On a philosophy of traffic lights

Text: Bill Psarras © 2015

Cities are being regulated by humans and non-humans, in ways able to facilitate various material and immaterial mobilities. One of such non-human regulators are the traffic lights which follow a global standard colour code: the green, the orange and the red. Traffic lights can be found at the intersections, crossroads and pavemenets – a mundane technical assemblage of our everyday lives. Yet, extending flanerie’s intellectual freedom into such things – what can traffic lights say to us?

Re-contextualizing the traffic lights

Traffic lights are comprised of a stable metallic body and three changing colours. They are static, fixed in the ground, observing abstract figures of the streets. They are part of the place. Simple light structures, yet there are three changing conditions in a loop of light, which continues showing itself not only in front of crowdy times and streets but also in the midst of an anonymous street in the middle of nowhere. Traffic lights are spatial signifiers of the transient both in literal and metaphorical way. The green shows the safety of things for the driver, a temporal light signal which re-brings the driver into the mobile condition. It shows the very first step into the potential – a synonym of re-entrance. The temporality of orange indicates an in-betweeness of movement – but it is a signal that asks for critical thinking. It is up to the driver’s decision to slow down, to think carefully of the next step. Then comes the red phase, a stopping signal that freezes the continuity of journey – a signal to think – a moment of re-calibration, of waiting.

Traffic light seems to hold a poetic – an almost spiritual – potential. If considering the journey and the street as an unfolding language through time – to echo Solnit (2001) – then the traffic light becomes a spatial semicolon of light. The unfolding condition of everyday life and the street is quite the same. Life and the street are not perfectly paved and articulated – they are full of contradictory moments of happiness, sadness, victories and failures. Within the buzz of everyday life, the challenges, the thoughts for the past, the present and the future – traffic lights are a moment of relief. During that minute (almost), such a waiting boring time becomes a phase for reflection, for re-consideration, for getting lost in thousand thoughts. It is a moment of re-enactment, traffic light invites us to think with it, to tag our thoughts in the change of its colours. It is strangely beautiful to observe all the drivers – stucked in traffic lights – as temporal thinkers and temporary enlivened arrows of potential. While music and the ambient noise of radio fill the air, others smile on their own, others silently cry and others just sit static – as they tune themselves in the staticness of the car, of the asphalt, of the whole scenery.

You will find traffic lights as unnoticed sculptures into the most crowdy streets of globalized cities. However, you will also find them as anonymous light corners in empty crossroads during a hot sunny noon or during a foggy evening. They are parts of both atmospheres and they contribute on the ambiance of each place. The multiple practical and poetic levels render them almost a part of a bigger installation artwork of which concept has been the everyday. Such inbetween feeling is born while watching the mixed media installation artwork Location I (1998) of Belgian artist Hans op de Beeck. It is an atmospheric crossroad of traffic lights – into a silence which is ready to shout loudly that something will happen. It is a celebration of what it means the concept of the moment to all of us – even unconsciously. It is such traffic light framework that gives them the potential to be poetic links for the intellectual mind – triggers of the unnoticed beauty – semicolons bounded to place but rites of passage for the next to happen. Traffic lights are the frozen incarnation of Hermes god – messengers and indicators of the transient.

Traffic Lights in Germanry - Wayne Pinkston ©

Traffic Lights in Germanry – Wayne Pinkston ©

Hans op de Beeck - Location I (1998) - mixed media 320 x 400 x 500 cm ©

Hans op de Beeck – Location I (1998) – mixed media 320 x 400 x 500 cm ©


  • Solnit, R. (2001). Wanderlust: A History of Walking. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Hans of de Beeck (1998). Location I, mixed media installation, 320 x 400 x 500 cm.
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