How many billboards?

Coming Down, Coming Soon

Apr 10 2010

The billboards are now being dismounted. Most of the ones I pass on my usual routes around Hollywood aren’t there anymore, like the Rosler and Bornstein ones on Sunset or Fernandez’s on Hollywood. With the exhibition ending and the billboards coming down, Allen Ruppersberg’s  gives us some forward momentum, something to look forward to–something ‘coming soon’.

Ruppersberg uniquely used the space of the billboard for a conventional, institutional purpose: to advertise the ambitious Pacific Standard Time research project and huge series of multi-venue exhibitions on postwar Los Angeles art to be staged throughout the region next year. A major influential player in the city’s art scene beginning in the 60s, Ruppersberg’s participation will be an important part of the upcoming exhibitions. Known for his career-long focus on books, language, photography, collage, and posters, he produced a composite billboard ad picturing a kind of imagined, personal fantasy version of a Pacific Standard Time catalogue based on the design and cover layout of LACMA’s 1971 Art and Technology exhibition catalogue in which he has substituted his own snapshots of artist friends and peers in the LA art world of the 60s and 70s. It is black, white, and gray. There is a characteristic dose of his humor in the personal tone and sly self-promotion. If only for Ruppersberg’s work – let alone the artistic community of his youth that I often fantasize about – I’m so glad PST is, as the billboard scrawls, ‘coming soon’.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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“Visual Rights to the City” Panel

Mar 25 2010

Last night’s panel, “Visual Rights to the City,” held at the downtown Central Library laid out some of the legal and logistical problems polarizing the billboard debates in LA that have pitted powerful, profit-driven billboard advertising companies against an often angry citizenry and typically dysfunctional municipal government for the past decade. The panel, awkwardly moderated by Anne Bray of Freewaves, consisted of Christine Pelisek, who has reported extensively on the billboard issue for the LA Weekly; John Tehranian, an attorney who clarified the sensitive legal issues involved; Rick Robinson, the general manager of MacDonald Media (an advertising man for billboard companies); and Toby Miller, Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at UC Riverside.

Pelisek was the first to speak, introducing a brief history of the city’s ongoing billboard debate. Los Angeles’s city government started to pay attention to the unregulated billboards proliferating around town in 2001. It was then that, for the first time, they conducted a count of the billboards in the city and came up with some preliminary numbers: there were 11,000 billboards in the city, 4,000 of which were illegal (without permits). (Nine years later, a full, current, and accurate inventory of legal and illegal billboards is still not complete.) Following their initial findings, the city issued a moratorium on new billboards and an inspection fee charged to the companies, who in turn promptly sued the city on whatever trumped up claims, probably including their free speech rights. This brings up a central, endemic, insoluble logical flaw to all the legal debates that have followed: unfortunately, due to a rather arbitrary and suspect, but since enshrined, argument by the Supreme Court in the late 19th century, corporations are viewed legally as individuals (this in itself seems logically unsound and deeply problematic) who have free speech rights, including commercial speech (commercial advertisements=free speech?!), which were protected in a 1976 Supreme Court ruling and again drastically and abominably further supported in last year’s “Citizens United” case in which the court removed limits on corporate donations to political campaigns.

Anyway, back to the billboard companies suing the city (their preferred ongoing pastime)… A joke of a settlement was reached between the companies and Rocky Delgadillo that basically let the billboard companies off the hook, even allowing them substantial growth, new technological billboards (supergraphics and digital billboards), and reducing the already tiny inspection fee proposed to a laughable pittance. (Apparently Delgadillo got a huge amount of billboard space for political purposes donated around this time. Maybe I misheard, I hope I did, it was not made clear, but certainly would imply serious corruption. The number $400,000 was thrown around. What?!) This mismanaged settlement has crippled the city’s abilities to regulate billboard companies ever since… You can begin to see how quickly any city undertaking, even with ostensibly good intentions, devolves into a bungled mess.

Costly litigation continues, progress is forever stalled on this (what should be) a rather mundane issue. It’s billboards, not rocket science, as my grandmother would say. Rick Robinson (corporate ad man) pointed out that the city of West Hollywood is a very good model for how to go about this because it has elegantly managed to create clear, workable laws and regulations concerning billboard placement and, in the process, has found ways for the city to benefit financially through fees or taxes in the process. Again, as happens far too often, one of the few things I walked away with is a disheartening confirmation of the city government’s abysmal ineptitude across the board. LA is a great city despite its government which is one of the worst-run, incompetent, ineffective bureaucracies anywhere.

That said, a couple other points of interest emerged from the panel: Toby Miller aptly pointed out that many people’s ambivalence towards the new contentious digital billboards and supergraphics are emblematic of much wider and unresolved ambivalence towards consumerism and crass commercialism in general. He also emphasized that, beyond their aggressive visual presence and whether or not they are aesthetically positive or negative additions, the digital LED billboards use significant amounts of energy and increase the city’s carbon footprint at a time when we are increasingly concerned with minimizing environmental impact of urban centers. An audience member brought up the issue that digital billboards, while of huge value to corporations who claim free speech rights in mounting them all over, very often have adverse effects on neighborhood residents by decreasing proximate property values. And, lastly, another reason to bemoan city incompetence came to the fore in discussing how the current moratorium on billboards includes a moratorium on murals in LA, which is known for and takes civic pride in its history of urban murals, because apparently it is too difficult to legally distinguish between an ad and a mural. This seems bizarre to me. Instead of getting caught up in the distraction of trying to define art (as panelists tried briefly to do), it seems like it would be fairly straightforward (and with ample precedent) to simple define and regulate advertisements as graphics/images that are selling products or services not physically for sale on the site of display. Done, right?

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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Home-less paradise or brushfire tinder

Mar 24 2010

Winter and spring are LA’s best seasons. It’s still sunny and blue, but the air is cleaner and the hills are green. With everything in bloom, from fruit trees to wildflowers and grasses, right now is probably the annual apogee of the landscape’s natural fertility and un-irrigated lushness. For Angelenos, spring doesn’t matter that much in contrast to the winter it follows, but rather in contrast to the dry, hot summer it precedes.

Christina Fernandez’s Coldwell Couch billboard is the only one that speaks to the temporal specificity of How Many Billboards? by imaging the verdant present and anticipating the summer’s coming desiccation. Her time-lapse juxtaposition shows two different views of the same abandoned couch in an empty, overgrown lot ten months apart—one view green and wet, the other brown and dry. The abandoned couch she shot in her neighborhood, and the Coldwell Banker brokerage sign cropped in one of the photos, certainly brings up associations with the foreclosure crisis, the recession, and hollow housing developments. But as much as it represents social desperation and hard times, it also gestures to a kind of hopefulness built into in cyclical systems, relating the ebb and flow of the market to the growth and withering of the seasons. Conjoining the two dichotomous seasonal views, and matching up their horizon lines, also seems to echo a recent reconsideration in landscape architecture in which a micro-ecosystem’s entire seasonal range of growth and death is taken into account visually, planned for, and appreciated—green and brown alike.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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Roadster Redux Construct

Mar 15 2010

James Welling’s billboard is a geometric abstraction of intersecting diagonals over a black ground. The diagonals are irregularly shaped—of varying thickness and angle—and their web-like surface area opens onto a ‘soft-focus’ pictorial space of saturated blue that blurs into navy, beige, and off-white passages. The colors’ intensity is amplified in contrast to the black. Though the image comes out of Welling’s materially oriented experiments with photograms, it is not particularly recognizable as being photographic and doesn’t contain the representational or indexical legibility that generally indicates ‘you are looking at a photograph’. In fact, especially on the scale of a billboard, its rectilinear boldness has as much in common with Constructivist-inspired graphic design and eye-catching advertising (Nike-esque, without the corporate brand/product) as anything. Design-wise, the image may be most intriguing for the way it combines strong geometric shapes and high-contrast that gives an overall hard-edge impression, with a slight softening of focus and fuzziness.

The intersecting diagonals appear to cross in a virtual perspectival space—an irregular tilted grid that I read as an abstraction of the city-plan, the overlaid urban infrastructure of major boulevards, smaller avenues, and ten-lane freeways with their offshoot ramps. That read is helped along by the billboard’s chance siting right at the entrance to the on-ramp of the 10 freeway on La Brea. Because of its fortuitous positioning, there is an especially wide range of viewing possibilities: drivers can view the billboard from several elevations (street level up to freeway overpass), perpendicularly driving south on La Brea, and across an extended parallel sweep from the 10. The changing experience of seeing the billboard from so many street positions colors the image pattern and invests it with suggestions of speed and travel.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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Fanatical Searcher of Truth – in Conquest of the Useless

Mar 09 2010

Daniel Joseph Martinez’s billboard couches the artist’s characteristically defiant and anti-authoritarian attitude in wistful, poetic verse. Its text reads: “The disappointment of a fanatical searcher of the truth, who saw through trickery of an authoritarian world filled with illusions.” While the image of the vertically flipped ship (upon close inspection seen to be a military aircraft carrier) apparently contains several coded political references to a history of environmentalist activism (explained in the curators’ text), it combines with the text to conjure the romance and melancholy of a weary seafaring explorer—or, for me, the insatiable mania of Fitzcarraldo.

Werner Herzog’s “Conquest of the Useless” collects the director’s amazing diaries from the making of Fitzcarraldo.  Fitzcarraldo wants to bring grand opera to the Amazonian jungle and must haul a ship over a mountain in order to realize this dream. He fanatically wants to bring order to the violent chaos of nature. He seeks an uphill struggle—there is truth in that. Fitzcarraldo is basically a proxy for Herzog, or Herzog became a kind of Fitzcarraldo in the protracted and exhausting process of making his film.  The hallucinatory project he sets for himself is sysiphusian, impossible. Fitzcarraldo/Herzog is the figure of the ‘fanatical searcher of truth’, the artist battling a world of obstacles and navigating his way through setbacks and disappointment to realize his insane obsession. Herzog’s fixation began with an impossible vision:

“A vision had seized hold of me, like the demented fury of a hound that has sunk its teeth into the leg of a deer carcass and is shaking and tugging at the downed game so frantically that the hunter gives up trying to calm him. It was the vision of a large steamship scaling a hill under its own steam, working its way up a steep slope in the jungle, while above this natural landscape, which shatters the weak and the strong with equal ferocity, soars the voice of Caruso, silencing all the pain and all the voices of the primeval forest and drowning out all birdsong.”

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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Think Small

Mar 08 2010

As his billboard affirms, Michael Asher has always been a master of considered restraint. As much as we can grab a handle on his paradigm-shifting practice with the term institutional critique, we can also think of his site-specific methodology as one of carefully measured and decisive, yet tight and small, interventions that hinge on a crucial economy of gesture. Characterized by a certain clarity and directness, his works repeatedly deal with a (so-called) ‘minimal’ alteration to a space that reverberates with expansive resonance and implies conceptual complexity: he removed, for example, the wall separating exhibition space from office space in Claire Copley Gallery in 1974, or he relocated Houdon’s bronze George Washington from the front steps to an interior gallery of The Art Institute of Chicago in 1979. In a sense, then, and in terms of physical actions, his specific and efficient way of working could be viewed as an encouragement to—in the words of his billboard—“Think small.” (“Think small” signals a political position vis-à-vis environmental sustainability, capital consumption, globalism, overmatter, intellectual precision/specificity, etc.)

Considering the specificity of the billboard as a medium and urban site, Asher’s project pinpoints a rich moment of intersection between advertising (effective mass/pop communication) and car culture in the iconic 1959 Volkswagen ad campaign “Think small.” The ad he reproduces (appropriates) makes dramatic use of negative, white space—emphasizing the car’s compact, diminutive size by isolating the VW bug in the upper left corner against blankness and captioned simply with the tagline and some other text at the bottom. Playing off its bold and asymmetrical compositional simplicity, Asher only uses a small portion of the billboard’s surface to reproduce the ad, leaving the rest blank and open: a minimized ‘footprint’. There’s something ballsy and understated about committing 90 percent or more of the billboard to blankness—again, a scrupulous economy of marks, of ink, or visual activity, of presence.

But, in the real life of the city, that open expanse of whiteness was also a vulnerable target, an apparently irresistible ‘blank canvas’ invitation to graffiti which was soon answered with some sloppy purple bubble-letter scrawl thrown up lazily and hastily. The graffiti—and consequently virtually the entire billboard, save a little circle around the tiny VW bug in the top left corner—was whitewashed by someone as of a day ago. Due to its double defacement, the reduced visual content of Asher’s “Think small” billboard got even smaller. Language got obscured in the process and the image became abstracted and further decontextualized. Asher’s critical specificity/image context has been mostly absented in the process, but maybe for those with curiosity to inquire and investigate (note how fast history accumulates!), the present altered state’s increased ambiguity opens up possibilities of signification…Maybe the “Alterations” sign of the tailor shop below will suggest an approach.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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Politics first

Mar 03 2010

Rather than defamiliarize/problematize the media form through disjunctive or unexpected content that might trigger confusion or pause in the public viewer, John Knight and Martha Rosler each chose to work within one of the well-worn conventional functions of the billboard as a site of mass communication by explicitly foregrounding political hot-button issues in the vein of a public-service kind of message.

Deferring and redirect authorship of his billboard, Knight gave his spot over to the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) who placed an ad publicizing their MAIA project to improve access to drinkable water in Gaza. The ad is mounted at the east end of the Sunset Strip, facing west. The blue palette of its rippling water image rhymes with the poolside background of the Gucci ad across the street, inviting geographic and chromatic proximity to throw their opposed agendas into relief. Knight’s generous gesture of enabling someone else’s—a humanitarian organization’s—message is both activist and passive aggressive. On the one hand he extricates himself, turning himself into a quasi-transparent/silent medium through which another entity speaks—a kind of art action of self-removal (and preemptive deflection of critique). At the same time, his selection is decisive and expresses clear solidarity with the organization’s cause—an inarguably admirable, noble, and universally laudable cause as beyond reproach as motherhood or love, but one which is politically strategic for not-so-implicitly pushing one side of the notoriously contentious and sensitive Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Wrapping a knowingly inflammatory/controversial political stance (and its accompanying condemnation, anger, sense of injustice, etc) with a liberal coating of praiseworthy charity and benevolence is a very smart, if calculated and tricky, tactic. Can’t argue with it. Students of communication and the subtleties of media manipulation (manipulation in its non-judgmental sense), take note.

A ways east on Sunset, at the intersection of Cahuenga, Martha Rosler’s billboard sits low atop Groundworks coffee shop, across the street from the CNN building and catty-corner from Amoeba Music. (Seeing as it deals with the current state of affairs in California’s education and prison systems, its content is leveraged by its chance location directly opposite news giant CNN.) Rosler addresses every Californian, but especially the voting, tax-paying public in her billboard titled “A Lesson for Today,” hoping to galvanize a sense of urgency by alerting Angelenos to the insanely wrong-headed priorities of government spending which allocates the state budget so that “CALIFORNIA is #1 in PRISON SPENDING, #48 in EDUCATION.” Wanting to present a somewhat more accessible visual language that would stand out from the photographic norm of billboard advertising, Rosler worked with graphic novelist Josh Neufeld (her son) to develop a cartoon/graphic composition to convey her news-flash appeal. Her journalistic message (the statistic) does work to ignite a sense of public outrage, at least in me, exposing systemic inequities and setting out in stark terms how far gone we are in the wrong direction. The billboard is less a case of employing art for political activism than one of sidestepping art altogether for political activism. As it has throughout her career, a sense of responsibility to be an active, critical, vocal citizen takes precedence.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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panels on the boards

Mar 02 2010

Now that all 21 of the exhibition’s billboards are up on city streets and being experienced daily (consciously or not) by tens of thousands of viewers-in-transit, we can begin to think about each in the public realm and how the project functions as a whole, which is what we had a chance to do this past weekend at Saturday’s MAK Center reception, bus tours, and Sunday’s two panel discussions, each with five of the participating artists and one of the curators.

The first panel was led by MAK director and curator Kimberli Meyer and included Kira Lynn Harris, David Lamelas, lauren woods, Brandon Lattu, and Martha Rosler. In talking about how they approached such an anomalous opportunity, the artists tracked their particular priorities and lines of thinking. Rosler, for example, talked about basing her proposal on a basic understanding of the billboard as an explicit messaging site through which to issue her public-service style message about the crumbling of California’s higher education system (titled “A Lesson for Today”). Lattu talked about the importance of humor in his strategy of subverting/inverting—or as he put it “underutilizing”—the billboard’s conventional corporate function for unexpected ends (selling a single, specific used car). He pointed out that the regular cost of advertising on a typical billboard would be about as much or more than the price of the used Cadillac Fleetwood his board posts for sale. Lamelas acknowledged early precedents of billboard projects by Argentinian artists in the 1960s that figured into his process.

Considering the group as a whole, the panel discussed the serendipitous intersections of chance placement and site-specific meaning in several of the billboards. (The locations of the boards were pretty much randomly decided by the billboard companies who donated unsold advertising space on major boulevards.) Kira Lynn Harris’s ‘Community as Art’ billboard, for example, benefited from its position up the street from La Cienega’s ‘gallery row’, while lauren woods’s Urdu script took on heightened resonance being sited in the Fairfax district. Questioning whether or not the boards successfully instigate and participate in public dialogue led to one of the day’s highlights when Lattu read a couple phone messages (one positive and astute, the other aggressive, hostile, and incredulous) from the many inquiring buyers who have responded to his billboard’s ad. While it is difficult to gauge public reaction to most of the billboards, Lattu’s piece plans for and actively generates feedback ranging from confusion, excitement, and even anger.

The second panel—led by curator Nizan Shaked and including artists Daniel Joseph Martinez, Susan Silton, Kerry Tribe, Kori Newkirk, and Allan Sekula—also dealt with the possibilities of (and politics of) public dialogue, but ventured into a bit more controversial territory regarding Kori Newkirk’s billboard which has elicited strong, heated reactions as apparent in the reader responses posted to Brooke Hodge’s T Magazine blog about this MAK Center initiative on February 18th. But the second panel (apparently put together as the ‘political panel’) was mostly dominated by Martinez’s impassioned radical politics that, while I couldn’t begin to sum it up I could safely say is a ways left of the art world’s left. His energy felt good—like a shot in the arm—if not entirely focused or productive. And while Martinez and Sekula both emphasized the insignificance and futility of the exhibition’s handful of interventions relative to the tens or hundreds of thousands occupying the city, Tribe articulated what most of the artists could agree was the project’s essential political ambition: to trigger a double-take, to insert a pause or suspension into the viewer’s urban experience, to cause a moment of productive confusion that might open up space for doubt and questions in the viewer—questions such as what is being sold or what is asked of me in this billboard in particular and all billboards in general; questions including How Many Billboards? Art in Stead.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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Car for Sale. Call…

Feb 28 2010

Brandon Lattu’s billboard advertises a used 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood (veteran luxury model), that really is for sale, in the manner of a craigslist or classified ad. Playing off LA’s car culture, his ad speaks to cars driving by of the car as an object of personal investment often surviving extended, multiple lives and second-hand exchanges. A more human, intimate, and flawed vestige takes the place of what could have easily otherwise been a run-of-the-mill big-name corporate ad for some ‘new’-but-ever-the-same 2010 sedan, minivan, SUV, hybrid, etc. Fortuitously, the ad has been placed on a board at the southwest corner of Fairfax and Pico, directly above a typically dingy corner auto repair shop and garage.

Incongruously mixing the particular graphic vernacular and descriptive shorthand of a private individual’s diminutive, marginal print/online ad with a billboard’s oversized, corporate, and hyper-public mode of presentation—and doing it so bluntly as to almost appear naïve—Lattu’s is one of the most subtly funny works in the exhibition. Even the dumbness of the snapshot of the car, with its anonymous background of working-class single-family homes and city garbage cans, is pitch-perfect. It is ridiculous and kind of genius to consummate the billboard’s advertising function but to do so in order to sell a single personal possession, and a dented used one at that. I hope it is (but suspect it isn’t) the artist’s car. It would be so great if it were and if the billboard led to a sale—I am almost tempted to make an offer myself.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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A lesson in illegibility

Feb 26 2010

Especially in its location on Fairfax Ave just south of Melrose where one drives into Fairfax Village (long-time epicenter of Jewish commerce, kosher stores, and Hebrew signage), the Arabic-derived Urdu script of lauren woods’s billboard—illegible to the average Angeleno, though perhaps not to the city’s large Persian population—carries a political charge that baits our latent or not-so-latent fears based on current geo-politics. The beautiful but perhaps threatening foreign text seems confusing and cryptic, if not confrontational. From right to left, the Urdu script is actually a line of poetry that reads: As long as the earth and the sky last, Smile like a flower in the garden of the world. It is a verse from the prolific medieval Urdu poet Vali Dakhni (aka Vali Mohammed). When we learn (if ‘we’, lay viewers, ever do) that the indecipherable text is not hostile, extremist, nor religious in nature but a line of ecstatic, environmentalist poetry, we may feel embarrassed by our prejudiced presumptions. There is a bit of “gotcha!” tactics at work.

If woods’ billboard offers a teachable moment, then we may as well learn something about the poet she uses to school us: Vali Dakhni developed the ghazal, a modern form of Urdu poetry consisting of rhyming couplets and a refrain. When he visited Delhi, his example initiated a shift in the poets there from writing in the courtly and aristocratic Persian to the more vernacular Urdu; his influence, then, had a populist thrust. He wrote in the regional Dakhni dialect of Urdu, which was early on advanced by the writing of the Sufi sages and associated with southern India. Vali Dahkni (1667-1731 or 1743) was born in Aurangabad and went as a young man to Gujarat in search of a Guru. Studying under Vajihuddin Gujarati, later returning to settled in Aurangabad. His influential trip to Delhi earned him fame and established him as a father of Urdu poetry. He composed 473 ghazals besides masnawis and qasidas. Vali Dakhni died in Ahmedabad and Hindu fascists recently razed to ground his tomb in the aftermath of Godhra riots.

Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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