On message


Along the old highway, soon to be replaced by an interstate, a billboard touting the benefits of advertising on billboards: THINK BIG, it says. And right beyond it, a billboard with this message:

There are times when she pretends
to be delighted with your gift.
This won’t be one of
those times.

It is an ad for, I think, diamonds. I only spotted it at the last moment as we sped past, my mind on the Engineered Rock Placement Area — the mountain of toxic rubble that will soon begin to take shape a quarter mile away along the creek.


In the patio outside the new wing of the library named after the football coach, the university sold the rights to inscribe names in foot-wide bricks for $2,500 apiece. The coach and his wife, public-spirited citizens that they are, each purchased a brick. You can’t have your name in too many places, I guess. Some of the bricks contain clever messages: one alum admonishes people to stop reading the bricks and go study. Another brick simply paraphrases Pink Floyd, “We are all bricks in the wall” — kind of silly, since this is manifestly not a wall. I do like one of the messages, though:

this brick

A few feet away stands a sculpture entitled Stacks, by an alumnus named Peter Calaboyias (see photo at top). Four large, bronze tablets lean together conspiratorially like football players in a huddle. They are embossed with a hodge-podge of glyphs with no collective meaning.

Those images were created out of twenty-five scripts, including the foundations of Cherokee, Armenian, Thai, Greek and symbols of Braille and Hieroglyphs. The sculpture is supposed to visually represent the function of a library as a repository of methods and systems for communications. The plate images only represent characters and symbols of communication, not languages, according to a University Libraries’ Office of Public Information and Relations press release.

To me, though, the unreadability of these tablets makes a statement about the occult nature of the specialized languages peculiar to academic disciplines. And the artist’s vision of information as context-free code rather than message seems highly compatible with an emphasis on “electronic information resources,” the purchase of which is supported by those $2,500-dollar bricks.

By contrast, the faí§ade of the other wing of the library, named after a pioneering professor of American Studies back in the early 20th century, features much more conventional carvings of cap-and-gowned scholars with the messages, The Library is a Summons to Scholarship and The True University is a Collection of Books. These sentiments seem more than a little mossy now: the part of the library’s budget dedicated to buying books continues to shrink as more and more funding goes toward electronic material. That wing faces southeast, and stands at the head of an elm tree-lined walking mall. Its nearest neighbors are office buildings for the College of Liberal Arts, and have the names of Great Men — Kant, Goethe, Shakespeare et. al. — carved in Roman letters all around the entablature. It is, as the kids say, very old-school.

The new wing faces in the opposite direction, toward the big new Spiritual Center across the street. This is mostly happenstance, of course, but I do think that information resources make a far more comfortable fit with spirituality than knowledge. The former term makes no implicit claim about truth-status, and thus doesn’t threaten the sovereignty of that mix of assertions and emotions that most people mean by the term spirituality. And whereas the acquisition of knowledge might lead to wisdom or inspire ethical behavior, the gathering of information serves merely to empower. Knowledge is active and alive; information is passive and inert. I like the inviting quality of the “Stacks” sculpture, but if I’d been the artist, I would’ve dispensed with all the exotic glyphs and covered the tablets instead with ones and zeros.

5 Replies to “On message”

  1. Good lord, Dave…at first glance, I thought those billboards you quoted at the beginning were Viagra ads. We live in a culture where it’s all about the size of your rock/brick/whatevah.

  2. I like the glyphs on the sculpture because they reference history. The ones and zeros would have been a good addition to include the present. Design wise it looks quite interesting, warming up the coldness of the shapes.

  3. To be fair, the coach and his wife also donated $4 million to help build the new wing. Say what you will about the whole sports enterprise at dear old PSU (I pretty ambivalent about it in general), Joe and Sue put their money where their mouths are.

  4. Lorianne – Guns. It’s all about 2nd Amendment!

    marja-leena – Thanks for your reaction as an artist. It is a nice design, no doubt about it. Very inviting. The shapes aren’t so cold in person.

    handdrummer – Oh, I know. They’re Good People. It’s just that, with their names on the stinkin’ building, why would they put your names on a brick yet? Probably someone asked them to, to try and get others to follow suit. Frankly, I think the library made a big mistake by not charging, say, $500. They didn’t sell very many bricks, as you know.

  5. Like Marja-Leena, I too find the sculptures appealing. And I don’t know if they’d be stronger by having a particular message; too specific a message (and it’s difficult to have one that isn’t trite or pat). What ancient scripts evoke is different from 1s and 0s.

    If I see Akkadian or Greek, what I think of is not “information,” I think of cultures in which words and, by extension, writing, had magical properties. So a generous reading would say the glyphs are an invitation to mystery.

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