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David Gissen: The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog and at a Distance

Conceived, coded and written by David Gissen
Typography by Jon Sueda

Opening April 2, 2016, 6 pm
Continuing 2 – 24 April

Ever since the Hollywood Sign was erected in 1923, many have captured the experience of air pollution in Los Angeles by photographing, drawing, and painting the city’s most famous icon as it disappears into the city’s hazy sky. From the artworks of Ed Ruscha to tourist photographs, these representations portray the impact of hydrocarbons and ozone in disrupting our perception of distance, shapes, and shade—a phenomenon known as “contrast reduction.“

Because the Hollywood Sign is so iconic, everyone knows that it is composed of the letters H, O, L, L, Y, W, O, O, and D, but few consider the actual legibility of its letters in these hazy conditions. During major bouts of smog, and when viewed from a distance, the sign’s capitalized letters can appear to create strange spellings, such as “NCLLYWCCD,” “HDLLYWDDD,” or even “KGIUVWUUU.”

The above alphabetic mutations are corroborated by ophthalmological research from the Pelli-Robson Contrast Sensitivity Chart. Created in the 1980s, the chart tests how people see type in low-contrast situations such as very dim light. Its format resembles a traditional eye-test chart with rows of capitalized letters, but in this case they are printed in gradations of gray that eventually fade into a white background—as if obscured by fog. Ophthalmologists observing patients using the Pelli-Robson chart discovered that with reduced contrast the letter H often appears as an N, K, E, or F; O appears as a C, Q, D, or U; and D appears as a P, R, or U, among other misidentifications.

According to studies based on the chart, the Hollywood Sign’s letters could hypothetically be perceived as about 1,700 different words when contrast is significantly reduced, and at least 100,000 different words in conditions of contrast reduction caused by severe smog. Of course, the list of possible words only increases when viewing the sign from a greater distance or at highly oblique angles. Hundreds of thousands of people view the sign every day from various vantage points in Los Angeles.

Although the air quality in Los Angeles is considerably better than it was 20 or 30 years ago, the continued distorted appearances of the Hollywood Sign offers an ironic statement about the actual legibility of the city’s most iconic monument. For those of us who read and write about the environment of cities, seeing the smog-induced words yielded by the Hollywood Sign continues the representational project initiated by artists, residents, and tourists to capture life in this evocative atmosphere. The distorted spellings visualize the totalizing impact of a polluted environment. It creates many distinct and disturbing realities—within spaces, on artifacts, inside our bodies and, in this case, even inside our minds.

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