A new set of “Black Lives Matter” street signs carrying some provocative messages will appear in New York City in October. Created by public art project Ghana ThinkTank, the notices will pop up on actual sign posts as part of this year’s Art in Odd Places (AiOP), which takes place in Alphabet City. Adopting the same stark look as actual street signs, they feature authoritative lines such as “WHITE GUILT IS COMPLACENCY,” “YOUR PRIVILEGE DOESN’T NEED CONSENT,” and “WARNING: When being racist please be sure to use the appropriate language.” Some are accompanied by graphics of surveillance cameras and upheld hands so that the orders are emphasized by codes that allude to stern policing systems.
“They are holding people accountable for the many different ways we are a part of the racist systems in our country and asking people to consider what roles we can play in the Black Lives Matter movement, whatever our background or race,” Ghana ThinkTank co-founder Christopher Robbins told Hyperallergic through email.
The language of the signs, as fellow artist Carmen Montoya explained, emerged from street conversations in which individuals were asked what they themselves fail to notice in the discourse around systematic abuses of power.
The Black Lives Matter series, which initially appeared in May during the New Museum’s Ideas Festival, is just one example of a number of signs Ghana ThinkTank has made. It has also established “Legal Waiting Zones” in Queens four years ago to address police harassment of immigrants; for last year’s Art in Odd Places, the group brought “Street Sign Actions” to Manhattan’s Union Square, which announced a number of unofficial rules declaring individual rights.
These projects harness the wide visibility of street signs and their publicly understood roles as official forms of regulation. Ghana ThinkTank’s latest iteration of guerrilla signs focuses particularly on the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Although displayed in public and meant for all to abide by, the rules on actual street signs are not actually evenly applied to all, at times particularly on the basis of an individual’s physical appearance, Robbins said. The Black Lives Matter series highlights this unequal implementation of the language of regulation while also asking viewers to “consider the ways they may be complicit” in such discrimination.
“A street sign signifies the official voice of the system around you,” Robbins said. “By colliding that symbol with language that states things we may not like to admit to/about ourselves, we hope to point out the differences between official truths and actual, and between personal and systemic.”
The signs, like those from last year’s AiOP festival, will blend in nearly seamlessly with their surroundings, sharing real estate with official road signs. They may be easy to glance over, but the camouflaged method of display reflects any disregard people may have of the law’s disparate treatment towards different communities.
“Our own action and inaction is part of the cumulative process that helps extend these unfair systems,” Robbins said, “and I hope the ‘officialness’ of the signs points to that often overlooked connection.” Installed for an indefinite and undetermined amount of time, a new road sign eventually blends into the everyday landscape; other messages should not as easily be forgotten.
“One thing that I think is very important about the signs is the private conversations that they provoke,” Montoya said. “This invisible groundswell of ideas is the stuff of change.”