Spring 2006

Colors / Yellow

The sign of things to come

Nato Thompson

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

This is a cautionary tale. Continue reading if you like, but give way if pressed. Don’t tense up. Relax. Stretch your fingers. Feel your breathing. Hold this magazine gently, letting your thumbs rest on the front of the pages while your remaining fingers press slightly on the back to produce a bending effect. The resulting pressure should produce an optimal surface for reading text. You can focus on this essay, but please, retain an awareness of your surroundings. Practice using your peripheral vision and make note of any incremental shifts or movements in your environment. You might want to read this in a wood chair, not so comfortable that you run the risk of falling asleep, but not so stiff that you might hurt your back or let an extremity fall asleep. Have snacks on hand, too, in order to avoid an unnecessary break. You might also want to relieve yourself before proceeding. And please, turn off your cell phone. Let’s begin.

This essay is dedicated to the color yellow. The color of caution. The color that beyond all others looks out for you, the reader. The driver. The citizen. The vulnerable body. Yellow is bright because it doesn’t let its guard down. And neither should you. It’s a dangerous world out there and you can thank the color yellow for lending a hand in navigating this treacherous terrain.

School Crossing Sign S1-1, with “conventional road” measurements (in mm). From the US Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices 2003 Edition. The constantly updated, mammoth-sized MUTCD—online at http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov—contains design, application, and placement standards (as well as downloadable artwork) for every official sign, signal, and pavement marking found on US roadways.

The color of caution is the color of concern. It’s a maternal sign in a world of commands. Yellow doesn’t bark. It reminds. It doesn’t demand. It encourages. It is the hand on the back of your tricycle, gently modulating your speed as you pedal down the sidewalk. It coddles you, advises you, nurtures you. It is a Zen sign in a world of fascists. You do not necessarily stop nor do you go, you proceed at a contingent speed based on the surrounding conditions. Like Tai Chi, you let the motion of the world move through you and use its inertia to catapult a foe. The yellow light at the intersection blinks a perfect rhythm. It pulses with the beating of your heart. It is letting you know that unlike the rest of the colors, yellow is there, lending a hand, doing the hard work, and tending to that eating, breathing, sleeping, and driving being that is you. This level of empathy is unheard of in all other street signs. It is the big maybe that resonates with the flexible state of mind that will get you through. When you proceed in a cautious manner, you are saying to the world, “No hurry here. Just getting the job done.” That’s an ethical yet strategic position.

A yellow curb does not say to you, “Do not park your car.” Nor does it say, “Do park your car.” The yellow curb asks you calmly to be aware of the codes and regulations that pertain to that site of vehicular standing. The yellow curb is not reprimanding you, but rather reminding you that geography is in cahoots with the disciplinary society. It’s saying, “My child, do not be naïve. The world is full of surprises, most of which are tucked away in the penal code. Do not ignore them. Knowledge is a good defense. Beware!” Listen to the yellow curb. The curb is murmuring profundity.

Yet caution is contrary and its consolation often belies its cruelty. The caution sign itself bears out this formula, for the sign is a sign of a schizophrenic appetite. Not content to be merely the color of caution itself, the caution sign goes the extra distance by wearing the word “CAUTION” boldly on its visage. It is neither a double negative nor a double positive; it is a double conditional. The textual black caution demands caution while the color yellow caution gently reminds caution. These simultaneous paternal and maternal forms of danger avoidance find a conflict in their tone and the ultimate meaning of the caution sign itself escapes reason. You tense up at the bold demands of the text and then coo at the cajoling of the color. Caught in this vertiginous psychosexual trauma, you brace yourself for the intersection. This brazen act of double meaning may at times result in interpretive paralysis. While many on the road find the act of interpreting the double negative a nuisance, the double conditional is an outright safety hazard.

Caution is the way of the road and it is hard to imagine a cautionary world without the invaluable iconography of road signs, lights, crosswalks, and meridians that have catapulted yellow into humble pragmatic legend. Next time you drive, use the yellow signs. Not that they demand that of you. No, that is not yellow’s way. But go ahead. Use them. For many of these signs are the sign of things to come. They are diamond-shaped potential futures placed at the corners of your eyes. As you hurtle yourself through space with pistons pounding at the miniscule ignition of gas and spark, the yellow sign warns, whispers, and waits. Children at play, blind children, deaf children, children Xing, deer Xing, bear Xing, moose Xing, turkey Xing. Like a film preview, these iconographic potentialities produce a vision of a world that may arrive, a narrative that you are about to enter from stage left at a velocity far beyond the cast’s capacity. Far be it for the child, turkey, or moose to prepare, for it is you, the potential future of disaster, that comes barreling down that snowy road. It is you, you as the future, of which the signs warn. They say to you, “What kind of future do you want to be?” The yellow signs have witnessed these potentialities played out time and time again. They do their best. They have seen a prancing deer launch out into the road, feet tucked, head high, eyes glowing in the glare of headlights as it is splayed across the hood of a Honda Civic with the agonized hands of Cynthia trembling at the wheel. Heart racing. Easy-listening blasting. Traces of deer hair enmeshed forever in the front left bumper. Yellow knows. Yellow nods.

Yellow understands gradient and contour. Yellow acknowledges driveways and low salt zones. It is yellow that tacitly accepts the geologic conditions that produce futures based on a society of velocity. It looks you in the eye and reminds you that the future of disaster in large part derives from the inability of you, the driver, to acknowledge the ever-shifting relationship between your tires and the skin of the earth. The yellow sign will not waste your time by letting you know about a straightaway, nor inconvenience you with a grade of zero. Nor does yellow stop you. Leave that for the garish vulgarity of red. Yellow warns. Yellow is the ghost of Christmas yet to come and, in that sense, yellow is the sign of the ultimate thing to come—death itself.

For yellow is foreboding. In every cautionary whisper, one hears the trembling laughter of the grave. In every yellow sign a new vision of your potential demise comes to light. A squiggly road sign emerges and you see yourself careening at 70 mph off into a tomb of birch and pine. Every bend is a new hackneyed memorial with dried flowers and a rickety cross. Every emerging intersection begs for a collision so brutalizing that the pavement cracks and the signs themselves are torn asunder. Fire hydrants explode, engine oil spews, and the smell of burnt rubber fills the nostrils of those paying tribute to speed, contour, and collision. And it is yellow, that horrifying color of smug self-satisfaction, that looks over the smoldering site of disaster that lies below its towering reprimand and says, “It is I, the sign of caution, that told you so. I am the one who warned. And it is I, in your last melancholy seconds with your eyes blinking at the descending gas gauge, ears aggravated by the seat belt warning, and your breath fading on the cracked windshield glass, it is I that looks over you. It is I that told you so.”

Nato Thompson is a writer, activist, and curator at MASS MoCA.

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