Signal/Noise: Ambient Text in the Urban Landscape (ongoing project)
  • Joseph Heathcott | Multiple dates and locations

  • Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott Joseph Heathcott
  • Signal/Noise: Ambient Text in the Urban Landscape (ongoing project)
  • Joseph Heathcott | Multiple dates and locations
  • ‘We are enveloped and steeped as though in an atmosphere of the marvellous, but we do not notice it.’ Charles Baudelaire

    This long-term project explores the wide range of ways that people write onto the surfaces of the city. It is a documentation of tactics of marking and signaling through varied modes of address, points of information, and forms of expression. These tactics range from highly formal lettering to rapid tagging, artistic flourishes to utilitarian announcements, legally posted signage to haphazard scrawls, incised characters to collagraphic collages.  They may be written onto a substrate and affixed to a building, or they may be applied directly to the surface. In all cases, they charge the architecture and infrastructure of the city to carry additional meaning, to provide signal boosting power for the urban viewshed, to call out to the world around.  

    While such texts are abundant, even ubiquitous in some cities, I am interested in those moments when they emerge out of the background noise of everyday urban life and into our consciousness. The ambient texts included here have, in one way or another, exceeded themselves, pushed beyond the amplitude of their signal to reveal something more, or perhaps even less, about the city around them.  These might be set in distinct, isolated spaces or entangled through collision or saturation where meanings are contested, negotiated or unstable. They might be deliberate talismans of corporate capitalist power, such as the dazzling displays of Shibuya Crossing or Times Square. Or they might be a hastily pained reminder not to park in front of someone’s driveway. Behind each is a gesture, a fleeting trace of someone’s time, intent, and labor, often lingering, usually fugitive or lost.

    The photographs selected here reflect the range of texts abroad on the surfaces of the city; they are drawn from a collection of several thousand such images. A larger selection of 100 texts can be reviewed on my Flickr page here.  I have occasionally manipulated the images by desaturation and selective re-addition of color, or by cropping, sharpening, digital burning, and dodging, or shifting the white balance. What I hope they do regardless is to reveal the surface of the city as a great palimpsest, roiling with the combinatory possibilities of fonts and styles and characters and letters and words, inscribed and re-inscribed with meaning.


    Joseph Heathcott is a writer, artist, curator, and educator based in New York, where he teaches at The New School. Hailing from the rustbelt, Heathcott learned camera work at an early age using his father’s U.S. Army issued 35mm Mamia Sekor TL500. He pursued photography and printmaking as a student at Washington University in the 1980s, and spent several years after college creating agit-prop (posters, flyers, screen prints, ‘zines) for political groups and protest events.  While in graduate school, he worked as a radio producer, museum collections specialist, and youth educator. He earned his Ph.D. in American Studies in 2001 from Indiana University.

    Heathcott’s work explores metropolitan forms and urban imaginaries within a global perspective. His photography, maps, drawings, and essays have appeared in a wide range of venues, including magazines, exhibits, juried art shows, DIY ‘zines, radio broadcasts, books, and journals of opinion. He held the U.S. Fulbright Distinguished Chair to the United Kingdom at the University of the Arts in London, a Senior Visiting Scholar at the London School of Economics, and a Mellon Distinguished Fellowship in Architecture and Urbanism at Princeton School of Architecture. He has also been a visiting scholar at the University of Vienna and l’École Urbaine at Sciences Po in Pars.


    As someone who comes out of an agit-prop tradition, I use photography, collage, drawing, and mapping, as elements of a critical urban practice. The work that comes out of this practice occupies the intersection between documentary and aesthetic impulses, and in doing so it is neither real nor beautiful, but something else.  That ‘something else’ changes from time to time, but might best be described as a trace of something left behind as a condition of living in the city. Ultimately, since the whole of the city is unknowable, I look for it through its traces: the signals, noises, layers, jagged edges, soft wares, connective tissues, ghosts, hoaxes, fetishes, archives, dreams, and buried treasures that tell us something about the ‘urban.’

    Urban, ambient, text, surface, signal, noise


    The oeuvre of Gordon Matta Clark. See Antonio Sergio Bessa et al, Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

    The oeuvre of Martha Rosler. See If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism : A Project by Martha Rosler (New York: New Press, 1998).

    The oeuvre of Ray Johnson. See Elizabeth Zula et al, Not Nothing (New York: Siglio, 2014)

    Other projects
  • Signal/Noise: Ambient Text in the Urban Landscape (ongoing project)
  • Site Stories: explorations of urban spaces through drawing and animation (25–29 April 2022)
  • Rainbow Palace, Bergen, Norway (March 2022)
  •  Acanthus, (March 2022)
  • Unter der Hohen Brücke. 
digging in a ditch, writing for a place 
  • ‘Reading-writing alongside HALL08,’ HALL08 (2021)
  • Nothingness Beyond Blossom (2021)
  • Angelo Ciccaglione, ‘The back of the dust-machine, where the visitors pour the dust in,’ Rotterdam (2021)
    The Deposition of Dust (July 2021)
  • Skye Edge (April 2021)
  • Corvid-19 (15 March 2021)
  • 1_5
    Glòries_(Eixample). A dispositive for very slow aesthetic observation, (January 2021 –)
  • As Lightning to the Children Eased (January 2021)
  • Station F (October 2020)
  • It’s Just a Matter of Time (2020)
  • 1
    Inscription: the Journal of Material Text – Theory, Practice, History,
    issue # 1: ‘beginnings,’ (2020)
  • Homekeeping-image_sml
    Homekeeping (2020)
  • City Embers (2020)
  • Between Our Words I will Trace Your Presence (February 2020)
  • What Remains (2019)
  • Situated Writing as Theory and Method (2019)
  • Parts Apart Read Together (2019)
  • Fields of Awareness, (2019, 3min 18 secs)
  • A Non-Aligned Narrative in and Around KSEVT, (2019)
  • 21 Orientations: An Atlas of Geographic Promiscuity (2019)
  • The Windowless Hotel Room (2018)
  • Spaces of Grief (2018)
  • Soft Landing (2018)
  • Shared Remains (April 2018)
  • Poetic Water Boundaries: towards a possible borderless sea, (2018)
  • Metropolitan Salem, Liuerpul (9 June – 18 August 2018)
  • Things Come Apart (21 – 24 March 2018)
  • Learn to Read Differently (2018)
  • Il Balcone. A site-writing performance (2018)
  • History begins with the vanity of kings (2018)
  • Dear Mr. Jung: Inhabiting Carl Jung’s ‘The Red Book’ (May 2018)
  • A Lunar Perspective, (2018-2020)
  • Heaton Hall: A Palimpsest (2017)
  • Location (+) (2017)
  • There’s Sand in My Infinity Pool (2017)
  • Talking Quilts (April 2017)
  • fifteen ways to cross the desert (2017)
  • Between Landscape and Confinement: Situating the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft (2017)
  • Agency at the threshold, (2017)
  • A Ficto-Historical Theory of the London Underground (2017)
  • The Glorious Tomb to the Memory of Nothing (2016)
  • The Arrival’s Reader; A Visual Literary Criticism on The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2016)
  • Reading as Art (27 August-19 November 2016)
  • Re: development (London: Silent Grid, 2016)
  • Kjemikerens død [The Death of the Chemist] (23 – 26 May 2016)
  • Kingsland High Street (2016)
  • Foray in a Modern Reserve: An Impounding Portrait of Landuse (2016 – 2018)
  • Fall of the Derwent (2016)
  • Away from Home – Home from Away (April 2016)
  • Penguin Pool (2015)
  • Geography Lessons: Liberian Landmarks 1953-2013 (2015)
  • Women’s Anarchist Nuisance Café (2014)
  • The Writing on the Wall (after Rembrandt) (2014)
  • The Italic I (2014)
  • Designing Architecture as a Performing-Ground (2014)
  • Urban Literacy (2013/2014/2016)
  • The Disappearance: Manfredo Tafuri’s The Sphere and the Labyrinth (April 2013)
  • Folded Ground: Escape from Cape Town (2013)
  • Phantom Railings (2012 – 2017)
  • In The Emptiness Between Them (2012)
  • 10/08/12 (multispecies event) (2012)
  • An Arcades Project (2011)
  • Tideline (2010-2012)
  • The Museum of Breath (2010)
  • Slab (2010)
  • One wound. Two wounds. The body as site for writing (2010)
  • The Fluid Pavement and Other Stories on Growing Old (2006)
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