From cave art to billboards, we’ve been using a wall to convey messages to one another since the beginning of time. The modern-day billboard was an invention of advertising, taking the posters and prints announcing goods and services out of the lithography studio and hoisting them into the sky.
The Internet transformed the use of the billboard, along with a societal revolt against the corporations that use us to get rich. Contemporary artists and collectives have taken back the billboard, installing powerful messages for the public, while others offer us pause throughout our hectic days.
This 2013 Packard Jennings’ billboard installation on the corner of Highland and Baum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was part of a rotating series curated by Jon Rubin, designed with Pablo Garcia, called The Last Billboard . The creators described it as “a publishing system for thoughts and ideas from around the world all presented in the sky.”
Non-Sign II from Seattle art and architecture firm Lead Pencil Studio is actually a sculpture that is made to look like a billboard, used to frame nothing but clean air. Plot twist: it was commissioned by the federal government.
Artist Robert Montgomery displays his larger-than-life poems on billboards in urban environments — in the “poetic and melancholic post-situationist tradition.”
Didier Fiuza Faustino transformed a billboard in Shenzhen, China into a swing set. Double Happiness was built with the hopes that visitors will reflect on “the relationship between consumption and happiness.”
From How Many Billboards? co-curator Lisa Henry about artist Susan Silton. The show included other billboards from luminaries like Kenneth Anger and Martha Rosler:
For How Many Billboards?, she has composed a dazzling array of colors within the regimented format of perfectly measured vertical stripes. This minimalist composition of thin bands of color, punctuated by repeated uses of bright yellow and blue, provides such an appealing chromatic display that the viewer may not at first see the large text that appears to float both behind and within the striped space. The phrase embedded within the candy-colored bars is “IF I SAY SO.” Printed in all capital letters in a sans serif font, both the format and content of the text communicate the forceful presumption of an unseen speaker. “IF I SAY SO” is an excerpt from a 1961 telegram sent by artist Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg had been invited to participate in an exhibition of portraits of gallerist Iris Clert. His contribution was a telegram that read: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” Regardless of its specific source, Silton’s text points to the persuasive power of the authoritative voice, especially when it utilizes the spectacular scale of the billboard.
Photo credit: Austin Kennedy
Photo credit: Austin Kennedy
From the 2012 installation American Dream by Thomas Bayrle on the New York City High Line:
A pioneer of Pop and Conceptual Art in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, Thomas Bayrle investigates the power of images in the context of advertising and mass iconography. For more than five decades, he has generated works composed by assembling myriad small, often distorted images that highlight, at times metaphorically, the relationship between individual forms and mass. For the High Line, Bayrle presents American Dream, a visual illusion of a classic Chrysler sedan, generated through hundreds of warped stars featuring the car company’s iconic logo. The image is taken from a 1970 drawing by the artist. Fascinated by Western contemporary society’s obsession with cars, highways, traffic, and roads, Bayrle’s image fuses political commentaries on capitalism and American car culture, while at the same time reflecting on the role of advertising.
Read the troubling story about a New Mexico community who thought artist Daniel Small’s billboard installation displayed Satanic or Islamic messages:
Late in January, 10 billboards by artist Daniel Small went up around the border town of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Each showed a different line of strange lettering resembling Greek and Paleo-Hebrew characters, along with modern red proofreading marks, against an unruly desert landscape. They were part of “Manifest Destiny,” a year-and-a-half-long initiative organized by the nonprofit Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) in which 100 billboards by 10 artists run alongside the 10 freeway, from Florida to Santa Monica. The installation of one of Small’s images had been difficult. Workers had been up on their ladders when locals surrounded them, saying they didn’t want Satanic or Islamic messages in their neighborhood. Then, in February, after all 10 of Small’s images had been up for a while, the Las Cruces Sun published a story about the “strange-looking billboards on I-10.” It quoted local Craig Melton, who said, “We’re close to the border and you think that ISIS or some other subversive might be trying to get at us.” That sentiment likely spurred the antagonistic line of comments that appeared on the Sun’s Facebook page. The text for Small’s billboards is actually a mangled rewriting of the Ten Commandments from inscriptions on the purportedly ancient Los Lunas Decalogue Stone. Dubious archeologist Frank Hibben, bent on proving early Americans could have been Hebrew, “discovered” it near Albuquerque in the 1930s. The landscape in the background is a photograph Small took after a windstorm at a site he’s been working at, near Santa Barbara, where Cecil B. DeMille buried the set for his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. It doesn’t get more Judeo-Christian than that. “It’s the darkest irony ever,” Small says.
Photo credit: David Allison
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ untitled installation featured an enlarged black-and-white photo of the artist’s bed. The disheveled sheets and pillows gave the impression that the bed had recently been shared. The image was installed on six billboards throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens as part of the exhibit Print/Out. The exhibition “[examined] the role of prints in contemporary art over the last two decades. The show focuses on the function of prints today: how artists have reinterpreted the defining characteristics of the medium—reproducibility, collaboration, and ease of circulation—and incorporated these trademarks into their larger practices.”
On Kay Rosen’s BLURRED, which was part of the I-70 Sign Show, a public exhibition on Missouri billboards launched in 2014, and the pre-existing Monsanto billboard that shed an interesting light on the conversation:
The Sign Show opened with Rosen’s “BLURRED” to declare the project’s overall engagement with how Missouri billboard messages reflect “red” versus “blue” issue conflicts. The artwork’s political content was more general in its initial location on the project’s main board. In its second “satellite” location, in Warrenton, a more pointed critique emerged with its position in front of a patriotic-themed advertisement for Monsanto featuring the stripes of the American flag transforming into field furrows. Connecting this new site with its initial location at the edge of a family farm in Hatton, “BLURRED” evoked a subtle commentary on small-scale versus corporate agriculture and the relative “American-ness” of each.
Street artist Sambre created a 3D mural on a street billboard as part of Le MUR XIII’s installation series. Sambre used found wood (the artist only uses materials found in the environment he works in) and built a human face emerging from the billboard.
We also appreciate Vincent Glowinski’s billboard. (Glowinski used to create street art under the name Bonom.)
Also check out Brian Kane’s Healing Tool, designed to be seen by people in cars in Massachusetts. The installation uses digital billboards that recreate trees and other nature that had been blocked or removed to construct the billboard itself.