Corporation + consumer the world
"We've learned that the notion of alternative space isn't only politically phony and aesthetically naive - it can also be diabolical.

It is impossible to create a radical and innovative art if this work is anchored in one special gallery location. Art can have the most political content and right-on form, but the stuff just hangs there unless its means of distribution make political sense as well."

Twenty years ago, the US collective Group Material issued this statement to explain why they had decided to abandon their alternative gallery in New York.

In many ways, it defines the dichotomy facing critically-engaged artists - to participate in a system that allows work to be seen by only a limited cognoscenti, or run the risk of oblivion in a world of commodified iconography over which art has little or no purchase. In the intervening period, much has changed, but today, it seems that some of these issues first articulated in the late 1970s are being rediscovered by the mainstream 'art world'. This publication emerges at a moment when strategies to resist art's total commodification or take up the reins of the political are finding new favour. However this time it is not done with ideological confidence.

Instead, the address is often to particular communities or interest groups rather than a whole class or nation, and the projects themselves are founded more in doubt, curiosity and a certain complicit irony.

A common impulse in a project such as the Liverpool Billboard Project is to imagine that they emerge out of a radical, political agenda. But could the billboard really be a radical medium? It's origins early last century heralded the arrival of the corporate urbanism that now dominates the contemporary cityscape. By the 1950s, this came to define the perceived Americanization of business and its history since then has produced ever larger, more technically sophisticated corporate platforms. Though artists have a long history of using billboards to reach a broader public, direct political messages always confronted the difficulty of being constructed in the language of the opposition. In England, the demise of the Docklands Community Poster Project in 1990 signalled the end of an overtly propagandist use of the medium.

In other ways too, activists, protestors, artists and many others learnt, gradually and painfully, that direct, confrontational opposition had run out of steam. It became clear that almost everyone was a participant in the system, willingly or not, and that any strategies of resistance would be co-opted. So, the détournements of the situationists, the flyposting of the guerilla girls, the hacking of the culture jammers were developed to test the borders of this system as much as to create an alternative. In these terms, the billboard is just another site where meaning and value can be contested, probing our identities as producers and/or consumers, terms that themselves shift the moment they are observed. Radicalism probably doesn't have a place any more. The motivation is more likely to be a form of curiosity or investigation. What would happen if...?

The Liverpool Billboard Project enters into this contemporary flux of media and states of mind. As a self-proclaimed art project, it comes with the jumble of expectations about shock and difficulty that precede any public reception of contemporary art.

At the same time, the familiarity of billboard advertising ensures a knowing, sophisticated public for the work. It is notable that there are hardly any direct statements, political or otherwise here, and sometimes the work appears as a simple relief from the otherwise incessant sales pitch. Some artists chose a particular location and used the incongruity of an international medium to speak about the local, while others seem intent simply to undermine the most predictable expectations - to bore the passer-by, to be knowingly unintelligible or intensely personal. These are some of the ways in which what might be called an undefinable surplus is made manifest in the works. It is a quality that suggests some other concern beside the business of selling a product or an idea and, in the final analysis, can make these billboards different from the cool, intelligent irony of so many current advertisements.

Charles Esche

Edinburgh 2000