Driving to a destination requires that the driver be alert and looking for signs indicating where they are headed. Anyone who drives is familiar with the road signs along the freeway or highway telling travelers that there is a McDonald’s and an Arco gas station and an Olive Garden somewhere in the next ten exits. Then, when arriving at the edge of town – you are greeted by a cheerful welcome sign, sometimes adorned with the various organizations that brag of the city’s accomplishments, wealth, and diversity. Now, imagine instead of those cheerful signs, the first thing you see is a sign reading “Welcome to San FranChico, City of Free Needles”. If nothing else – it would make you do a double-take to ensure you read correctly.
The city of Chico, California has become an increasingly important city to the surrounding, smaller towns and has acted as a haven for those seeking shelter. In the fall of 2019, the North Valley Harm Reduction Coalition (the NVHRC) were approved by the state to begin a needle exchange program in the greater Chico area which would provide clean needles to those who showed up and also promised various syringe cleanup methods. Almost immediately after beginning this program, negative backlash was faced from the community. The ‘San FranChico’ sign made its appearance in early March, just outside of Chico, ensuring all who visited were aware of the community’s displeasure.
The sign being hung from a piece of giant power equipment for all to see is a perfect example of detournement in modern times. It gives the appearance of a bright welcome sign to anyone who is not paying attention. And, once the true message is received, the viewer could be a bit shocked at what they saw. Because it is shocking to see something so uncomfortable and blunt in a format that we, as consumers, have grown familiar with. A welcome sign is meant to boast and promote and paint a pretty picture of the town it is advertising. When a ‘welcome sign’ instead advertises free needles with a bridge made from syringes, and offers a satirical nickname of the town, it is obvious the artist wanted to elicit a powerful reaction from his audience – whether that reaction be positive or negative, it does not matter.
A second sign on the side of a semi made an appearance a few months later – not so much targeting the NVHRC and their work – but the people who benefit from them. “Tents, Drugs &Garbage coming to a park near you” boasts the results of the needle exchange program from the point of view of Chico residents and business owners who only see an increase in discarded, used needles and syringes around town. Another familiarity twisted to change the original intended use enough to shock and grab the attention of the audience. A clueless traveler looking for a quick pit stop could be instead thrown in the middle of a local squabble between business owners and a do-good organization.
The crime in this particular case where art and crime collide, could be a few things – the littering of used needles around Chico, the manipulation of ‘welcome signs’ through detournement as a means to shock those who visit Chico, or the ultimate lawsuit filed against NVHRC resulting in the end of their syringe exchange program in late August. The program was implemented because previous studies in San Francisco indicated that needle exchange programs providing clean needles to users would decrease infections and disease caused by reusing dirty needles. People could potentially be hurt or die because this program was ended. On the other side of the argument, a child playing in the local park could step on a used needle and end up seriously injured as well.
Whether the viewer of these signs already had a set opinion on this issue or not, these signs certainly forced them to give serious thought to the situation. It broke the monotonous and comfortable bubble people form around themselves to remain indifferent to the world’s issues. This form of artwork through detournement, especially in this case, demonstrates that sometimes it does not matter if the message of a piece of art has a particular cause for ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It shows that just in breaking the norm and using the ‘acceptable’ forms of advertisement to engage the masses in something other than themselves, an individualistic society can be forced to acknowledge the world around them.