Substance in Decay
Friends of the Orphan Signs re-imagine the abandoned along Route 66
Lindsey Fromm made the same commute as usual down Central, the bus rocking to an occasional stop to let passengers on and off while the desert sun glared off the windows. This particular day, however, she noticed something in the landscape she hadn't before. Behind what was then the Octopus Car Wash on Central and San Mateo, a large sign rose up from an adjacent deserted lot, and across a blank, cloudless sky, it bannered the words: “The Bus is Never Closed to Crazy.” Fromm described how the text—out of place amid the advertisements we learn to accept or ignore and the hurried foisting of money back and fourth of commerce around her—resonated. She felt crazy a lot of the time, and she saw people who seemed to feel crazy too cutting that route eastward. Another time, following the same path up Central, she saw the same mysterious billboard, this time with different words pasted into it: “I Clap for You in my Head All the Time.” “Once I saw that,” Fromm said, “that was it. I needed to be a part of it.”
At the time—around 2011—Fromm was in the MFA program at UNM, and had always had a keen interest in public art, while simultaneously studying art education. That year, she was introduced to Ellen Babcock, who had been re-purposing the signs that, “seemed to be waiting for something,” as she described. Babcock founded the project, lovingly dubbed Friends of the Orphan Signs, in 2009, and Fromm quickly integrated into the project; she now acts as co-director of a particular branch of it—the Highland Project—along with Michael Lorenzo Lopez (“a savant,” as Fromm described him). The Highland Project initially started as an after-school program for students at Highland High School interested in engaging with the community by collaborating with local artists and their peers on images and text for two signs near their school on Central, just east of Washington. Since then, the project has evolved to include the nearby Media Arts Charter School and has become integrated as part of the arts curriculum in the classroom proper. Maybe you've seen some of the many iterations of these signs, or the current wise words painted in frenetic, circus-inspired fonts nestled beneath a sign for the near-forgotten Royal Hotel—two phrases that jolt the passerby out of the normalcy of the usual messaging that surrounds them (the kind that is selling something). The words are as simple and enigmatic as they are impactful. “The Mind of the World,” and “Deep and Unspoken Hopes.”
Fromm was initially attracted to Friends of the Orphan Signs in its reaction to the flood of advertising that has slowly become normalized—concepts woven into the fabric of our daily lives, photoshopped images taking up space in our collective mind. “It's the objective … of advertising and public messaging to manipulate us. It's this feedback loop of 'You're not good enough,' … this endless cycle of consumption. When do we have time to stop and think about what we're being inundated with?” Fromm elaborated, pointing out how easily these often toxic messages are standardized. “What that is doing is replacing our ability to think critically, to read between the lines, to be able to confront that and say, 'No, I don't need this' instead of [letting] it prey on our uncertainties, cracking them open and filling the insecure vessel.” Fromm pointed out the intersection between the work of artist Barbara Kruger—who works in the public sphere, creating defiant faux-ads like “I Shop Therefore I Am”—and that of the Friends of the Orphan Signs, noting that Kruger's work similarly disrupts our resignation to the messaging of advertising. “It uses the language of advertising, the syntax of advertising … but it poses questions in ways that are very subversive and subtle.” For Fromm, seriously considering the messaging of advertising and thinking about what messages might be more important for our community to see are important components of education. As such, the Highland Project is revelatory. “I'm passionate about people being able to think for themselves, outside of the context that's been set up for us,” she explained.
Through the Highland Project, students in two art classrooms at the two high schools go through a year-long exploration of concept, discussing public messaging, what's happening in their lives and communities, what they think and feel—and translating that into signage. “We just kind of talk, that's a critical part of the experience,” Fromm described. “There's a lot of groundwork to be laid before you ever try to push through what the end product is going to be … The workshop isn't the process of making one thing, it's about collaboration. And collaboration between anyone consists of many meetings … where you find common ground.”
The signs that are currently in place work within the context of a certain theme—that of power. Fromm worked with the classes to piece together the messages in a variety of ways, from the discussion of how power influences their daily lives to the dissection of political speeches, with the students circling the words that seemed most powerful to them (the results of which ultimately became the phrases on the signs currently up). It is always the students that guide what is displayed. “A thing Ellen [Babcock] likes to say that I agree with is, ‘The students know what's good. Always. Every single time.’” And what's been produced by them is a provocative addition to the landscape of collapsing motels and thistle growing up in the cracks of lots long vacated, something that stirs us from our commute and awakens us to the mystery and magic of our place in time and geography. As Fromm explained, there’s something enigmatic at the heart to the project, “You don't want to answer questions, you want to pose them. That's what creates longevity of thought.”