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Thanks to Pollution, Here Are 4,000 Ways to Misread the Hollywood Sign

Beware of smoggy skies in "Hollywoop."

In the smog, our eyes deceive us: The letter O looks like a C; an H might appear as an N; a D gets mistaken for a U. Among ophthalmologists, the key instrument to test this phenomenon is the Pelli-Robson Contrast Sensitivity Chart, a foggy eye chart that tracks how patients misidentify letters in increasingly reduced contrast. Using scientific findings from such tests alongside his own observations, writer David Gissen built an algorithm to generate all the ways the Hollywood sign could appear when viewed through the thick layers of smog Los Angeles is known for. He then compiled the results into an experimental text—no introduction, no prose—with just the words as they are, in all of their garbled beauty.

See: Pelli, D. G., Robson, J. G., & Wilkins, A. J. (1988). The design of a new letter chart for measuring contrast sensitivity. Clinical Vision Sciences, 2(3):187-199. Copyright © 2014 D.G. Pelli and J.G. Robson. Manufactured by Precision Vision.

"I am a historian of modern environments and modern forms of nature, particularly in urban and architectural contexts. So, I often write about pollution and, living in California, I sometimes write about Los Angeles pollution," Gissen tells The Creators Project. "I have always explored conceptual ways to write about these things, but I really pushed myself much more in that regard with this particular project."

Gissen's first algorithm generated around 30,000 letter combinations. When factoring in the possible variations in distance from the sign, the program rendered nearly a million results. Eventually, Gissen preferred to pare the text down to a more manageable 4,000 words. The list begins with the misidentification of a single letter in "HOLLYWOOP"—a word that seems to apologize for itself with a truncated "whoops." From there, we descend into increasingly muddled terrain, passing the likes of KOLLYWUOU, HQLLYWQUB and FUIUYWCQO. We eventually reach our final destination at UUUIVUUUU—a combination so obscure, it seems to have long forgotten its origins.

First five lines of Gissen’s "The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog"

This gradual progression towards complete illegibility is the whole point: "This piece of writing doesn't look 'smoggy.’ It's not grey or obscured," comments the author, "but it nonetheless represents an aspect of seeing in the smog." This realization was a breakthrough in Gissen's work: After years of writing about the appearance and experience of environments, he suddenly discovered that writing "could represent that experience without using language to describe, in this case, a smoggy sky."

The project sparked more ideas, and Gissen has since developed several other "environmental translations." Drawing from 19th century writings on how people misperceived black-letter typefaces in very dim light, he produced a mutated version of the 1611 King James Bible, which displays how the text likely appeared in the candle-lit spaces in which it was first read.

Last five lines of Gissen’s "The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog"

As for the Hollywood text, a full-length version has yet to be published online or in print. A snippet was recently included in an issue of the Harvard Design Magazine, and last April, Gissen explored what pollution might sound like by reading a few words from the text at the Matter(ing) by Design conference at the Parsons School of Design (video available here, jump to the end around timecode 03:39:30).

Fragment of an early version of Gissen’s 4,000-word text

Learn more about David Gissen here.

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