Targeting the 'Art' Around Every Corner

Molly Aeck plants an arrow on the gate of a well-tended garden, then photographs it for posting on the project's Web site.
Molly Aeck plants an arrow on the gate of a well-tended garden, then photographs it for posting on the project's Web site. (Photos By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 2, 2005

A bright arrow hovering over the rush of city life usually means "get moving": Hang a left, take a right, barrel straight ahead. But the bright yellow arrow stickers that have started popping up in the Washington area have a different goal: to slow people down, maybe even stop them for a moment.

Launched last summer by Counts Media, a New York-based arts and gaming company, the Yellow Arrow Project is a kind of geographical blogging. Adherents have been placing the palm-size stickers -- each with a unique code -- on street signs, city monuments, store windows, abandoned buildings -- anywhere, really, that observers encounter what they deem to be "art." Then, using a cell phone, they send a brief text message -- which could be an interesting historical fact, a restaurant review or just some goofy poetry -- to Yellow Arrow. People who come across an arrow can call the Yellow Arrow phone number, punch in the sticker's code and receive that message.

Outside a building at Seventh and S streets in Northwest Washington, for example, the sticker offers up this discovery: Old wonderbread factorys not abandoned. a bike graveyard inside.

Another, posted in an auditorium at George Mason University, conveys a hopeful dream: And even though today we play to an empty house, perhaps tomorrow the whole world will applaud .

"It's a creative platform where people can contribute collectively to the places they live," explains Jesse Shapins, Counts Media's creative development manager. So far, he says, about 2,800 arrows -- which are sold on for 50 cents each -- have been planted and registered by participants worldwide, from New York to Berlin to Cairns, Australia. More than 100 of them are in the Washington area.

Molly Aeck, who placed the Wonder Bread arrow, is one of the area's more dedicated participants. Aeck, 23 and a recent Stanford grad, has gone the extra step of logging 11 of her arrows on the project's Web site, complete with digital snapshots and a helpful locator map.

On a scorching weekday afternoon, she is walking along 14th Street NW with a yellow arrow stuck to her index finger, looking for her next target. Her arrow seems to be wilting.

For the academically-inclined Aeck, the arrow project is reminiscent of the place-based artistic expressions of the situationist movement, a group of 1950s thinkers and artists who, among other things, theorized about the pleasures of a process they dubbed "psychogeography."

"These situationists would walk around and fall into these 'observational drifts' -- to find new perspectives in urban life," she says. "It's an appreciation for observing things around you."

The situationists originated in Italy, where they must have drifted around on cooler days. Aeck's sticker is beginning to curl up.

"I think these arrows can engage a passerby who doesn't have time but just to pass by," she says.

Many more people are likely to pass by them in the future. That's because about 300,000 more stickers are being released through "Lonely Planet's Guide to Experimental Travel," the guidebook empire's foray into eccentric, participatory tourism. (It suggests, for example, writing a poem about every main square visited.) Six bright stickers come with every book.

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