indestructible language
20 December 2016

The inaugural commission in 2006 for the Precipice Alliance, the first international organization to commission high-profile, large-scale works of art on pressing issues, and the first subject was global warming. The Precipice Alliance was founded by the photographer Joel Sternfeld and his editor Donna Wingate. Carroll elected to appropriate the form of the neon sign, emphasizing the concreteness of language while assuring that the commission retained its identity as a work of art. As material, neon recommended itself for its historical references to industrial signage, for its sheer visibility—important for this first Precipice work, so that it might garner maximum attention—and because the latest technology would make it carbon neutral.

For indestructible language, Carroll secured a site with the Precipice Alliance at the defunct American Can Company along the Pulaski Skyway, a landmarked roadway in New Jersey that heads to and from the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan. (At this location, American Can developed the flip-top closure for cereal boxes.) The piece stretched across five buildings parallel to the skyway, with the final words rounding the corner of the north side of the fifth building so that they were visible as a solitary phrase when heading toward New York City. The area surrounding the site is an industrial wasteland, which might corroborate the common belief that New Jersey lacks a strong environmental policy. But in fact the state’s policy is in the top four in the United States.

The scale of indestructible language necessitated collaboration with and permissions from numerous state agencies, from Governor Jon Corzine’s office to Jersey City’s Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s office to the traffic division for the state. The sign was visible at this temporary location for a period of six months from distances of up to four miles, including to airplanes flying into Newark International Airport, to commuter trains and rail lines running along the eastern seaboard, and to automobile traffic on the Pulaski Skyway, the New Jersey Turnpike, and other roadways. The sentence Carroll chose for the piece, from the more than 200 she generated in Excel spreadsheets, issued from the basic premise taken from the media that global warming is a moral issue when in fact it a scientific fact.

An exegesis of the final version might run as follows. IT IS—pronoun and verb: it exists, versus ought; we know the condition exists, it is so. A great deal of philosophical discussion, Wittgenstein and beyond, takes up the idea of action and intention, with Elizabeth Anscombe in particular focusing on the scenario in which one ought to do something, implying moral obligation, but where one does not respond unless the condition is seen or known firsthand. GREEN—noun, verb, adjective: color, that which is visible; the neon is red, green is the complement to red, plant growth as the effect of greenhouse gas, green as the sign for environmental issues that has been coopted; reference to Five Words in Green Neon by Joseph Kosuth and Carroll’s own piece Flashes of Consciousness, Every Five or Six Words in Green Neon. (2001);

green as money, the colloquial word for value, it can be profitable to invest in environmental technology; the philosophical basis of evil, Nietzsche’s On the Geneology of Morals, envy. THINKS—verb: what distinguishes humans beings from animals but the ability to engage in cognitive processes? NATURE—noun: man, earth, the atmosphere, outside, inanimate being, “the thing.” EVEN—adjective: the issue is nonpartisan; to be carbon neutral. IN THE DARK —idiom. The stand-alone phrase reflects back to the viewing of the artwork, given that the sign is only visible in the dark. If the intention is to not see the issue, the language ends where it began, with it not being a moral question, but an ethical one of one’s choosing collectively.