revealed worlds
Like the seasons, cities run to a rhythm. An undefined time. Buildings rise and fall. Businesses come and go. Prosperous areas crumble and new life is breathed into shattered landscapes. The structures of concrete, tarmac and brick-life continue to deal out destiny without remorse. The city breathes and grows. Over decades its personality changes. Its people never notices the time's nuances of change, they only remember when the change has matured. Their children are different from them, their children's children are different. Life moves faster and makes more demands. The pressure to live a lifestyle to support the economy of the city is emblazoned across billboards, through TV, radio ads, junk mail and call centres.

      essential selection

       In many cities, billboards pepper the major roads and bus routes. Some cling to the streets in immense gangs, others stand alone in railway sidings. They're beaten by the weather that peels away their fantastic livery of images, slogans and labels. Some weeks they might wear pouting lush lips, smoldering eyes with long lashes, other times they wear the broken face of a starving child. Bjork, Pete Tong, and Cream digitized and lovingly presented in two dimensions stand before commuters, hoping to capture a few minds. They will them to hear their new collections on CD < LP < MC.

      Bum, KAH, Bum KAH, Bum, KAH, Bum KAH. A bass drum and snare is filtered through headphones as people swayed in a crowded urban train carriage. Those who stood held onto the ceiling rails of train, loathing to accidentally fall into the person pressed up against them. They planned their route to the available seats at the next station. Sitting in one of the seats was a woman. Around her feet were bags of shopping and a brief case. She felt fortunate that she was sitting down, staring out of the window. She thought of nothing but couching in front of the telly with her remote control, a bottle of nice wine and a take-away.

      People forced their way off the train at the next stop. A surge of people eager to catch their connecting bus and get home. There were still a few more stops to her station. The train had emptied since its last stop. The remaining passengers spread themselves over their seats and sank into books, newspapers, personal stereos, mobile phones or their own thoughts and dreams. Flashing by the carriage window she recognised the billboard advertising the latest saving scheme from her employers. She shut her eyes and pushed out the memories of the past week. Work was now the other side of this weekend, which was now only two stops away.


       For the size of billboard sites, they occupy a strange anonymity. They form a part of the scenery along routes to work. Their familiarity makes them almost invisible. It is only when something jars with our experience of the world that we notice something occupies our lives daily.

      For example Nicola and I, were relaxing on a Saturday, or Sunday afternoon. I had bought a weekend supplement, which still remains completely unread apart from an article on Marilyn Manson. Across two pages of the weekend supplement was an advert transposed down from a billboard. The caption read "any more leather and it'd moo." Is there such an expression as it'd? Nicola asked. There must be because the word is used every day. She knew that, but what did they mean? Despite the sumptuous graphics and the shiny product I could not help but be drawn into a pedantic debate. Would it moo? or should it moo? or could it moo?

       My mother first remembers seeing billboards when she was child. They were used to cover areas that had been bomb during the war. This is curious because often billboards are seen clinging to an intact wall of a derelict building, such as the site for Langlands and Bell's Frozen Sky. It is as if they have been used to wallpaper over dereliction, decay and death. Which is perhaps why people don't notice them, or rather are affected by them. Maybe it is because the sites are used to advertise. The repetition of the image and text in print and television makes us unaware of its message and its existence. Perhaps when the repetition is interrupted then a genuine message is unveil, or a world is revealed.

      the sound of snow falling

       What is the sound of falling snow?

       A small group of teenagers walk through the lurid orange-lit streets. It is early evening and the cold air blushes their faces. The two loudest teenagers stand out in front; one carries a cider bottle which he waves around as he informs the others about the trip they are about to embark upon. The other laughs excitedly throwing little stories at his new soul mate.

      "Aye, A heard bout this lad who took a trip n'e thought 'e was an orange an' tried to peel imsel."

       The remaining three are quiet, standing alone trying to get some footing on the situation. This was unexplored territory. They felt their hearts beating in their temples, wrists, chest and throat. The exotic stories of wonder and horror from the leading pair heightened the feeling of helplessness. Had the billboard not looked so different from all the others then the teenagers might never have stood before it. The three anxious adolescents welcomed the distraction. There was no idealized hopes, no stylization of normal life, no seduction. It was simple black text on a white by an artist called Kurt Johannessen which describes a composer's consummation of a life long wish to hear the sound of falling snow. His legacy lived on after his death with new generations of composers refining and evolving his dream until they achieved a sound as simple and complex as the snow flakes themselves. Coincidentally, as the boys stood staring at the billboard, it began to snow. As they watched the snow being blown over the pavement like desert sidewinders, the falling flakes seemed to simmer and sing.

      the sound of silence

       What is the sound of falling snow?

       In 1992 Felix Gonzalez-Torres created an image for twenty-four billboard sites around New York. The images of a crumpled unmade bed must have been familiar to the inhabitants of the city. The pillows still retained the impression of two heads, and were probably stale from the previous nights slumber. Most people might never have noticed the images, shrunken to thumbnails by the size of the city they were in. Others may have mistaken them as advertisements for Benetton or Gap (1), while some might have glanced at the advertisement hoarding and been shaken with pain and loneliness at the thought of returning to bed without their partner, ever again.

       AIDS had taken the life of Felix Gonzalez-Torres partner, Ross. The disease would take his life a few years later in 1996. Perhaps that's why the bed is completely absent. He, like his partner, would fade and disappear. What remains are his works. It is like an epitaph to his, and many others, intellectual and political cause. Blank and unrevealing to those who do not share his motivation and awareness, the words on the billboard preserve an identity and a memory, while the billboard itself is transient.

      place to place and the perfect kiss

       I once heard that customs and excise own one of the largest countries in the world - if all the departure lounges at air and seaports are added together; small totalitarian regimes that exist within liberal democracies. Also, liberal totalitarianism inside dubious autocracies. Airports are the entrances, and exits, to and from many different cultures. The departure lounge is an example of globalization and the standardizing of world cultures. Langlands and Bell's Frozen Sky represents the world as a schematic diagram. An anachronism for airports form a circle of typography, and these circles are split into a black area and white area representing night and day. Standardization might seem a threat to what makes us human, but to an individual traversing a vast planet familiarity could be reassuring.

       Perhaps this is what Pierre Huyghe was searching for while he waited for a moment to capture, preserve and celebrate. Was he looking for an event which was universal and genuine instead of the constant simulations of ourselves in fast cars and germ free houses? However this image of a young couple kissing has been staged, although it is not quite a simulation, and it perhaps has no motive for existence other than it is a kiss which could have, and probably would have happened. I wonder whether the couple still thinks about their role in the creation of an event, or an intervention? Are they still together?

      Although we are not offered a narrative I do care about these sorts of things. It helps me deconstruct and reconstruct the world and it gives it different shape. What would happen if people participated in their own billboard campaigns, displaying images of their daughter's wedding, or drinking ouzo in Greece? Perhaps some people want to share a spectacular moment, or an opportunity for mischief. What would happen to ourselves? Would we fade into anonymity through repetitive exposure? Would we like what we see? Or would we even notice?

      the last paragraph

       Millions must be spent on billboard sites every year by advertisers for them to be ignored. Their function is to largely to promote a product or idea and tell people it is important. But perhaps some have meaning beyond their functions. Through artists intervention, and interruption, meaning and significance maybe revealed to the individual about themselves and their environment.

       Langlands and Bell reveal aspects our technological infrastructures that support society. Felix Gonzalez-Torres oscillates between the public and private boundaries. Personal events have bearing on the social world and vice-versa, while Kurt Johannessen's and Pierre Huyghe's billboard works reveal simple beauty. It is appropriate that they occupy billboard sites as a reminder that there is more to people than objects which work for and serve the cities, towns, boroughs and states they live in.

Michael Mulvihill 2000


(1) Robert Storr , 1997, On the Edge contemporary art  from the Werner and Elaine Dannhiesser collection Museum of Modern Art, New York