How Many Billboards? Art In Stead

MAK Center

Tucker Neel

Kerry Tribe, commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, 2010; photo by Gerard Smulevich

John Knight, commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, 2010; photo by Gerard Smulevich

The largest artist billboard project of its kind in Los Angeles history, How Many Billboards? Art In Stead is an exhibition of great complexity and breadth. Organized by the MAK Center for Art and Architecture’s director, Kimberli Meyer, along with co-curators Lisa Henry, Nizan Shaked, Gloria Sutton and Sara Daleiden, the exhibition consists of twenty-one billboards conceived by a roster of leading contemporary conceptual artists. Dispersed around Los Angeles in locations primarily bounded by the Hollywood (US-101), Harbor (SR 110), San Diego (I-405), and Santa Monica (I-10) freeways, the billboards were up from February to May, during which time individual works were relocated from neighborhood to neighborhood as their original sites were rented out by advertising companies. The show is so big and diffuse that it’s difficult to absorb, both physically and critically, as a collective whole.

Aside from accomplishing feats of bureaucratic maneuvering, the greatest success of this exhibition is that it inserts a good deal of art into the Los Angeles skyline. It creates the opportunity to see something out of the ordinary away from the confines of a white cube gallery, and to see the city anew. Whether such an experience is at all necessary is up for debate. All discussions about public art for the public good aside, the collection of artistic propositions in How Many Billboards is impressive and critically engaging, though not without some faults.

In the well-written catalogue that archives the exhibition, curator Kimberli Meyer points out that, with these artist billboards, “Site supersedes content and intent, in the sense that whatever appears on the billboard is read according to the conventions of the billboard as site.” This notion of the billboard as a public location with prescribed viewing habits presents the greatest challenge for the works—and the artists behind them. How does one make art framed by the insidious interpolating conventions of corporate advertising, while avoiding creating a situation that apes the look of guerilla marketing (ad campaigns that masquerade as individual or iconoclastic gestures, only to reveal their corporate advertising motivations at a later date)?

Many of the billboards in the exhibition risk falling into this trap, with contributions by James Welling and Kerry Tribe being the most obvious examples. Welling’s work presents a photograph of sumptuous blue bands that crisscross like Fox searchlights against a black background. Tribe’s contribution offers a photograph of a brooding, cloud-filled sky intended to provide a contrast to LA’s perpetually clear (if you don’t count smog) firmament. While both works do provide the opportunity for one to pause and perhaps meditate on representation, abstraction and nature, they have the unmistakable look of advertising in the making, as if at any moment they could sprout a Levi’s logo. It’s a cynical and somewhat unavoidable view to take but one that seems apropos given the abundance of similar-looking billboards in the city.

Lauren Woods, commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, 2010; photo by Gerard Smulevich

Martha Rosler with Josh Neufeld, Lesson for Today, commissioned by the MAK Center for How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, 2010; photo by Gerard Smulevich

The most successful works in the exhibition get around this problem by either fully embracing the billboard as discursive site or by displaying imagery that is difficult, if impossible, for corporate interests to co-opt. The contributions by John Knight and the team of Martha Rosler and Josh Neufeld do just that.

Knight gave control of the imagery that would appear in his billboard to the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), thereby complicating his role as the “creative” force behind the look of the billboard itself. MECA “completed” the work by submitting an image of a stock photo of a droplet of water overlaid with the text “from L.A. to Palestine / Clean, Drinkable Water is a Human Right.” MECA’s logo and Web address appear along the bottom of the image across from the MAK center’s URL (which appears on every billboard in the exhibition).

Knight’s billboard is located on the Sunset Strip, one of the most expensive advertising corridors in America, where a billboard of this size would cost millions of dollars to exhibit for the duration of the show. MECA would never be able to afford nor justify the cost of a large billboard in this location. Looking at the billboard itself, it seems highly out of place alongside slick, “blinged out” ads for Gucci and the latest summer blockbuster. In this way, Knight uses his work to call attention to all the other billboards along the Strip, while at the same time providing a highly visible platform for MECA and its message.

Knight could very well be taken to task for the strategic benevolence of his gesture, and such a critique is warranted given the existing model of corporations “donating” services and airtime to public-service messages, only to then spend just as much (if not more) money and time notifying the public of their good deeds. However, the geopolitical and economic awareness embedded in Knight’s project does much to avert such accusations.

Martha Rosler and Josh Neufeld’s billboard also used the exhibition as an opportunity to address a pressing but often overlooked political and social-justice issue. Their contribution presents a cartoon depicting students and schools turning, respectively, into prisoners and prisons. The primary language in the work reads: “CALIFORNIA is #1 in PRISON SPENDING and #48 in EDUCATION / Save our higher education system for California and our kids!” It’s hard to imagine any Fortune 500 company willing to slap their logo onto this billboard. The illustration would read as overly propagandistic were it situated in a conventional “art context” like a gallery or museum, yet as a billboard in this exhibition it secures a certain amount of critical agency.

Rosler and Neufeld’s work considers the social viewing opportunity at hand, amplifying the billboard’s ability to attract and direct attention. This is the lesson that all future works made in the model of How Many Billboards? should take to heart. Rather than simply transplant art, or the look of art, into billboard form, the most successful works in this exhibition do the opposite, using the framework of an art exhibition to critically examine the very notion of a billboard. The result, when it succeeds, empowers viewers to acutely view both art and billboard as conspicuous facets of the visual landscape.

Tucker Neel is an artist and curator in Los Angeles (www.tuckerneel.com). He is also Founder and Director of 323 Projects (www.323projects.com).

« return to table of contents