Roadside visibility and signage along a decaying stretch of Route 66 became a point of departure for an open-ended outdoor public experiment entitled Trade Winds Sign Rally that took place on a barren Albuquerque lot, where the light becomes beautiful at sunset in October. University of New Mexico art students and volunteers held signlike props made from scraps of cloth and repurposed embroidery hoops lined with tiny remote-controlled LED lights. They moved in a loosely choreographed tracing of the floor plan of the once rather fancy Trade Winds Motor Hotel that had stood on the lot for decades, but was razed in 2008 because it had slowly wasted into a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. Accompanied by a wistful rendition of pep tunes by the rag-tag, street-clothed marching band of the nearby public high school, the dance became an incantation, a revival of the lot’s more festive former spirit. The dancers spelled out the name of the hotel in semaphore, chanting the name in unison after the last letter had been signaled.
I had imagined this event as a way to frame a range of movement from the idiosyncratic and vulnerable to orchestrated shows of strength and pageantry that is evoked by people holding signs in public spaces. On one end are protesters, picketers and the homeless, on the other flag corps, color guards, sports pageantry and military parades. I am interested in how people move with signs when they are holding them, and how this can give rise to deliberations about power, control and impulse. Because signs can increase the volume, range and temporal presence of a person’s message, these objects become extensions or even magnifications of a particular body’s capacity to address the world, often employed by groups and sometimes individuals needing to assert themselves in situations in which they feel disempowered. Sign wavers or spinners, people employed to physically carry or wear a sign advertising the business that pays them sometimes resist what can be a demeaning form of employment, in which personhood is obliterated by the advertising message and simple, dumb repetitive movement is expected. I salute those rare sign spinners who heroically reassert themselves in eye-catching, crazy, free-form median dances.
There was no organized opposition to the Trade Winds Sign Rally, just the inertia of emptiness and the tug of economic decline, no internal force or resistance to express other than the exuberance of dancing across an empty dirt lot to resurrect the spirit of travel and adventure associated with the long-gone motel. Student projects stationed around the edges of the lot riffed on themes of travel, play and the kitsch of Route 66. Bradford Erickson dragged a bed, rug, side table and lamp to the lonely patch of dirt that had once supported a room of the motel. Sarah Diddy stacked handmade oversized alphabet blocks to invite sign games similar to three dimensional Scrabble, and Noel Chilton set up Roadkill Central, a bittersweet mock café where a short-order cook served up live cockroaches. In the midst of this ring of sideshows, the dancers conjured the motel, marching in a tight circle where the driveway had led to the front door of the Trade Winds. In lockstep, they passed two by two through a steel arch placed where the entrance to the pool had been, then exploded in frolicking free-form when they reached the imagined water.
As dusk settled in and the band wound down, the LED lights came on, the dancers in a semaphore incantation called out to the Trade Winds. The rally ended as the dancers placed their sign props, now blinking like taillights, along the lengthy wall of an old carwash on the western edge of the lot. A mural created by the painter KB Jones graces that wall surface with a view of the horizon one might enjoy if the building were to vanish.
The Trade Winds Sign Rally was conceived and directed by Ellen Babcock and Rafael Gallegos, with assistance from: Lindsey Fromm, Nick Shier, Eso Robinson, Aurora Tang and High Desert Test Sites, Black Rock Arts Foundation, Liberty Tax Co. and Santosh Mody. Other contributors include: Jessamyn Lovell, Cortez Lovato, Wae Phonky, Andrea Polli, Kaylee Delfin, Sarah Diddy, Bradford Erickson, Ian Kerstetter, Kayla Wagner, Noel Chilton, Lindsey Schmitt, William Geusz, Sarah Gonzalez, Emily Vosburgh, Andrew Delgado and Josephine Gonzales and the Highland High School Hornet Band.
See also: Interview with Libby Lumpkin