How many billboards?

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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