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How Many Billboards? in LA

Considering what a blight billboards can be on the urban landscape--São Paulo banned them in 2007, as have states like Maine--especially in car-centric spot like Los Angeles, it's little surprise that the LA-based MAK Center for Art and Architecture decided it was time for a rethink. They wrangled 30-day billboard donations from five different companies and commissioned 21 artists to take over what is perhaps one of the mose exclusively commercial sites of public architecture we've got. I had a chat with MAK Center director and co-curator of How Many Billboards? Kimberli Meyer about the show, which is on now all over Los Angeles. Be sure to check out the slideshow to see pictures of various billboards in the show.
 

Photographer James Welling's billboard, at La Brea Avenue south of the 10, suggests a fractured grid, canted city streets, and a fraying urban fabric. Photo by Patricia Parinejad.

How much longer will the billboards be up around LA?
Well, that's kind of the question. All the space was donated, and per the contract we have the billboard space for 30 days. But not all the art went up at the same time, so we've got some that went up on February 14th which could be coming down just next week. Others just went up and will be around for a while. They're all up right now, though. We had one billboard by artist Michael Asher that was actually really heavily tagged by graffiti artists. The Billboard companies have people they hire to paint over the tags, but they ended up painting over all but a small corner of the art, so they're actually moving it, we're reprinting the billboard and we're getting a new 30 days. So that one will be up for a while.

Jennifer Bornstein's billboard at Sunset and Martell suggests ominous things. For billboards themselves, for the film industry? Photo by Gerard Smulevich.
I love that it got tagged. It really brings home that in many ways what people are responding to is not art, per se, but to a billboard. I mean, getting tagged is what happens to billboards.
One of the things that struck me in all this is how much the art changes once it's up on a billboard. You don't have it in this rarified white cube surrounded by other pieces of like-minded art. The city starts to respond to the piece, the taggers do. Of course I knew in theory that it wouldn't behave like a piece of art once it was installed, but it's been pretty amazing to see it in action.
My first thought I had when I heard about your project was Angelyne, the blond bombshell who has been on an LA billboard for ages. She's famous for being on that billboard. And now she's running for governor of California.
You know we talked about her a couple times, and she's a pretty interesting predecessor to our project. What's cool about her, and puzzling, is that it was never really clear what she was selling. There she was up there, and maybe you had her agents number or something like that. She was trying to sell something, but it was never totally clear to me. I know that she wanted to be known.
We'll find out later that she's some post-modern media theorist and always has been.
Totally. She's been enacting her theory all this time. I hope that's true.
Argentinian artist David Lamelas casts himself as a rock star, encouraging others to "Think of Good" on his billboard at Pico and Fairfax. Photo by Patricia Parinejad.
As a native Californian, billboards and their ads feel like a really normal part of the landscape, but when you go somewhere they don't have them--like the state of Maine--you're reminded of how really awful they are. Don't you think that people might not even really see the art on the billboards, that they'll just gloss over them as this whole category of visual clutter?

Yeah, there's this numbness that occurs because of this persistent barrage of products that you're only really vaguely aware of. But what got me with this project was that in spite of trying to tune it all out, you really can't. And I couldn't decide it if was better to try to be oblivious to what billboards are selling you, or if it's better to be aware of what's going into your brain so that you can be critical of it. I really object to all this non-consensual colonization of my eyeballs with ads. I hate that I pay $14 for a movie and then not only do I have to watch the previews for other movies--which is actually totally fine with me--but I also have to sit through a Pepsi ad. My attention is perpetually for sale and I thought that we should try to balance that out somehow. There should be some kind of justice. And artists are really well suited to talk about ideas and to be critical of billboards.One response that we've gotten a lot of is that people notice them as not ads. They may not get a lot farther than that, but they see that they're not advertisements because they don't look corporate, they're not part of some larger campaign, nothing is being sold. There are no midriffs, so they get that the billboards are different, even if they can't quite say what's going on.
So you're really not selling anything?
Well one our artists is. Brandon Lattu's billboard is a giant classified ad for a '94 Cadillac Fleetwood. The comment there of course is why would you ever try to sell something on a $5,000 per month space that is not even worth the advertising cost? It's also great because it really reads as a classified ad and there's even a number to a cell phone Brandon got for the project. There is a real car that he's trying to sell. He's gotten a lot of different types of calls on that number. <b></b>Some people say, "You are so dumb to try to sell a car like this on a billboard," others say "I love this bit of public art," and still others just want to have a look at the car.
So where around LA can we see the 21 billboards?
They tend to be in the central part of the city. Lots in Hollywood, West Hollywood, Culver City, Korea Town, Silver Lake. There are a couple out in Westwood.
Nothing in the Valley? What have you got against Sherman Oaks?
Nothing, nothing. Sherman Oaks is fine! I guess the idea was that we'd use the MAK Center, which is based at the Kings Road Schindler House as a kind of ranger station. You would come here to find out more about the exhibition. We've organized bus tours and bike tours of the billboards which leave from here. We also made sure that all the billboards would be along good public transportation routes, so they're all on big boulevards.
Finally, how have you had to rethink billboards as pieces of architecture, pieces of essentially public architecture since the whole idea is that they're out there shouting, "Hey, look at me!"?
Well they certainly have the scale of architecture, and they've got these signs that literally envelope them. It raises all sorts of interesting questions about about where advertising fits in public architecture, which is why we really wanted artists who would think deeply about the billboard as a site, not just as a place where they could sell their work, or try to get recognition. It's been really great to see art move into this physical space that really is about direct messaging, about calling for your attention, but then the message is something thoughtful and critical.

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