Blog Post: The I-70 Sign Show

300+ billboards adorn the 250-mile stretch of interstate highway between St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri. The advertised messages are often in tension: it’s not uncommon to see a Christian-inspired billboard in one moment and an advertisement for an adult superstore the next. The I-70 Sign Show, a public art project sponsored by the University of Missouri–Columbia, has been adding a different kind of message to the mix since its launch in April 2014. Project founder and curator Anne Thompson invites contemporary artists to exhibit a new or existing work on two I-70 billboards. Artworks are first displayed on the project’s main board, in rural Hatton, Missouri. When the artworks on this board change, the old work rotates to a “satellite” billboard for a second display period elsewhere on the interstate—in a different location for each artist. The Sign Show always has two artworks on the interstate at a time, and the potential meaning of the art shifts with its context, depending on the landscape, architecture, population, and surrounding billboard messages. Thompson originally scheduled the project for a twelve-month run but plans to continue it through the end of 2015. In concert with the New Terrains conference, Ally Johnson spoke with Thompson to learn more.

J: What was the inspiration behind the I-70 Sign Show project? What got you interested in the billboard situation in Missouri?

T: Projects that innovate within the parameters of a living or working situation have always interested me—the idea of creating opportunities out of what seem like restrictions or liabilities. Going deep into the “local”—whatever your “local” happens to be—can have wide-ranging consequences. I’m thinking of artists like Andrea Zittel, in Brooklyn and in Joshua Tree, Lucy McKenzie, first in Scotland, now in Brussels, and Michelle Grabner and Theaster Gates, in Chicago—these are just a few examples, and they have very different motivations. But on a basic level, they share an expansive approach toward their specific geography, with projects that claim new art territory, making their homes into art spaces or creating social or community spaces like bars or libraries. This all usually happens in large urban settings.

Comparatively, the state of Missouri presents an anti-urban condition. Its biggest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, are on the far perimeters, overlapping with Illinois and Kansas. The second largest cities, Springfield and Columbia (where I live), are relatively small (pop. 165,000 and 115,000 respectively). The state capital, Jefferson City, only has 48,000 people. What seems to dominate is a vast rural landscape, rivers included, parts of which are quite beautiful, and roads and highways. Then there’s the interstate, which cuts through the middle. For me, I-70 gives the sense that, alongside the communities of people who live here, there’s this enormous ephemeral “community” of people in transit, just passing through on their way someplace else—the flyover state thing. That was interesting to me. On top of that, when you drive across Missouri, you see a bizarre number of billboards, because the state has five times the national average and three times more than its neighboring states. Along the I-70 corridor, the billboards pretty much define the landscape. Many are blank. Others advertise the usual fast food/gas station fare. But many billboards carry messages connected to politics—gay marriage, guns, abortion—the red-versus-blue conflict issues that define Missouri to the rest of the country. Given all this, it seemed like an inevitable move to claim Missouri billboards as art territory. For me, this was an opportunity to approach the interstate as a cohesive place with its own culture and identity. I wanted to engage the entire billboard landscape—the 250 miles between St. Louis and Kansas City—in aggregate as my “local community,” and this seemed possible by having artworks enter the existing conversation of messages.

J: I like this idea of utilizing the interstate as art territory and of grabbing viewers in unexpected places. As you were selecting artists for the project, were you thinking along the same lines as the average advertiser might when renting a billboard? About audience, location, etc.

T: Yes and no. I mostly think about the other billboards, because they create the project context. The goal is to have artworks engage and critique broad message themes: food, education, labor, religion, politics, sex, beauty, sports, entertainment, etc., and commerce generally. I invite artists who already deal with language, signage, or pop-culture messages, and then work with them to choose or modify an existing image or for them to produce a new one.

For example, the current artist on the main billboard, Karl Haendel, wanted to make something new connected to his drawing series of women doing yoga. This immediately seemed great, because yoga communicates health and lifestyle—two interstate themes—but you really don’t see yoga on billboards, at least not here. As a result, and in subtle way, a yoga billboard could carry some subversive content around religion. I’m almost certain there are no I-70 billboards dealing with any kind Eastern religion (though I could be wrong, the signs change all the time). But Christianity is all over the interstate, and apparently some Christian groups view yoga as an occult thing, a kind of gateway activity to Satanism.

I brought Karl out to Missouri from L.A. for a site visit and to give a lecture, and also to meet with the five-student MU tutorial that collaborates with me on the project. During that process, it became clear to all of us—Karl, the students, and me—that the yoga person on the billboard should be male. On the one hand, this resists the overt or suggested objectification of the female body that’s present in billboards for porn and strip clubs, not to mention other advertising. But a yoga man is also unexpected—completely different from the usual billboard representations of masculinity. So Karl’s billboard will carry this additional gender content.

In terms of location, I deliberately picked a site in the middle of the state for the main billboard. The landscape is flat and rural with lots of signs on both sides of the road—and they’re all evenly spaced in a kind of stunning monotony. It seemed like a good base of operation. The second sign, the satellite billboard, travels up and down the interstate to a new location with each artist, because the billboard company I work with, DDI Media, picks it depending on availability. It’s an opportunity for DDI to fill an otherwise empty board. This gives each artwork two contexts: first the rural site, for two months, then another site with different terrain and surrounding messages. The satellites are random in being out of my control, but the potential reading of each artwork always changes, and usually amplifies, when it moves to its second context.

J: The I-70 Sign Show builds on traditions of public art, site-specific installations, and a de-romanticized approach to landscape. How do you see the project drawing on these past practices to engage environmental and artistic concerns in our current moment?

T: It’s a time-honored thing for artists to look for new ways to exhibit or produce. Doing a billboard project certainly isn’t a new idea. But in terms of site-specific and land-art traditions, this particular location has some radical potential. It’s the middle of a state in the middle of the country, more than 100 miles from a big city and really far from what’s commonly considered the art world. The Sign Show basically exhibits images, not unlike a gallery or a museum. But it comes with a specific meaning context. It isn’t a neutral space, where creating context is up to the artist or a curator. The art joins a readymade conversation, and, because of the conversation topics, the art organically functions as cultural and often political critique. This is especially potent given the recent spotlight on Missouri, with Ferguson, and the political focus on the state during the national election season, and we have one of those coming up.

In terms of the current, capital-A-capital-W art world—where and how that scene functions and its connections to fashion and huge sums of money—this part of the country is very “other.” It starts to seem fresh or exotic as a production or exhibition site—which, like thinking of the interstate as a place or a community, is an inverse take on usual perceptions.

As for broad-stroke environmental concerns about billboards—and I get asked this a lot here where I live—the project doesn’t take a stand. It’s decidedly NOT about beautification, or “for” or “against” the billboard industry, which has faced opposition since Lady Bird Johnson and the Highway Beautification Act and has a more recent PR struggle for relevancy with the Internet. The Sign Show simply acknowledges that the billboards are embedded in the interstate landscape, and, in land-art mode, talks about or engages that landscape with its own materials.

J: Has the natural landscape of Missouri influenced the billboard artwork on display? Have the billboards pressed upon the landscape in any way?

T: As part of Kim Beck’s billboard, we staged an iteration of her Sky is the Limit skywriting project, which positions the sky as a potent landscape of desire and longing. She’s done this before, in New York and Pittsburgh, and the huge, rural Midwestern horizon offered a new context. The pilot wrote generic phrases, selected by Kim, that appear frequently along I-70—SPACE AVAILABLE, NEXT EXIT, and OPEN DAILY! From photographs of the skywriting, Kim produced a NEXT EXIT billboard image, which nicely returns the language to its original location but in a transformed state.

As far as the project “pressing” on the landscape—which is a really nice idea—I’d say this happens mostly through events, like the skywriting, that relate to the billboard art. I staged a “Party Under the Billboard” in September to give people the experience of being up close to something they usually see from a distance in a car going 70 miles an hour. Standing near the physical billboards is very strange—they’re so huge and architectural. I hired a shuttle to bring people from Columbia out to the main billboard, which is about 20 miles away. There were white tablecloths and refreshments, like an art opening, and people played croquet and bocce. I’d like to stage a “Yoga Under the Billboard” event connected to Karl’s image once the weather warms up.

J: Yoga under the billboard would be especially interesting for the way it would invite folks to literally press against the land, and also because yoga poses often draw on nature and position the body as landscape, adding another take on Haendel’s work. In addition to the natural landscape and planned events, the commercial, social, and political landscapes of Missouri also help to shape the experience and meaning of the artwork displayed. How have you seen these different terrains activated and in conversation at various moments?

T: This has been one of the great surprises of the project, the way the artwork’s second location changes its potential read. For example, the debut artwork, by Kay Rosen, was the word “Blurred” in all caps, with “BLU” in the color blue, “R” in purple, and “RED” in red. On the main billboard, it clearly spoke to red-versus-blue state conflicts, but in a general way. Any political meaning became much more pointed when BLURRED moved, because its new location was by a Monsanto ad that depicted American flag stripes transforming into field furrows, a kid’s face, and the slogan “Every Star-Spangled Banner Begins with a Farmer”—this whole patriotic campaign about corporate agriculture. Mel Bochner’s piece, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH, started out as a general take on the sheer glut of messages. It became more pointed because it moved next to a housing development near a Walmart. The conversation shifted toward a specific commentary about the generic and mass commerce, in design and how we live and consume.

When Ferguson happened, the project intersected with current events. It entered a national mood and conversation, which was powerful and really interesting, because usually it’s the physical surroundings that create the context. The billboard was by Mickalene Thomas, and it depicted two black-and-white photographs of black women collaged against a backdrop of bright patterns. I had initially tapped Mickalene to address sex as a billboard theme, because her work adapts historical representations of the female body in art and pop culture in ways that flip or disempower the male gaze. On the main billboard this worked beautifully, because the neighboring sign is for a strip club. Then the work moved to the West Florissant Avenue exit in greater St. Louis, five miles from the site of Michael Brown’s shooting and protest scenes. Mickalene’s image retained its feminist content but its reading shifted from gender politics toward race. I’d always thought the women in this image looked like sentinels or even statuary in their solid poses and dignified expressions, one aloof or reflective, the other staring straight ahead, rather confrontational. The feedback on this—all anecdotal—is that people in the St. Louis area found it important to see strong female images in that context, that there was something grounding or validating or uplifting about it.

J: There’s also a side of the project that engages with the digital landscape: you have been working to photograph all the billboards along Missouri’s Interstate 70, creating an online database and using Google Maps as a kind of visualization of the billboard surplus. What do you see as the importance of this work? How does this side of the project engage with the idea of landscape?

T: The online database gives an audience outside Missouri access to the Sign Show context—it clarifies what it means to put these particular artworks in this location. It’s a key element of the project. As a documentation process, it forces a kind of intimacy with the interstate landscape. The parameters are: use a smart phone, get as close and frontal to the billboard as possible to take square and rectangular shots, and then do a GPS screengrab. I’m working with students, and we have to drive back roads, climb fences, crawl through brambles, walk into cornfields, and so on to get near the billboards. It’s not so simple. But you start to notice things, like how many signs are disintegrating or are buried in overgrowth, or where the signs are in terms of other architecture. Some are in people’s front yards, or they’re sandwiched between buildings that were clearly built around the sign.

J: There were plans to publish the documented billboards as a book. Any updates on this?

T: We’re still photographing the billboards. I think we’ve photographed about 400, and we haven’t really tackled St. Louis and Kansas City. I’m guessing there could be close to 600 billboards total. When that’s done, I’ll produce some form of artist’s multiple. I’m also saving the billboard artwork, these huge 14-by-48-foot sheets of extra-durable vinyl. These exist as another form of project documentation, a displaced iteration of the project itself. I see them as a kind of super ephemera.

J: The I-70 Sign Show launched nearly one year ago. Looking back on the past months, what has been the most memorable moment? Has your thinking about this project evolved at all throughout its run?

T: There are plans to extend the project’s initial 12-month timeline for six months, maybe longer. It seems important to follow through on the wider implications and possibilities that only became apparent over the past year—for example, the ability of the artwork to comment on and interact with evolving news events. I’ve come to think about the Sign Show’s engagement with the interstate as like a newspaper or webpage with different sections. The themes are similar: food, sports, entertainment, education, health, politics, etc. The artwork would be the opinion page, with the curator as the opinion page editor—and curating and editing are quite similar. Both involve selecting and positioning information.

I also realized that billboards might be one of the last places we encounter things and ideas that challenge or offend our tastes and values. We consume so much online, and online algorithms just give us more of what we already “like.” We do this to ourselves, on purpose, via social media, but it also happens to us, inadvertently, when Web sites track our behavior. There’s an irony here, because we think of digital media as this bottomless source of information, making other forms of communication obsolete. Yet in terms of presenting people a range of opinions and being a venue for debating perspectives, billboards start to look like a last frontier in terms of free speech. They have an in-your-face advantage. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that I “like” billboards. But I do find them fascinating, and I take them seriously as a medium. I’d love to see the project continue until the 2016 presidential election, because of Missouri’s historical role as a swing state and the way that plays out in more political billboards with more intense rhetoric. I’d like to see the Sign Show enter that high-stakes landscape.

Many thanks to Anne Thompson for granting an interview. To learn more about The I-70 Sign Show and where to find current artists’ billboards, visit i70signshow.org.

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