December 18, 2008

Billboard Art

Administrator's Note: Whenever one of my students submits a final paper as outstanding as this one, I wish others could read it. Happily, this blog also functions as a forum for introducing “guest” essays by promising writers. Patricia Correa is a Corcoran College senior majoring in Fine Art. Her exhaustively researched essay on the use of billboards as an artistic mode of address reveals many of the ideas that began with conceptual art have been extended by contemporary artists. We discover that “billboarding,” as tactic or theory, is immersed in semiotics, temporality, intervention and socio-political activism. I found Patricia's essay to be particularly informative and insightful, so it is a pleasure to share it with you here.

Billboards are defined broadly as any large outdoor printed (or projected) sign. Artists’ Billboards have been a key medium or vehicle to explore and express the ideas and strategies behind the most important art movements over the last fifty years: conceptualism and dematerialization, temporality, appropriation and authorship issues, socio-political critique, institutional critique, direct political engagement (defending the voices of minorities like women, gays, blacks, different ethnicities, etc.), postmodern concerns about the difference between reality and representation, among many others.

Not all Billboards are “Artists’ Billboards,” even if they have been created by artists. Without entering into the deep dark waters of the definition of art, for the purposes of this essay I will simplify matters and say that the difference between the two lies in the intention behind their use. Billboards are most commonly used for advertisement, political propaganda or pure decoration by the corporate industry or by governmental and political organizations. Although the effect and intention behind Artists’ Billboards may contain some of the latter categories, as Laura Steward says, these find “ ‘cracks’ in the monolith of these corporate or institutional cultures …in which to insert dissent. Often disguising themselves in the trappings of advertising, (Artists’ Billboards) are Trojan Horses, slipping into the built environment almost unnoticed, then springing their messages on us.”(1) By filling in the space expected to be reserved for advertising, the artist “infiltrates” the public space in an unexpected way, triggering a different kind of thought stream in the viewer than an Ad would, and generating a different kind of dialogue between the billboard and the viewer, regardless of its content. Peggy Diggs writes: “Billboard art often instigates a process, a questioning, or an argument about an issue or value that often goes unquestioned or unresolved in the public mind.”(2)

Artists’ Billboards can take the form of roadside billboards, bus or subway billboards (or posters), bus stop shelter posters, etc. Some artists use parts of advertisement billboards to build paintings, collages or other art objects; that is the case, for example, of some of the followers of the art movement “Nouveau Réalisme” that flourished in France in the 1960s and 1970s, who literally “ripped off” public advertisements as a way of protesting against the “reality of commercialism” and reused them to create another “reality.” We will not consider these artworks Artists’ Billboards unless they are located outdoors in a public space as billboards, i.e., they are recreated as billboards again. Artists’ Billboards may contain only text, only images, or a combination of both. They can be made in a variety of mediums (painting, drawing, printing, projection) with digital printing and projecting technologies gaining predominance in the field. New technologies, particularly advances in fiber optics, have lead to new forms of expression (in both advertising and billboard art). Some are starting to resemble TV screens, with changing images, and new lighting technologies can even turn a whole building into a billboard (some examples of this were observed in Washington D.C. as part of “Fotoweek”). Barbara Kruger’s project “Plenty” (2008), for example, appeared on digital screens that stream advertisements on a constant loop.(3)

By their very nature, Artists’ Billboards are ephemeral and usually destroyed when taken down. In this respect they belong to the category of artistic expressions where the materiality of the art object is of lesser or no importance compared to the idea, concept, message or effect given to the viewer. In cases where billboards are repeated and placed in innumerable locations, a kind of “re-materialization” occurs, as happened with Victor Burgin’s “Possession” described below.(4)

Apart from the duration of the billboard display, its location is key to determine viewing time. On the road, for example, the billboard is usually seen from a moving vehicle, so the experience for the viewer is different than that for stationary viewers, which become captive audiences for a while. The effect on the viewer also varies depending on whether there is visual competition (say, many other ad billboards in a busy urban environment) or not (for example, in a lonely road in the country side). In a bus, it is the image and not viewer that moves. Given this temporality, the billboard must capture the viewer’s attention, sometimes in the time frame of a passing glance. For that reason, Artists’ Billboards (same as ad billboards) have the characteristic of using reductive text and/or images to express expansive ideas. Therefore, the idea is prioritized over the process or object. This short time-frame to perceive the message also makes Billboard art suitable for questioning art’s dependence on notions like authorial origins and institutional placement. Public Art Theorist Patricia Phillips wrote: “The temporary art work… requires a comprehension of value based on ideas and content rather than on lasting forms, a flexibility of procedures for making and placing art, and a more inventive and attentive critical process.”(5)

Some artists target audiences consciously and choose locations accordingly, others don’t. The meaning of the piece can change dramatically depending upon location. Alfredo Jaar’s Billboard, “A Logo for America” (1987), for example, was displayed in Times Square, NYC with no notorious public reaction, while it generated a great deal of controversy in Miami, given the local tensions between Hispanics and Anglo populations. Similarly, different time historic contexts can have different effects or generate different readings of the same message.(6)

The “themes” developed by billboard artists vary considerably, and are basically the same themes that characterize art since the 1960s, mainly the issues explored by the Pop Art movement, conceptualists and neo-conceptualists and postmodernists after the1980s; the majority of billboards made by artists address social issues. Given the fact that, as said before, “Billboards occupy a space defined by –and therefore as— advertising”(7) they have become a fertile field for artists to explore the ways in which public space is constructed in relation to commercialism.

Since their appearance at the beginning of the last century, billboards have had detractors and champions. Court rulings have said they are “inartistic and unsightly” (1911), dismissed them as “visual pollution” (1975) and as late as 1981, the US Supreme Court concluded that billboards “by their very nature, wherever located and however constructed, can be an esthetic harm.”(8) It is interesting to note that there is billboard legislation and regulation based on aesthetic grounds. Mostly following the clean and “pristine” aesthetic of Modernism in architecture and design, many complained about the chaotic growth of commercial buildings and advertising, which has been defined as “visual contamination.” In contrast, others like architect Robert Venturi, in a typical “postmodern” spirit, after visiting Las Vegas for the first time, argued for complexity and contradiction, ambiguity, multiple readings, the ironic convention, embracing the main street aesthetic; as Harriet Senie writes in “Learning from Las Vegas: The forgotten symbolism of Architectural Form,” he has a section entitled “Billboards are almost right.”(9) Since these rulings have naturally hurt corporate interests, billboards have become a platform for testing conflicting notions of “the common good.”

Against this backdrop, a large group of artists, in the same fashion as the French “Situationists” and the “Nouveau Réalistes” mentioned earlier, have critiqued the way capitalism has evolved in an age of mass media reproduction, and in particular the way public space has been controlled and structured to “facilitate the passive consumption of advertising and other imagery by a mass audience…undermining the burgeoning culture industry soon to be celebrated by certain Pop Artists.”(10) Following the ideas of Guy Debord and other French intellectuals, these artists have denounced the myths of social freedom and satisfaction promoted by advertising and entertainment, which create only “spectacles” which people perceive as reality, living the illusion of sharing values, the meaning of life, etc. Though this critique was particularly forceful in the 1970s, it still continues to vibrate. Barbara Kruger’s project, “Plenty” (2008), is a good example. Her “dynamic billboard” reflects on the narcissism and excess of consumption, with images of consumer desirables such as sun glasses and cell phones, alternating with the words “PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH.”(11)

Also concerned with the cumulative effects of the invasion of commercial images, many artists have developed the issue using the strategies of Pop Art, that is to say, using the same language and images of advertising. Venturing into the site of advertising, they call the viewer to decode the messages and challenge the pre-coded assumptions associated with them. Like Andy Warhol, they do it in a subtle way, open to different interpretations. Some postmodern artists have, consciously or unconsciously, embraced commercialism and, not without a great deal of irony, have used the advertisement site to “sell” themselves or their work.

One artist that has been criticized for his “flirtation” with capital is Jeff Koons, who, in the words of David Hopkins, has turned “the advocacy of kitsch into a crusade ... claimed to unburden the middle class of conditioned hypocrisies of taste.” In 1989, a billboard poster of his (“Made in Heaven”) appeared advertising an exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and at the same time, advertising a film of the artist with a sexually passionate image of him and his new wife, the porn-actress and artist “La Cicciolina.” According to David Hopkins, he most “probably was scurrilously testing such boundaries as public/private and aesthetic legitimacy/erotic pleasure” by exploring the conundrums of moral issues.(12)

In the late 1970s, Victor Burgin, based on Roland Barthes’s idea that meaning is not innate in things, but “constructed,” explored how images are repositories of social information, easing himself from the “Conceptualist embargo” on using visual imagery in artwork.(13) His billboard titled “Possession” (1976), a mock advertisement produced in edition of 500 and fly-posted in Newcastle upon Thyne, Great Britain, wanted to show how the longing for “possession” on which advertising plays assumes incompatible economic and gender relations. He juxtaposed a photograph of a couple seeming to possess one another with the phrase, “What does possession mean to you? 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth.”

Cindy Sherman’s first ever public art project, part of “Women in the City,” a project launched early in 2008 in LA, deploys four of the artist’s “Untitled Film Stills” from the late 1970s to 1980, blown up into billboards (see image above). As Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, in this scale and location, the artist’s appropriation of the cinematic is more evident, bringing her iconic images back to their origin: Los Angeles, the capital of the entertainment industry. Seen alongside promotions for TV shows and recent film releases, at billboard scale, they become movie posters with no movie to promote. This project also explores the codes under images and how identity is constructed by society and projected by constructed images of the self (following Lacan’s ideas). In Julia Bryan-Wilson's words: these billboards also “interrogate the notion that sheer exposure begets fame (Angelyne, who began to advertise herself in 1984 like a celebrity, became one!) … Proximity between Sherman’s art and the culture she references sheds fresh light on the potent strangeness of her imagery.”(14)

In quite a different vein, another billboard project that deals with the idea that images reflect and construct reality and memory is documentary photographer Susan Meiselas’ project “Reframing History: Nicaragua, 2004.” In 1978, just as the political situation in Nicaragua was about to explode, Susan Meiselas arrived and travelled around the country documenting the escalating civil war. Her images became virtually the only visual historical record of the Sandinista revolution. In July, 2004, she returned to Nicaragua with 19 mural-sized images of her 1978 photographs and installed billboards in the exact locations where the photographs were taken. She says her project is about creating sites for collective memory.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, a post-pop generation of artists and critics were worried less about the stigma of commerce than other growing ills of society. They directly addressed public issues, spaces and audiences to create awareness or protest against issues like the Vietnam War, Feminism, Civil Rights, the environment, etc. In a time when the ideas of the so-called “Institutional Critique” were starting to gain force and overtly political art was “neutralized” by museum settings, billboards became a perfect alternative for these artists to express themselves. Moreover, public sculpture was increasingly being criticized for not addressing public interests. It was the time to move art out of the gallery and into the street, and this applied to non-political artists as well.

In a democracy, theoretically there is room for public discourse, but more often than not the Public is not a contestant, maybe due to a feeling of impotence regarding being able to make a difference.(15) With so much public space dominated by the media, corporate culture and advertising, an effective billboard became one of the few possible public sites from which to dissent. In this way, “the temporary public art enters the fray of democracy.”(16) A good example of artists’ billboards used to protest and effect change, in this case defending the rights of women artists, is the Guerrilla Girls’ “Met. Museum.” A collective piece that was never produced when it was conceived in 1988 – because the billboard company thought the shape of the fan held by the woman wearing a guerrilla mask was too “phallic” – that was revived as such by Mass MOCA in 1999. During the 1980s, as part of a second generation feminism wave, the Guerrilla Girls’ billboards and posters revealing the damning statistics of prevalent museum and gallery sexist and racist practices were very effective at attracting public attention and creating consciousness about the numbers.

Another example, also a collective, is the work of Gran Fury, formed in the 1980s, dealing with the tragedy of AIDS and other social illnesses (sexual abuse, health care inequity, etc.). Douglas Crimp said “AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.” This theme was extensively explored in the decade, as was gay rights. Barbara Kruger’s “Fear and Hate,” which appeared in different locations in Portland, Oregon in 1992 after the narrow defeat of the statewide anti-gay ballot initiative is yet another example. It directly addressed the issues of prejudice and discrimination that were predominant with the phrase “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Kruger has made more than 20 artists’ billboards, recapitulating Burgin’s parody of advertisements, juxtaposed text and photographic images, echoing 1920s and 1930s political photomontages and typographics (from Heartfield and Rodchenko). “Her texts highjacked an authoritarian voice but leveled accusations at nameless adversaries from the viewpoint of the oppressed.”(17) Some think she also fell prey to merging art and commerce when, for example, her work appeared on the cover of ARTnews magazine.

Instead of using pointed messages or protest slogans, other artists produced more subtle, allusive images to send their messages. An example is “Bed,” a 1992 billboard of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a ghostly black and white image of a “warm and inviting” bed, which is tribute to his lover who died from AIDS. The “sign” was open-ended enough for viewers to map their own interpretations onto it. A member of Gran Fury, Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a prolific billboard maker and many of his works attacked AIDS issues in a much more direct style than with “Bed,” using mainly text. “Bed” was displayed in 24 locations in Manhattan.

If images don’t help to create memory or awareness, some artists have tried using only words. Alfredo Jaar’s billboard posters “RWANDA” (see ART21, PBS series), scattered around the streets and squares of Malmo, Sweden reduced the rhetoric of advertising to a cry of grief. The billboards contained the word “Rwanda” repeated several times. According to the artist, “The posters were a raw gesture, produced out of frustration and anger. If all of the images of slaughter and piled corpses, and all of the reportage did so little, perhaps a simple sign, in the form of an insistent cry, would get their attention.”(18) He later recognized in an interview that the project was a failure to create attention and that the gap between reality and representation is impossible to fill.

Mike Mills, from 2007 to early 2008, installed a series of three successive billboards above the Undefeated sneaker store in Los Angeles, in a hip neighborhood inhabited mainly by Caucasians with a substantial Orthodox Jewish population. The first one featured a single phrase in white Helvetica against a pink background (a “hip” design connoting tastes of a certain economic and demographic group): “THE COPS ARE INSIDE US.” As Bryan-Wilson says, this statement “in a city with notorious history of police violence, triggers thoughts about repressive governmental tactics, generates curiosity about which is the assumed audience, internalization and reproduction of power (recalling Foucault).” But given the aforementioned characteristics of the neighborhood where it was located, it is interesting to observe that after three weeks of the sign being put up, someone wrote on top: “They Ain’t inside me.” The Billboard ended up touching upon issues of racism and fear of incursion of “otherness.”(19)

Jenny Holzer’s billboards, posters and projections develop texts to confront the viewer with the status quo, transforming the street into a canvas or notebook of ideas, political or philosophical. Like Jaar, Joseph Kosuth and others, she uses language both as content and image. In “Untitled (Outer Space)” (1984), for example, she suggests that only through imagination can one survive, but that it is a form of escapism.

Les Levine, who has been doing artists’ billboards since the 1960s, focuses on finding a relationship between image and text that is usually vague and general so that the viewer can find the internal logic in the sign. In billboards like “Take” , which is part of a series with similar characteristics, he takes a directive verb (“take” or “forget”) and a corresponding image (a very reductive one), and lets the viewer make whatever associations come to his mind, creating evocative, nuanced works of art.

With a less “transcendental” tone, artists like Kay Rosen play with letters and the way they construct words, using modern fonts and vibrant colors, sometimes with no apparent political or philosophical message, like in “HI”(1997), or making incursions into semiotics or politics like in “_IS_ _ ING” (2007) or in picture postcards, “BU_ _ ; SH_ _” (2004).

Last but not least, according to the curators of the Billboard Retrospective exhibit at Mass MOCA(20), Joseph Kosuth’s “Class 4. Matter 1. Matter in general,” was the first artists’ billboard in the United States and is perhaps the one that retains its radical quality better than any other artists’ billboard. Installed in the New Mexico desert, it lists apparently random elements of matter such as “Universe,” “Chemicals,” “Resins,” it strikes out for its simplicity and lack of visual interest and doesn’t make any overt political statement; just a list. In 1969, Kosuth wrote that his choice of ephemeral public media grew from a desire to stress the immateriality of the work and to severe any connection with painting.”(21)

As a way of wrap up, we can say that Billboard Art can be as rich, varied, complex and open to many intentions as postmodern art is. To develop all the ideas of postmodernity, billboard artists have used strategies such as 1) Attacking existing advertisement billboards directly with graffiti; 2) Appropriating known ads only to change their meaning and 3) Creating structures that look and function like advertisements but aren’t, using text only, images only or a combination of both. Usurping the space of advertisement, Artists’ Billboards have become a well-fitted vehicle for artists to comment on the major ills they perceive are characteristic of our society, some of which stem or are related to advertising itself. They have the advantage of being able to address large audiences, taking art to the streets and out of the museums and galleries, under the principle that art is more about transmitting ideas and triggering thoughts in viewers than about producing archival objects to be admired esthetically in closed “semi-sacred” spaces. As technology and society evolves, there is still plenty of space for this relatively new art medium to evolve both formally and thematically. It would not surprise me if in a couple of years we would be able to see some text or image projected on a full moon, with the corresponding positive and negative effects and reactions coming from different parts of society.

Image: Untitled Film Still (2008); billboard erected in Los Angeles; © Copyright by Cindy Sherman.


1. Steward Heon, Laura. “Putting the Show on the Road”, Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, p. 9.
2. Diggs, Peggy. “Causing Conversations, Taking Positions”, Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, p. 33.
3. Bryan–Wilson, Julia, “Signs and Symbols (On Billboard Projects in Los Angeles)”, Art Forum, October, 2008.
4. Hopkins, David. After Modern Art 1945-2000, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 179-183.
5. Phillips, Patricia C. “Temporality and Public Art”, Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context and Controversy, Harriet F. Senie and Sally Webster, eds.), New York, 1992, pp. 298-299. [Citation from Laura Steward Heon, p. 10.]
6. Senie, Harriet. “Disturbances in the Field of Mammon: Towards a History of Artists’ Billboards”, Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, pp. 14-31.
7. Ibid., pp. 14-31.
8. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
9. Op. cit., p. 19.
10. Op. cit., p.163. [David Hopkins has a nice summary of this movement.]
11. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
12. Op. cit., p. 224.
13. Ibid., p. 180-183.
14. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
15. Op. cit., 14-31.
16. Op. cit., pp. 32-35. [Quote from Peggy Diggs.]
17. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
18. Quote reproduced in Steward Heon, Laura, Peggy Diggs and Lisa Dorin, eds. “Billboard Retrospective” in Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, pp. 48-66. [See also: Jaar, Alfredo, A Logo for America.]
19. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
20. Op. cit., pp. 48-66.
21. Ibid., p. 61. [Editor's note: For more on Kosuth's billboards, see The Harvard Crimson.]


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this insightful essay. I am teaching a course called "Text and Image", and will share this link with my class.

Mark Dzula said...

Thanks for posting this essay, it was a treat to read and gave me good food for thought.