How many billboards?

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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