Megan Wilson    
egawilson@aol.com
Press
 
Drop: Representation and Desecration of the Urban Environment, a publication produced by Pond gallery, 'Counterforms and Citizneships: Some Remarks on the Semiotics of Icon-Display and Megan Wilson's 'Better Homes and Gardens,' by Marisa Jahn, Fall 2001



Counterforms and Citizenships: Some Remarks on the Semiotics of Icon-Display and Megan Wilson's 'Better Homes & Gardens'


The placement of images and icons throughout the landscape is a traditional way for groups to announce their presence and to affirm certain cultural values. As an example, mezuzahs are palm-sized rectangular objects encasing scrolls inscribed with Hebrew blessings for the home and its inhabitants.

Placed in the doorways of Jewish homes, these icons visible in certain residential areas that outwardly indicate a cultural heritage. Similarly, graffiti, wheat pastings, sticker tags, and 'guerilla' corporate postering assert an aesthetic control over the public environment to reinforce the culture's shared experiences as members of political, economic, religious, and other social groups (Bourassa: 5). As written in the Headmap Manifesto, "Dogs augment their environments. They piss on trees and leave their scent [as] encoded information for other dogs. Kids tag their local environment. In both cases the message is fairly simple: I'm here [my ital.] (Headmap: 18). In addition, the removal of a cultural object from the landscape is another form of mastery over the environment. For instance, in his essay entitled Urban Youth and Senegalese Politics: /988-1994, Mamadou Diouf considers tile strategies of resistance by Senegalese youth against their disenfranchisement from public space (which is considered 'adult territory') and at the same time their denial from private space within post-colonial Dakar. Entitled Set/Setal, the youth movement's mobilization of human effort is for the purposes of sanitation and hygiene, imbued with moral overtones as a fight against corruption, prostitution, and delinquency. Set/Setal primarily took form as the removal of garbage and cleaning up of particularly blighted local sites areas. Thus, while the presence of trash and rubbish signified the negligence of the Dakar government to attend to poorer communities, the absence of trash/rubbish in a blighted area signified the initiative assumed by a marginalized group in the reclamation of the space and right to expression within the public. The display or removal of iconic cultural signifiers within the physical environment, then, symbolically implaces group identities within the public.

Behind every gesture of icon-display or removal, some human labor and social interaction is involved (e.g., the act of wheatpasting, the act of cleaning up, the act of distributing signage to members of a political party to place in their windows). In more successful examples, the method of icon-display or removal embodies the spirit of the group. By this statement, the Set/Setal movement is successful: the labor involved in the removal of rubbish signifies the commitment of Senegalese youth to work for the benefit of society o By contrast, the wheat pasting of corporate advertising on the sides of wooden fences and construction sites is 'unsuccessful': while the images and text may reinforce a consumer group's values, the action of wheat pasting itself is solely utilitarian-in other words, the labor is only a means to an end:, not an end in itself-the labor has no direct relevance to the corporation's ideology other than to promote product consumption. As the performative element of icon-display or removal, labor and gesture playa critical role in our interpretation of a group's social and ethical dimensions.

Besides its function as a public exchange of signs and a performative moment, a third aspect of icon-display that informs our understanding of group identity fonnation (or citizenship) is the icon's space of exhibition. I want to focus on a project by Megan Wilson (1999-2001 ) in which the icons, when displayed in a certain culturally loaded zone, stand for the act of identification itself.

'Better Homes & Gardens'
If you live in or frequent San Francisco's Mission neighborhoods, you may have noticed in many shop windows and residences a few brightly colored signs, roughly 16" x 30", with the word 'Home' or 'Casa' hand-painted in the center and colorful flowers poking out from behind the letters. Over 250 of the signs were mailed or personally given to a cross-cultural group of shopkeepers and residents living in the neighborhood with instructions to display the signs in the windows of their shops/homes so that the signs were visible to the public. The presence of tile signs along the Mission and Valencia corridors thus outwardly indicated the community's pride and conscientiousness about the community. Additionally, the absence of the signs in areas not relevant to the community's shared values and characteristics (e.g., the absence of signs in the windows of the Mission Police Department, upscale bars/boutiques/condos, corporate banks) further reinforces the communitarian values shared by a geographically specific group. The use of text in the 'Home' sign assists in articulating this social concern: the textual declaration enunciates that this environment is a home1o many. The project, then, gets people to conscientiously recognize the feeling of belonging that the community inspires, prompts dialogue, and raises awareness about local housing issues and rights concerning gentrification, eviction, displacement, etc. In its narration of issues affecting a geographically-specific location, the project affirms the relevance of place and local history in the experience of community.

What makes 'Better Homes & Gardens' an especially compelling example of icon-display is the way that the 'Home' sign, when publicly displayed from within individuals' private space, stands in for an individual's identification with a specific group and its set of values. By analogy, when supporters of a particular political party display partisan signs in their window ('Vote Green; Vote Nader', 'Vote Bush', etc.), their individual support of the political party is contingent on the placement of the sign within their private space. If they were to stick the same sign in a public space (such as a telephone pole out on the sidewalk in front of their residence) the effect is lost. This space of exhibition-a publicly visible private space-somehow signifies group identification, group membership, or citizenship. But how? We must investigate our understanding of 'citizenship.'

If citizenship includes the right to participate in politics and other civil, socioeconomic, and cultural rights within the public sphere (Holston and Appadurai: 14), then citizenship is ultimately about the right of self-representation, self-expression in the public sphere. In other words, one aspect of citizenship is the right of a group to display and to be seen. As Marcel Henaff and Tracy Strong write, "Seeing involves being seen and in this sense it entails the notion of publicness, the idea that the space of the present is offered up to examination by all who are within it. However, it does not necessarily involve the acknowledgement of seeing as being seen" (7). The construction of citizenship around metaphors of sight is evidenced in expressions such as 'coming out (to the public)', and 'the public eye', in which the public is attributed with the power of sight, and visual recognition is a metaphor for the public's affirmation of the subject as citizen. As in 'Better Homes & Gardens', the exchange of signs between those displaying and those seeing activates the community as a space in which the construction of citizenship is a dynamic and performative process. If the individual, representing his/her identity for the recognition of other citizens symbolically endows the individual subject with the power of sight, then a socie1y in which a plurality of signs are exchanged and 'seen' is symptomatic of democracy's dialectic nature.

Conclusions
As a form of expression that works within and at the same time in opposition to dominant narratives and structures, icon-display and removal plays an important role in positing alternative models of citizenship, or what James Holston describes as an 'insurgent citizenship':
Insurgent citizenships are found in both in grassroots mobilizations and in everyday practices that, in different ways, empower, parody, and derail, or subvert state agendas. ..[additionally,] sites of insurgent citizenship are found at the intersection of these processes of expansion and erosion. ..[furthermore,] to understand society's multiplicity is to learn to recognize its counter- form at these sites. ( 171 )
If icon-display or removal is a 'counter-form " then its sites of empowerment and subversion are in the exchange of signs and symbols, in its performative moment of distribution, display, or removal, and in its space of exhibition. If we are to support the way that insurgent citizenships can productively inform dominant narratives and identities, we must not only continue our investigation of the semiotics of counterforms and citizenships but actively become involved in their making.