This article is from 2009.
Having hit the highway to success in Scandinavia, Doug Lansky talks to Yasmin Sulaiman about his comedy exhibition of accidental roadside humour
Doug Lansky might be one of the world’s most respected travel writers, but he is better known as the orchestrator of The Signspotting Project, a longstanding mission to collect images of the world’s funniest road signs. This passionate quest for examples of unintentional roadside humour has been the subject of a nationally syndicated column in the US and three Lonely Planet books, the most recent of which has just been released in the UK. Now, Lansky’s project has evolved into a form of art – though he is reluctant to call it that – with The Signspotting Project exhibition taking place in Edinburgh’s Princes Mall throughout August.
‘I don’t even really remember taking many pictures of these funny signs,’ says Lansky, who dates the origins of the project back to his first round-the-world trip in the early-1990s. On the return to his native USA after two-and-a-half years of globetrotting, he shrunk his box of photographs to a paperback novel-sized stack and remembers the handful of images of funny signs being a hit with friends and family. Several years later, he took up the idea again and began seeking out similar signs, paying contributors $50 for the rights to each image. ‘It was all terribly time consuming and expensive,’ he says. ‘My family thought I was just nuts; I lost around $8000, not to mention hundreds of hours of my time. And then the Lonely Planet book came along after a few years and I think it evened things out.’
Lansky’s inspiration for The Signspotting Project exhibition comes from outdoor spectacles such as the CowParade and Earth from Above, though he calls it ‘less artistic and more funny’. It was first displayed in Stockholm in 2008 and enjoyed a stint in Copenhagen this year, surprising the writer by its success. ‘There was so much work to be done in the run-up to the exhibition that I forgot to think about the reaction, so I was pleasantly surprised,’ he says. ‘At times, it felt like I was in a comedy club. If you closed your eyes and stood in the middle, you just heard people laughing.’
On its first UK outing in Edinburgh, the exhibition will be split into two, displaying some signs indoors at Princes Mall and others on the roof. With around 40,000 images in his bank, Lansky says that whittling down his catalogue to the 100 featured in the show was tough. ‘I started out with the ones I had in the first two books,’ he says. ‘There were a couple of hundred in each. Plus, there’s only so many that work well without their backdrop. Basically, the ones I chose were personal favourites that worked well universally. I tried to opt for those that had the least text and were more visual.’
Another constricting factor was the way in which he chose to showcase the signs. Each one, blown up to life size, is mounted on a four millimetre-thick piece of aluminium, which is placed on a pole stuck into a sturdy cement block. As a way of maximising space, Lansky mounted a sign on either side of one aluminium sheet, so had to ensure that for each sign chosen, there was another of a similar shape. It’s a challenge he relished. ‘It’s like the world’s biggest Lego kit,’ he says. ‘When we set it up, we have all the concrete blocks and all these nuts, bolts and screws to put up the signs. As a writer, it’s a nice chance to work with my hands for a change.’
He reckons the end product is worth the logistical struggle. ‘When you put together a book, it’s not often that you get to see people enjoying or not enjoying it. But when you’ve got it up in exhibit form, you can stand back anonymously and just watch people. Most walk through it with an ear-to-ear grin on their face and there are loads of people who walk around holding their sides with tears in their eyes. That never gets old and it’s really fun to see.’
The most popular signs are one warning of ‘Sleeping Policemen Ahead’ and another prohibiting people from squatting on a western toilet. His personal favourites include ‘Blind Drivers Backing Out’ and ‘George Bush Centre for Intelligence’. For the writer, part of the exhibition’s appeal is that its humour breaks international boundaries, making it ideal for the diverse Fringe audience.
Lansky has never visited Edinburgh during the Fringe before, but he’s keen to tout the exhibition’s family-friendly and free credentials, compared with other comedy attractions. ‘As I understand it,’ he says, ‘there’s not been anything like this done before. There’s a lot of amazing competition at the Fringe but this is a very different kind of experience and you can view it at your leisure. It’s something people will be able to squeeze in between other things that have fixed start and stop times, so it’ll be really convenient that way.’
And while we’re yet to see whether the exhibition will be a hit with Fringe-goers, Lansky’s zeal for the project is certainly clear. ‘With the Signspotting books, in some ways the highest compliment is if someone buys it and puts it next to their loo. Similarly, this exhibition is a great pit stop. I’m not saying you have to come into Edinburgh just to see this but if you’re anywhere nearby, it’s certainly worth ten minutes to check it out and have a quick, free laugh.’
The Signspotting Project, Princes Mall Shopping Centre, 557 3759, until 31 Aug, 9am–7.30pm (Sun 10am–6.30pm), free.