“How Many Billboards? Art In Stead at the MAK Center,” ART LIES Magazine, Issue No. 67, Fall 2010.

The largest artist billboard project of its kind in LA history, How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, is both an exhibition of great complexity and breadth. Organized under the roof of The MAK Center, and curated by Kimberli Meyers, Lisa Henry, Nizan Shaked, and Gloria Sutton, the exhibition consists of 21 billboards conceived by 21 contemporary artists, all of whom practice in the vein of conceptual art. Dispersed around the LA region in locations primarily bound by the 110, 101, 10, and 405 freeways, the billboards were up for over four months, during which time they were relocated from ‘hood to ‘hood as their original billboard locations were rented out by other ad companies. Given that it covers so much ground, the show is so big and dispersed that it’s difficult to absorb, both physically and critically, as collective whole.

Kerry Tribe's billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

Aside from accomplishing great feats of bureaucratic maneuvering and countless negotiations with corporations, artists, printers and governmental agencies, the greatest success of this exhibition is that it interjects a great deal of art into the LA skyline, creating the opportunity to see something out of the ordinary away from the confines of a white cube gallery. Whether such an experience is at all necessary is up for debate. However, all discussions about public art for the public good aside, the collection of works in How Many Billboards, are indeed impressive and critically engaging, providing an opportunity to see the city anew. But the artistic propositions at play in this exhibition are not without some faults.

James Welling's billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

In the wonderfully written catalog that archives the exhibition, curator Kimberli Meyer points out that, with regards to 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.”[1] This notion of the billboard as a publically accessible site with prescribed viewing parameters presents the greatest problem for the works in this exhibition, and no doubt the greatest challenge for the artists involved. How does one make art framed by the insidious interpolating conventions of corporate advertizing, and avoid creating a situation that apes the look of guerilla marketing, ad campaigns that masquerade as individual or iconoclastic gestures, only to reveal their corporate advertizing motivations at a later date?

Many of the billboards in the exhibition risk falling into this trap, the most unfortunate being James Welling’s and Kerry Tribe’s respective works. Welling’s work is a photograph of a sumptuous field of blue bands that crisscross like Fox searchlights, against a black field. Tribe’s piece is 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 for a minute and perhaps meditate on the intrinsic abstract potential of photograph 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 view to take, but not one without merit: they risk reading as harbingers of ads to come.

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

Knight gave control over the imagery that would appear in the billboard allotted to him to the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), thereby complicating and subverting his role as the “creative” force behind the final formal character of the billboard itself. MECA “completed” the work by submitting their ad, an image of a stock photo of a droplet of water overlaid with the text

“from LA to Palestine

Clean, Drinkable Water is a Human Right.”

MECA’s logo and web address appears along the bottom of the image across from the MAK center url (which appears on every billboard in the exhibition).

John Knight's billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

The billboard is placed on The Sunset Strip, one of the most expensive advertizing corridors in America, where a billboard of this size would cost millions of dollars to exhibit for the duration of this 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 blingged-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 to get their message across.

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 air time to public service messages, only to spend just as much money notifying the public of their good deeds. Yet the geopolitical and economic critique embedded in Knight’s project does much to avert such accusations.

Martha Rosler and Josh Neufeld’s also used the exhibition as an opportunity to address a pressing but often overlooked political and social justice issue. For their work they present a cartoon depicting students and schools turning into prisoners and prisons. The primary language in the piece 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. As a work of art the piece would read as overly propagandistic were it situated in a conventional “art context” like a gallery or museum. Yet as part of this exhibition it makes sense.

Martha Rosler with Josh Neufeld billboard photographed by Gerard Smulevich

Like any effective work of art, Rosler and Neufeld’s work takes advantage of the situation at hand and uses it to its greatest affects. 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 in to billboard form, the most successful works in this exhibition do the opposite, making an art out of the very notion of a billboard, not just art as a billboard. The result, when it succeeds, empowers viewers to acutely view both art and billboard as conspicuous facets of the visual landscape.
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