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 Yellowarrow.net 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.
"It's about the personal experience," Shapins says. "There are stories in these arrows that you can't find in a conventional map."
Most of the postings on Yellowarrow.net are more playful and poetic than pointed, but some people have used the project to create action.
Aeck, for example, chose as one of her targets a place called Cafe Collage, on T Street near 14th, next to the restaurant Cafe Saint-Ex. She lives nearby and used to hang out there before it was closed down because of permit problems. She'd like to do so again, so she sticks an arrow just below the front window. Her message:
open Collage! a meeting place for artists and writers. The waitresses at Cafe SaintX next door can tell you how to contribute to Collages revival.
Howard Rheingold, author of "Smart Mobs," "The Virtual Community" and other writings that deal with communication technology's role in activating communities, says he likes the idea of collective voices like these.
"There are two separate but connected issues here," Rheingold says. "One, using the cyber-world to connect people's opinions, information and places in the physical world. The other is the bottom-up part: People making things happen, and even changing policies, from the bottom up."
Shapins says the company has been approached with ideas from a variety of groups, including bicycle advocates in Boston seeking to create safer streets and politicians in Europe who think arrows might be useful in election campaigns.
And it's not the only project of its kind. Another New York-based effort, Grafedia (a melding of "graffiti" and "multimedia") lets people set up e-mail addresses using the @grafedia.net suffix, and then automatically send out images, videos or sound files to others who message them. Murmur, based in Toronto, works like Yellow Arrow but returns audio recordings instead of text messages.
Rheingold says the trend is exciting, but the arrows themselves are a sticky issue for him.
"I would really like to see this yellow arrow as a temporary on-ramp to something very virtual," Rheingold says. "I would hate to see the world covered with more debris."
Kenneth Bryson, a D.C. police spokesman, doesn't sound too thrilled, either.
"We can certainly appreciate arts projects," Bryson says. But "when it comes to defacing property, we ask that citizens cooperate with their local law enforcement." (Yellow Arrow discourages placing arrows on private property without permission.)
Aeck says that she doesn't want to see a city full of arrows, "but the positive aspects of the project outweigh the reservations I have about it." And so she goes back out into the streets with sheets of yellow arrows in her bag, ready to aim her thoughts at the heart of the city.
Each arrow has a unique code that can be accessed for a text message about the targeted 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.