PRINT October 2008


billboard projects in Los Angeles

FOR ALMOST AS LONG as billboards have existed, laws have sought to limit their presence or ban them outright. Deemed “inartistic and unsightly” by a court ruling in 1911 and dismissed as “visual pollution” by another in 1975, the large-scale advertisements were eventually denounced in 1981 by no less an authority than the United States Supreme Court, which concluded that billboards “by their very nature, wherever located and however constructed, can be perceived as an esthetic harm.” Such juridical opinion, suggesting as it does that outdoor signboards can be legislated on aesthetic grounds, points to a specific arena of state power in which “beauty,” as much as “health” or “safety,” holds surprising regulatory sway. However, this declaration of the “harm” caused by street advertising continually conflicts with corporations’ arguments for their expanding empire of images on the basis of private property and free speech: a stalemate that makes clear the extent to which the billboard medium today is a platform for testing conflicting notions of the “common good.” Billboards, in turn, are fertile territory for artists interested in investigating the ways in which public space is produced (and consolidated) in relation to commercialism.

A range of artists over the past several decades have utilized large signboards—from the political collective Gran Fury to Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, seizing the opportunity to move art out of the gallery and into the street. Some efforts broadcast pointed messages, in the manner of protest slogans or public service announcements (the Guerrilla Girls, for instance, have enumerated statistics about the underrepresentation of women artists in museums). Others interrupt the onslaught of directed signs, producing allusive imagery (like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s photograph of an unmade bed, a memorial to his recently deceased lover) open-ended enough for viewers to map their own interpretations onto it. In many instances, artists contend with the ways in which billboards oscillate between presuming a relatively broad mode of address (they are visible to the undifferentiated masses who happen to pass by) and targeting the specific demographics of the places they are sited.

Tackling this subject—as well as the ways in which local politics and global commerce converge on these oversize surfaces—was the explicit goal of a recent project by Los Angeles–based artist Mike Mills. From 2007 to early 2008, Mills, who is also a graphic designer and film director, installed a series of three successive billboards above the Undefeated sneaker store on La Brea Avenue. The first one featured a single phrase in white Helvetica lettering against a light pink background: THE COPS ARE INSIDE US. Here the force of a declarative statement—and its sweeping use of a plural pronoun—prompts immediate questions about the billboard’s assumed audience. For example, the words could be taken as a warning about the punitive force of the superego (think of regimes of self-regulation like weight-loss “diet cops”). In addition, given the sign’s location in a city with a notorious history of police violence, it serves as a reminder of shared complicity in repressive governmental tactics—a pithy crystallization of Michel Foucault’s theories about the internalization and reproduction of power.

But in art, as in advertising, the sign’s design also generated other associations and underlined the fragmentary quality of any “public” the work might hail: Its sans serif typeface and Gap-like cleanliness seemed intended for a certain hipster demographic that frequents the shops on La Brea, and its pale pink ground suggested a surrogate for Caucasian flesh. However, the work also underscored the complexities of this location. (As it happens, the billboard is located in a neighborhood with a substantial Orthodox Jewish population.) Indeed, the ruptured character of the billboard’s viewership—and the various, even divergent meanings of the sign for different people—was made plain when someone tagged the sign during the third week of its run, writing THEY AIN’T INSIDE ME. (One can only speculate about the work’s reception among police officers.)

Mills continued to explore the complex effacement and eruption of racial difference in Los Angeles in his subsequent billboards at this location, though through less immediately apparent means. His second work featured a photograph of a mountain lion, and the third a photograph of a coyote—both animals are native inhabitants of the region that have been threatened and, for the most part, driven away. Captured here by motion-detecting cameras set up by park rangers and environmentalists, the animals seem guarded but dignified as they gaze back at the lens. With these images Mills reinserted the creatures into their natural context. And, given the subtle racial and class politics of the artist’s “cops” billboard, one might also consider the way in which Mills took on the city’s particular social landscape, thus recalling urban theorist Mike Davis’s 1998 book, Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. Davis speculates that the hysteria around wildlife sightings of the past few decades in the Los Angeles area functions as a kind of displacement of paranoia toward racial mixing across its various gentrifying districts, as suburban white-flighters dread any sort of incursion of otherness. Whether heralded as the area’s rightful inhabitants or feared as symbolic specters of “wildness,” the animals are cannily connected to the space in which Mills sites them.

Los Angeles has an especially ambivalent relationship with billboards—on the one hand, the city is a critical test market for advertising technologies, and such signs contribute to its lively, eclectic visual culture. But billboards are also decried by many who view them as a blight, every few years bringing a fresh slew of proposals to curtail their spread. Given this perpetual tension, Mills is not alone among artists choosing to bring their work into this site of conflict. His own project was part of an ongoing series (overseen by Aaron Rose, founder of New York’s Alleged Gallery) featuring contributors such as Barry McGee, Raymond Pettibon, and Kehinde Wiley. And recent years have seen endeavors such as “Women in the City,” an ambitious set of publicly circulated works curated by Emi Fontana as part of her LA nonprofit, West of Rome, and a continuing series of artists’ billboards presented by the independent art space LAXART.

The former project, which launched in February 2008, included works by four female US artists known for their deployment of mediated imagery and gendered language. With “Women in the City,” Fontana enabled their work to be reenvisioned within Los Angeles’s dense cultural environment. The exhibition erupted in a variety of media and in locations all over town: Jenny Holzer’s Survival Series, 1983–85/2008, was printed as stickers, for instance, and given out free to be plastered virally around the city, while her Truisms, 1977–79/2008, were posted on a theater marquee and projected from a “zip” screen on Hollywood and Highland. In addition, Louise Lawler’s Birdcalls, 1972–81/2008 (in which the names of famous male artists are recited in the manner of avian sounds) were broadcast at the Huntington; and Barbara Kruger’s project Plenty, 2008, appeared on digital screens that stream advertisements on a constant loop. Kruger’s work, a meditation on the narcissism of consumption, featured consumer desirables such as sunglasses and cell phones alternating with the words PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH. Also featured was Cindy Sherman’s first-ever public art project: four of the artist’s “Untitled Film Stills” from the late 1970s to 1980 blown up into billboards.

One such work, installed above a parking lot on Orange Street, near the Kodak Theatre, features a color photograph of a woman clutching a brown paper bag packed with groceries and set before a rear-screen projection of a wooded lawn. With her short hair and black cap, she cuts an androgynous figure, while her dazed, washed-out look, and the incongruence of the artificial relationship between figure and ground make for a scene that is hard to place. In another billboard, positioned at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Olive Street, a woman with long dark blond locks, one hand cocked behind her head, is aglow in an unsettling yellow light that lends the image a sense of foreboding. Despite the smile on her young face, the murky background is pure noir. A third billboard, set inside the Hollywood & Highland Center, features Sherman as she takes on the guise of an old-fashioned, anonymous starlet with a blond bob. At these locations and proportions, the artist’s appropriation of the cinematic is revelatory, bringing her iconic images back to their point of origin: Los Angeles, the capital of the entertainment industry. Seen alongside promotions for television shows and recent film releases, at billboard scale, Sherman’s film stills and rear-screen projections become movie posters—though with no movie to promote. They also interrogate the notion that sheer exposure begets fame—for LA’s billboard culture has spawned homegrown stars such as Angelyne, who began in 1984 to advertise herself like a celebrity and thus became one.

Here the spatial proximity between Sherman’s art and the culture she references sheds fresh light on the potent strangeness of her imagery. As if to underline this quality, Sherman makes sure that the process of reinvention involved in enlarging her original works, particularly when there were limitations imposed in terms of the shape, is totally evident. In the Sunset and Olive billboard, for instance, the vertical orientation of the space demanded that the artist recrop the photograph to fit the frame—so Sherman cut off the woman’s face at the top and repeated the image below, creating the look of a film strip stuttering and caught in the gears of the projector. What was at first a restriction became an expanded vision of the still’s animation; newly transparent about its framing.

Generically familiar, though difficult to decipher, Sherman’s work is especially well suited to this medium, as it allows her images to enter into a dialogue with the stereotypes of femininity right where they live. Yet it is significant that her billboards, for all their iconicity, are crowded by other visual stimuli and easily overlooked. The billboard over the parking lot, for example, resides close to a crumbling, fading wall mural with recognizable (and arguably more eye-catching) female celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. Despite their size, Sherman’s billboards are not a monumental project, nor do they aim to be. More compellingly, their intervention is somewhat modulated, competing for attention within locations saturated by advertising. These billboards—a drop in the ocean of signs—are knowingly in conversation with the peculiar formations of fleeting attention spans and name recognition that compose the public domain. Sherman’s work succeeds because it puts itself at risk of invisibility.

As the website for the billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor proclaims, “Outdoor advertising is great because you can’t turn it off, throw it away, or click on the next page. That means your message is reaching consumers everywhere—all the time, everyday.” It is exactly this sense of inescapable presence—or hectoring insistence—beyond the art institution that has attracted so many artists to the medium. Paradoxically, however, as the Sherman images demonstrate, art sited in public, even when rendered on a large scale, can be consumed by the surrounding clutter—the cacophonous commercialism of the city is efficiently absorbent.

This exploration into the way images are resignified (or occluded) when moved outside is also confronted by another important current series of artists’ billboards, hosted by LAXART. Invited artists, including Daniel J. Martinez and Harrell Fletcher, are offered use of the signboard next to the gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in Culver City. In 2007, Fletcher created a billboard for LAXART as an outgrowth of his concurrent exhibition “The American War”—a project in which the artist photographed every image from the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and redisplayed them in the United States. For his billboard, Fletcher presented a photograph he had taken at the local public library of a stack of books and videos related to the Vietnam War. Crucially, the billboard served as a reminder that these resources are available to the area’s residents. But the billboard’s laconic depiction of spines and titles also gestured to the accumulation of competing thoughts on this subject—and its possible exhaustion within the popular imagination. Despite the war’s ubiquity—or even because of it—Fletcher’s image ultimately demonstrated how such content can bleed into the background.

In Los Angeles, new permitting processes have led to increasing corporate consolidation, leaving fewer and fewer billboards that are independently managed. According to LAXART director and curator Lauri Firstenberg, part of the dynamism of the billboard project is generated by the friction that attends renting a commercially owned site. Firstenberg’s future negotiations might prove especially delicate given the plans for works by Karl Haendel that will be up in November, the month of the US presidential election. Among the artist’s proposals is a text billboard with the phrase WE HEART ABORTION repeated in a black, stenciled font. Of course, controversy is part of what billboards solicit; in order to stand out, they can be aggressive or provocative. But this project must be approved by the company that owns the space, and, in the end, may not be allowed. As such, Haendel’s work probes the limits of free expression within ever-hardening monopolies. If, following the Supreme Court, billboards cause “esthetic harm” no matter how they actually look, Haendel’s proposal exploits their inflammatory potential to challenge the policing of public display.

Even when unfettered by such controls, some residue of commercial logic clings to the billboard format. With advertisers now well versed in “edgy” marketing methods, it would not be unthinkable for an unmade bed to hawk a product or for a statement about loving abortion to promote a publicity-hungry band or some daring perfume. And, as with most public art, the majority of billboard projects are subsidized (the Undefeated series is cosponsored by Nike, and Women in the City was partly funded by the Broad Art Foundation). Yet these artists use the medium precisely to speak to the interconnections between art and commerce, as well as to stress the unevenness of what is monolithically called “the street.” What is more, they emphasize the unexpected, satisfying rewards of close looking within Los Angeles’s eccentric cityscape. Many of these billboards, including the ones by Mills, Sherman, and Fletcher, do not include artists’ signatures or gallery identifications. Often, their authorship is identified via word of mouth or blogs; prompted by this loose network, the billboards have become destinations for art tourism. (With Women in the City, for example, free maps detail the various sites, inviting viewers to go on a pilgrimage of the entire circuit.) As artists’ billboards so demand a certain spectatorial care in order to be spotted, they make one that much more aware of the politics of their context—an arena increasingly dominated by the homogenization of mass media and the corporatization of urban space.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is the director of the PhD program in visual studies at UC Irvine.