As long as humans have needed something to mark a spot, signs have been used, and then overlooked. In Ancient Rome, signs helped weary travelers navigate the many roads of the empire. In early British history, inn signs identified, advertised, and oriented wayfarers. On a chilly October day in Los Angeles, one new sign made its debut on the banks of the Los Angeles River.
Masquerading as a California State Parks signage, artist Rosten Woo's 42" by 32" sign seeks not just to inform, but also to provoke its readers. "We're essentially in a state park and not many people have an understanding of what it is," said Woo, as we chatted a few yards from artist Michael Parker's Unfinished during the second Los Angeles River campout last October. "I wanted this sign to be interpretative of the natural environment, but also reflect the political and social environment on site."
Read more about the Bowtie Parcel
As in May, the second Los Angeles River Campout welcomed a wealth of interest. Again, sign-ups for more than 100 people opened and filled up in a matter of hours for a night of barbecueing, stargazing, and natural immersion. Tents once again lined up a non-descript sliver of land sandwiched by the Los Angeles River and storage warehouses by the 2 Freeway.
Created in two months and incorporating many consultations with historians and experts, Woo's sign sits unobtrusively off the side of the established campground where rows and rows of tents were pitched for the night. At first, the sign seemed like any other usually found in state parks: placed on a wood stand, brimming with information and an occasional photo.
Nothing tips off its strange origin until it is time to read the text. A moss green background offsets the white text proclaiming one's location to be "The Bowtie Parcel" or "La Parcela Pajarita" in Spanish.
It then proceeds to give readers a basic overview of the Bowtie Parcel's history, starting from its purchase from Union Pacific Railroad for $10.7 million in 2003, to its future as part of an 11-mile greenway.
Just like any other innocent sign, it offers a short history of recreational camping in the country. Woo's sign informs readers that camping was rarely seen as an activity to be enjoyed by itself until 1869, when a minister published "Adventures in wilderness or Camp-life in the Adirondacks." The sign also touches on why campgrounds are designed as they are now, with a parking lot just off the road.
Further on, the narrative text takes on a more political stance, introducing readers to laws against camping in public, which are targeted to the homeless population, juxtaposing this with estimates of the L.A.'s homeless population (between 36,000 to 54,000).
"There are two different stories of camping here," says Woo, "There's one that promotes camping as a fun activity and another that criminalizes it."
On the other side of the sign post, campers read about the geology of the Glendale Narrows and future development plans for the Bowtie parcel and its neighborhood, including fears of gentrification that have continually bubbled up since news of an impending billion-dollar investment became public. "There's a tension between public investment and private investment unfolding here."
Woo is an artist who often creates signs, books, pamphlets, and other materials to help the general public decode the legalese of many public agencies and their processes. In collaboration with John Mangin of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, Woo developed a book, poster, and website, breaking down the meaning of affordable housing for New Yorkers. In another project, Woo collaborated with other artists to design an inviting, non-intimidating illustration, video, and website explaining the consequences of deportation for Human Impact Partners. Though in the realm of urban planning and policy, Woo's work is undoubtedly art, juxtaposing critical issues of development alongside the realities of life.
His first sign along the Los Angeles River is a prime example of art not just for beauty's sake. With only a limited amount of space, Woo manages to touch on integral issues that the riverside neighborhood deals with today. He recasts a fun, recreational activity such as the Los Angeles River campout as something even more: a question of legitimacy and social justice along the waterway.
Woo's work falls neatly into Clockshop director Julia Meltzer's plans for programming along the Bowtie Parcel. "I wanted to talk in much more meta terms about the Los Angeles River, not just specific details on concrete projects happening right now," says Meltzer over the phone. "I wanted people to have the chance to reflect about the possibility and reality of gentrification. I wanted to hear from people how they wanted to see their neighborhood develop."
Woo's first sign won't be the last. There are plans to unveil more in the coming year along different locations on the Bowtie parcel. Woo says future signs would deal with the electricity transmission grid, the complex of governmental and non-governmental organizations and jurisdictions dealing with the parcel and the L.A. river, environmental justice, flora and fauna found on site.