Below is the text, composed several years before Signs on the Quad, of the thought experiment I conducted in which I imagined what might be the effect of standing on the campus of the University of Washington and holding up signs. Of the ten signs I imagined, four of them I eventually used over the course of Signs on the Quad.
I have left the text as written in 2009 unedited, typos and clumsy English preserved.
Messages: An Existential Experiment
Excerpted from: "Practicing Idealism: Journal of the Practicing Idealists’ League," Vol. 13 No. 4, April 2004
In October of 2001, while the country was completely consumed mentally and emotionally with the September 11th attacks and the punitive invasion of Afghanistan, one person conducted a sociological experiment its creator called an "existential experiment." It was designed, among other things "to stimulate thought, to encourage questioning, and to show people the limits of language when trying to convey multi-layered ideas which have multiple, sometimes mutually contradicting meanings."
The experiment involved the display on the campus of the University of Washington of signs bearing messages their creator wanted to bring to the attention of students and faculty. As you will see, reception of the experiment was mixed. Most people simply ignored the messages, some with derision and others with indifference. Many felt the intention of the signs was to offend a certain group of people, that they were racist or sexist or intended to offend some other social group, in spite of the fact that the experiment's creator said on many occasions that he had no intention of offending anyone with his messages. The experiment’s creator explained: “People trust their own personal interpretation of a work of art even when the artist is there to explain the meaning of their work.”
We offer for our readers this account of a noble attempt to create and act not for the sake of personal gain, but out of idealism, however quixotic the attempt may appear.
- Jeremy Taber
Practicing Idealists' League
University of Washingon Chapter
Messages: An Existential Experiment
Conceived and Conducted by John Quindell
Conducted October 8-19, 2001 on the Campus of the University of Washington
(on the lawn in the north-west corner of the quad)
The idea behind the experiment was to observe the reaction of university students, faculty and staff to a series of messages conveyed to them by standing on the campus over a ten-day period holding up a sign with a different message written on it each day. I consider the experiment open-ended--open, in fact, at both ends--in the sense that it did not propose a hypothesis before starting and did not claim to be able to predict the results of the experiment or, upon its conclusion, to draw any specific conclusions as to its ultimate meaning. If the experiment had turned out to be relatively meaningless--in the sense that it had made no observable impact--that itself would have been a significant result.
The messages themselves either have no intrinsic meaning or are paradoxes. Their meaning is left deliberately ambiguous so as to allow the perceiver to lend them their meaning. If a person is angered by a sign, that person has actually become angry at their own view of the world, though they think they have become angered at an objective reality outside of them. In actuality they are angered by themselves.
Day 1: October 8, 2001
(Columbus Day and the day after the US invasion of Afghanistan)
Message: "Don’t think."
Some people passed by with quizzical looks that then changed to rolling eyes and derisive scowls. Others seemed interested and went away appearing to be thinking about the meaning of the sign, in spite of its call not to do so.
Day 2: October 9, 2001
Message: "Fight conflict"
Several people who apparently consider themselves very intelligent came up to me and pointed out that there was a basic contradiction in the message. Many of them would say this while walking by, without stopping to ask why I was holding up such a sign. To those who stopped to say it was a contradiction I replied that they were right. Most walked off after that. A few asked why I was propagating such a message. I asked them what they thought my reason was. Some said they had no idea. Some guessed that the paradox had value as it got people to think about situations in life and society in which, under the banner of righting a wrong, people do things which amount to trying to defeat conflict by fighting against it. This struggle against conflict, being itself a struggle feeds the conflict and grows rather than diminishes.
Day 3: October 10, 2001
Message: "There is nothing wrong with you."
I didn't expect a lot or argument around this message, but some people came up and tried to argue that I was wrong, that they are still dealing with "issues" and I should understand that there are some people in the world with real problems and that I should not make fun of them or belittle their circumstances.
Other people said they knew there was something wrong with them, that every minute of the day they are conscious of serious imperfections in them. They want someone to tell them what is wrong with them so that they can get rid of the problem.
Day 4: October 11, 2001
Message: "Mandatory castration for all potential rapists."
Some people, not by all means only militant feminists, agreed with this statement, telling stories about having been raped or having friends who had been whose lives had been destroyed because of the rape. Of those who supported this idea, none bothered to think about how it is possible to determine who might be a rapist before that person even attempts a rape.
Day 5: October 12, 2001
Message: "I am not a terrorist."
I suspected trouble for this sign so I chose Friday for my day to hold up this time so that the weekend could serve as a cooling-off period before I came back on Monday to continue displaying messages.
Many were angered by this sign. Some said I was disrespecting the memory of the victims of 9/11. Some people asked me if I was a terrorist. I said I wasn't, just as the sign declared. Then they asked me why I would hold up such a sign. I said I displayed the message because it was true. They asked me why I would bother saying it. I asked, "Why shouldn't I say it? I want people to know it's true. I wouldn't want to be suspected of being a terrorist. Would you want people to think you were a terrorist?"
I was questioned by the dean of the office of student affairs who came accompanied by two officers of the University of Washington police. They claimed I was violating a statute forbidding actions or speech which may lead to public disorder (panic). They requested that I leave campus. I complied. I did not want to provoke a confrontation or agree to any confrontation they may have wanted to draw me into. I saw that the message had already gotten out, that in the three hours I stood there undisturbed (8am-11am), enough students saw the sign that everyone on campus would hear the message and know that I had been asked to leave by the police..
Day 6: October 13, 2001
Message: "Nothing is enough."
Relatively few people saw the hidden dual meaning in this message. Most rendered the sentence in their mind as: "No matter how much you have, it's never enough." Many came up and agreed with the message, some saying it was important to try to get such a message out to people.
Some asked whether I also or instead meant: "Having nothing is enough." This generated some interesting discussions in which we touched on Buddhist ideas, Diogenes and the ascetics and other philosophical and existential issues.
No matter how hard you try. what effort you put forth, there will be someone dissatisfied with something you have done.
Day 7: October 14, 2001
Message: "I am not in denial."
Many people came up and tried to prove that there had to be something I was in denial about. Some progressive whites tried to explain to me that I could not not have racist thoughts since they were impossible not to have as a white person. Other probed me with questions related to my attitudes towards people of different races and lifestyles. Some gay men told me if I didn't admit latent homosexual tendencies I was in denial about them.
Those who insisted I was in denial in spite of my denial that I was, eventually came to the conclusion that I was in denial about the fact that there had to be something I was in denial about.
Day 8: October 17, 2001
Message: "This sign will not be shown on television."
Film crews from the local TV station came to film this sign, thinking they were being very clever in showing the sign on TV. They unknowingly helped to spread the message that you will not find criticism of the media in the media itself.
Day 9: October 18, 2001
Message: "I have never used the word 'nigger'."
This sign generated by far the most controversy so far. Most found the sign offensive, some so offensive that they suggested it was hate speech. Some called for introducing free-speech zones on campus so that someone could hold up signs like mine only in designated areas, probably those far from normal student pedestrian traffic as on college campuses where they have introduced designated free-speech zones.
I asked them to whom I was being offensive. They said my sign was offensive to African Americans and to anyone sensitive to the suffering of enslaved and marginalized people. I said I had no intention of offending anyone. I wanted to prove that the notion expressed by Nobel Prize winning poet Ezra Pound was correct, that in this society, no one cares about the motivations for your actions. They care only about what you do. That is, the meaning of anything you do depends not on what you wanted to say, but on what someone outside of you tells you what you say means.
Day 10: October 19, 2001
Message: "Beat women."
I decided to end the experiment with a sign I expected to draw the most controversy, hoping that by the end of the experiment enough people would be paying attention to the messages for them to have an impact.
Some frat guys walked by punching their fists in the air and saying things like: "Way to go!", "Yeah!", "Slap my bitch up!"
Very few people asked me what the message meant. Many women were upset and expressing their indignation in different ways. I was given numerous lectures on the prevalence of violence against women in society
Often men seemed more angered by the sign than women, judging by the vehemence of their response.
To those who took the trouble to ask me what the sign meant I said this: "I call upon all men to better women in cultivating within themselves and expressing the beauty and the wisdom of the eternal feminine."
Of those who listened to this sentence, only a few understood the meaning of the message.
Most people walked by without seeming to have thought about the messages at all. Many were angered by some of them. Some people angrily told me I was wasting my own and their time.
Some expressed approval and agreement with the messages on some of the signs.
Most people seem to ignore anything outside of the reality they are accustomed to seeing. That is, it appears that the sign does not register and I suspect for many the messages were not received by the portion of their mind responsible for processing data and translating it into meaning. Others became angry as it seemed they perceived the messages as a threat to their world, as if challenging certain accepted notions impinged on their right to live a life of comfort, one in which, in addition to physical and other creature comforts people insist on the right not to be questioned about or challenged on their beliefs.
Through his experiment the creator says: "I myself am nothing. The messages themselves carry no intrinsic message. Their "meaning" is a reflection of their interpretation by those who perceive them."
What unites all the messages, as varied as they are, is that each message is designed to be conscious of itself. The message takes into consideration likely misconceptions of its meaning and incorporates them into the message itself. The message itself is aware of what environment it will find itself in and that it may be perceived negatively, therefore it carries within it a contradiction of itself. This contradiction of self takes the form of deliberate ambiguity, a paradox or the inherent meaningless of the statement.
In the case of the message "Do not think about this" the message knows that it is a paradox and thus it does not take itself seriously on the level of its semantic meaning. It knows, however, that the perceiver who thinks more deeply about the message may begin to question the nature of words, ideas and meaning in general.
The relative truth of the message cannot be determined as the ultimate meaning of the message is given to it by its perceiver, and thus it might give rise to/reflect several different meanings.