Learning from Billboards in Los Angeles

Added by Marcus Civin on March 4 2010, at 5:32 am
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  • “How Many Billboards: Art in Stead,” an outdoor exhibition curated by Kimberli Meyer, Nizan Shaked, and Gloria Sutton, includes 21 newly commissioned billboards supported by a wealth of programming, an excellent website (, and an orientation station at the MAK Center, Schindler House. These big, sharp billboards each in their own way aim to pierce and peel back a little bit of consumer culture in order to write a quick bit of democratic thinking into mega mobile Los Angeles. I think the MAK Center ought to announce “How Many Billboards: A Los Angeles Biennial.” I want more fury acting up, more artist billboards, and all kinds of whizzing-by, come-stab-at-truth, surprise vision in the noisiest places for lease.

    On my travels, I reference a newsprint broadsheet from the orientation station at the MAK Center. On a rumpled map of Los Angeles, I take notes about the billboards I come across. Near the brown line on my map labeled Olympic Blvd, I write: No more Billy Club, no more taser, Bust of a Young Man meets Bust of a Man, bronze, black stone, a billboard reproduces two heads meeting above an auto body shop (artist Ken Gonzales-Day). On my map where Pico runs West of Fairfax, I write: arbitrary that this is the Aging Rock Star McDonald’s. I write: photograph of artist David Lamelas. I write: urban style, wary but hopeful at the drive-thru, sporting faux hawk, grey t-shirt, wrist bands... “THINK OF GOOD”.

    Then, on the way to the movies, I read another billboard: “Seismic Shift – CALIFORNIA is #1 in PRISON SPENDING, #48 in EDUCATION...” On the way back from the movies, I read more from the same green, pink, blue-black billboard: “Save our higher education system... for California and our kids.” I check my orientation broadsheet; on my rumpled map, Sunset near Cahuenga, I write: artist Martha Rosler with graphic novelist Josh Neufeld. Elsewhere on the map, I write: Michael Asher re-publishes advertisement for VW Bug’s think small sensibility, Jennifer Bornstein draws “The End,” Christina Fernandez finds the same derelict sofa in two different places. John Knight donates his billboard to the Middle East Children’s Alliance who work to install water desalinization and purification systems in Gaza schools, who make their billboard a water pump, who write: “from LA to Palestine/ Clean, Drinkable Water is a Human Right.”

    Can a sign really make a difference?

    The billboard is legible. I read the billboards.

    Less than five seconds, but it seems to me that this person wants to speak to me, thinks she knows me. Embarrassed, I first turn away, turn to look toward another car, and then, gathering courage, I turn back to the sign. I read the sign: “I LOOK GOOD, I KNOW/ I CAN’T HEAR, I CAN’T SEE/ BUT I LOOK GOOD.” Yvonne Rainer quoting Marlene Dietrich—I will look carefully, I will determine your gaze, I-she-we can climb any scaffold, and I have a microphone and portable speaker, not the biggest speaker, but a decent size speaker. I am available.

    Consider Daniel Joseph Martinez’s billboard: image of US Army aircraft, repurposed aircraft sprayed red, aircraft repurposed to fly radical environmental actions, but, on deck of an ocean liner, pictured here, these aircraft plummet straight down; Martinez’s text: “The disappointment/ of a/ fanatical searcher/ of the truth, / who saw through trickery/ of an authoritarian world/ filled with illusions.” Martinez’s vision, active, clear, if in disappointment, produces an adamant, unpliable, full-bodied, soaked, sea-leg stance.

    Aron Vinegar, architectural critic, writes of early Angelino Buster Keaton’s deadpan openness, an openness that allows Keaton’s silent stance to speak to a certain feeling of disappointment, and simultaneously to speak to a dogged resilience of the spirit. Amidst crash and crumble, Keaton:

    "I am thinking of the well-known sequence in Steamboat Bill Jr., in which the facade of a house collapses around Buster Keaton, yet he emerges unscathed owing to a well-placed open window. Or, is it a well-placed Keaton? Timing is everything. Only someone with the right attitude, with a knack for openness, receptivity, and awareness of a Keaton, can prepare you for whatever fate befalls you. If Keaton is dashing, perhaps more importantly he is also undashable." (Aron Vinegar, I am a Monument: On Learning from Las Vegas, The MIT Press, 2008)

    Language full of possibilities... Billboards, a de facto community of artists... I-we fill up with meaning. lauren woods proposes that even sometimes just the look of language, if it is the perceived enemy’s language, can become completely terrifying, even among flowers. lauren woods’ billboard, in Urdu, in Arabic script: “As long as the earth and the sky last,/ Smile like a flower in the garden of the world.”

    Susan Silton’s billboard, a voice of authority in clown stripes, in a criminal’s stripes, saying “IF I SAY SO.” This is a voice misleading, manipulation disguised, message closeted; this is a potential for sublime reduction (concept), a productive restraint, or a threat, a potential for a knock at your door: you have 60 minutes to evacuate, 59... ... 58 ... ... 57 ... ... 56 ... ... Allen Sekula’s billboard evokes a ransom note, and hurls the debate proposition, in Spanish: “The rich destroy the planet.”

    Print this form:

    Dear blank,

    I am writing to ask that you reconsider several of the misleading statements found in blank and blank, which cause significant harm not only to blank, but further blanks the status of blank. How little blank, blank, and blank understand the fastest growing sectors of blank. It is my hope that as a blank, you would reject blank, so that you can blank. I can blank, and blank, and blank. I am blank.

    Fill in: obliterated. Fill in: as we were passing the car coming the other way. Fill in: horizontally. Fill in: I live here too, wait here for signal. Being moved, moving, hitting on the head and tethering to the steering wheel the worker who will fix the dock. Fill in: ominous clouds, blue cables, highway overpass.

    Don’t just stand there. Jump, jump, jump.

    Jump back in time: 1935, to what is now Barnsdall Art Park, Aline Barnsdall posts billboards on her property, at Hollywood Blvd and Vermont: Left billboard: “Ever since the industrial Revolution about a century ago, American industry has been a cruel, chaotic inhuman scheme...” Right billboard: “MUZZLE WAR! From all sides war is coming, menacing all peoples, if it sets fire to one corner of the world it cannot be localized...” (See The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History, by Gregory Paul Williams, BL Press: 2005, on the shelf at your local library, image of Barnsdall’s billboards from the Wesselmann Collection, Williams Partnership.)

    While we are waiting for more billboards, in any case really, stencil right on the wall, get out the scissors, hack in Photoshop, jump to The Billboard Liberation Front, who explain how you can take back the streets, put up and pull down billboards:

    -- Marcus Civin

    (How Many Billboards images courtesy: How Many Billboards)