In October, 2001, I was in Minneapolis
(or was it St. Paul
?) for a film/music festival. In attendance were several other artists that I know and respect a great deal, and it was great to spend time with them and wander this midwestern city together. One afternoon when nothing related to the festival was happening, I went wandering downtown with the members of The Tape-beatles
and the members of Wet Gate
. We had lunch, visited some record stores, and eventually ended up at an Army/Navy Surplus Store. We had some ironic
fun trying on ridiculous gas masks and other protective gear, made all the more poignant by recent events
. Then on our way out I noticed a bucket full of old patches and decided to paw through them haphazardly. Of course most of them were various military unit insignia, like "103rd Airborne" or "22nd Mobile Kitchen Brigade", or whatever.
However, I happened to locate a true gem: A small rectangular patch, mostly blue, with an iconic white-and-blue globe on it. Around the globe was a white partial-circle, looking somewhat like a letter C, making the whole thing reminiscent of a copyright symbol. At the bottom, under the globe, in red, were the words: "The International Sign Service."
Of course I had to have it. The others with me, being also cultural workers well-versed in semiotics and intellectual property issues, were equally impressed with my discovery. The proprietor let me have it for free, since it was virtually worthless and I wasn't purchasing anything else. A week later I was sewing the thing to my shoulder bag.
But what is, or was, The International Sign Service? No one that I've talked to knew, and I still don't know. I've thoroughly searched the web with no luck. Chances are it's something very mundane, like a U.N. agency that provides sign language interpreters.
However, I prefer an alternate, more exciting reality. I think of the Service as a mysterious, elite force of post-structuralist commandos who travel the world on dangerous missions in exotic places. They are tasked, by whatever shadowy authority they report to, with one of the most important roles in our postmodern, information age world: to monitor and, when neccesary, correct signification, on a global scale; in short, they courageously (but probably futilely) work to control meaning itself.
Their battle is a main front in the Culture Wars. They roam the continents and the infosphere, identifying crucial semiotic hotspots and using advanced media manipulation and deconstruction techniques to influence the interpretation of texts, strengthening, reassigning, or breaking down bonds between signifiers and signifieds, according to some top-secret master plan.
Are they heroes or villians? Am I one of them? Am I putting myself at risk by displaying their arcane logo so brazenly? Only time will tell, but be warned: the next time you happen upon some linguistic oddity or cultural trend, perhaps some slang term you once thought meant one thing, but now "really" means another - it may be because of the ISS....