Yes, We Can Replace Times Square’s Billboards with Art!


Imagine walking into Times Square and, instead of the familiar onslaught of blinking logos instructing you what to buy and where to put it, you’re looking at pulsating, gorgeous abstractions by Rafaël Rozendaal. The world’s biggest, most famous advertising space has turned into the world’s biggest outdoor museum, for an entire month. Sound crazy?

“At this point, we’re thinking ‘How did we ever think this was crazy!'” Hrag Vartanian tells Flavorwire. It’s been a year since Times Square Art Square project mastermind Justus Bruns brought the idea to New York, and now, with Vartanian as chief curator, a posse of important allies, and a new Kickstarter to boot, the project is closer than ever to becoming a reality.

“We take our visual environment for granted, especially billboard advertising. We don’t turn anything on or open a page. We walk into a space and it’s there. We don’t have a choice,” Vartanian explains. The sheer opulence, quantity, and intensity of the blinking displays at the “Crossroads of the World” is overwhelming, even for those of us used to habitually weaving and bobbing through squinting masses of tourists. So what would happen if we hijacked all that pomp and power and subverted it for a different mission? What if the visitors to the biggest advertisement-infused space in the world were suddenly bombarded with art? “I think of it more as changing the channel,” Vartanian clarifies. “Seeing the same thing everyday can get quite oppressive.”

Ask a New Yorker what they think about Times Square and watch them cringe. At the very least, they’re protectively desensitized to all this stimuli. This is for them. “People who work will get the biggest benefit,” Vartanian explains. “Did you know that 10% of the city works in the Times Square district? Sherry Dobbin from Times Square Alliance told me that. That blew my mind too. Most art you need to see more than once to get the full benefit of it.” Wouldn’t knowing that you’ll be walking through an art exhibit put some pep to your zombie schlep to work? “Our hope is to make them critical of their environment, to get them to think ‘What am I seeing? Do I like this? Should I not be looking at this?'”

“Tourists are going to Times Square for the spectacle. The fact that they’re going to see art is a bonus for them,” Vartanian explains, dreaming bigger. From Pipilotti Rist to Jenny Holzer to Robert Wilson, high profile artists have projected their work in Times Square, but while those were ephemeral glitches in reality, this would be a takeover. Like street art taking over an urban landscape, like net art taking over the web, this is infiltration, on a giant scale.

“The tourists want the photos and that is going to have interesting reverberations around the world. They’re going to come home and show the photos to their friends who wouldn’t otherwise see art and they’ll go, oh, what’s that? Oh, that’s art by so and so. They’ll go Google it. And so on. That will be great. We’re so excited.”

So, art lovers: First we take Times Square, then the world?