wide boulevards. To the man, the piece represented the network of anonymous suits that control everything, their tentacles spread throughout the metropolis, while the woman appreciated the interactions between strangers that the work encouraged. As if on cue, a stranger approached, saying, “It looks like they’re protesting something.” To which she replied, “Maybe they are.”
Richard Kraft’s “100 Walkers, West Hollywood” took place on April 18, beginning at 2pm, in West Hollywood, Los Angeles.
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