Bored Billy and the search for "freedom"
In the culture of late capitalism, the notion of democratic participation has unfortunately been so thoroughly corrupted, that for some, it is now mistakenly equated with the ability to consume. This confusion underpins many of the attempts by artists to escape the supposed elitism of the gallery context and open up more public or 'accessible' forms of engagement for their work. Some within the art world imagine that the simple act of leaving the physical confines of the gallery is synonymous with the development of new, non-elitist relations of production and consumption, it is not.

Consumer capitalism's ability to smother the urban landscape with an "ever changing forest of signs" is an appealing model for artists seeking to develop more accessible and effective forms of engagement with the public. Billboards, with their relatively low production cost and high impact, offer artists the opportunity for public engagement with their work on a scale unimaginable for most gallery based exhibitions. But despite this, a note of caution must accompany the embrace between any artists and the promotional tools of capitalism.

Set against the noisy clamour of commercial self interest, the appearance of any alternative or critical voice in this field of competition is always in danger of looking like the worthy, but plain contestant on an episode of Blind Date , ever overshadowed by more sophisticated and glamorous rivals. This is after all an arena of seduction. As Marx wrote in Capital "commodities are in love with money", they ogle it with their price "casting wooing glances" (1). Through the agency of advertising, commodities can be seen casting flirtatious glances at buyers, in an imitation of the buyers own glances used in courting their human objects of affection.

In this context it is unlikely that the sophistry of consumer advertising could ever be matched or countered by artists in anyway other than a very temporary and provisional manner. Whilst billboards obviously operate as individual images, their effect is accumulative and often relative to their position within ongoing campaigns, more often than not driven by television based advertising. The dependency of billboards upon a highly engineered context for their meaning cannot be underestimated. As consumers we have become highly skilled in decoding sales pitch, but the role we are offered in this process is fundamentally one of passivity, we are the destination point for a message and a product. Through repetition and reward, we develop a fluency in the rituals of consumption and though the image manipulators flatter our capacity to work adverts out, in the end, we are still just potential customers to them.

It is in the role of consumers that we address billboards, and I would argue that it is the passivity of this role which is at odds with the active contestation of meaning at the root of any critical practice. For critical practice to develop, the conversion of passive consumers into active producers of meaning has to take place. It is true that billboards, with their visibility and accessibility, offer an intimate relationship with the populace, but it is not a public one. The interests served by advertising are those of corporate capitalism and not those of anything which might be remotely described as the 'public' and the 'accessibility' provided has to be bought and the price is paid as a consumer.

The expectation that we are being sold something accompanies any encounter with advertising billboards, we usually know what is being sold, why and who is selling it - if this were not the case it would be a pretty pointless activity . But when artists exploit billboards as a site for their work, the same set of questions are not so clearly answered. Perhaps it is because of this apparent pointlessness - the inability to complete the process of promotion and consumption - which makes it such an interesting area of operation.

Refusal to make the commercial point, to get the message across and sell the product, is frustratingly provocative. Evidence of this is even to be found in the field of advertising itself, with some of the more sophisticated campaigns inciting interest through a process of strategic delay, suspending, for as long as possible the moment of product identification. But in the case of an artist's use of the billboard format, the presentation of an image which may look like an advert but fails to function like one, refusing to promote a product or the producer, can only appear as an act of commercial perversion. The spectator is left at a loss as to what is being said, by whom and for what purpose. It seems to me that this is precisely the point at which the potential exists for artists and spectators to construct new meaning, not contained by the logic of consumption.

The use of such a tactic is not new, but can be effective. I remember years ago whilst on a night out with mates, coming across a glossy colour advert posted around the back streets of Newcastle. "What does possession mean to you?" asked the posters text, accompanied by a photograph of an embracing couple and the statistics: 7% of our population owns 84% of our wealth. The slick poster looked like an advert for an insurance company but the text suggested a more political purpose, yet too professional to have been produced by any of the leftist parties around at the time. Uncertainty surrounding origin and function of the advert was compounded by curiosity about the accuracy of the statistics, provoking a lengthy discussion between me and my mates about who might be behind it and the issues it raised. Whilst this may sound like one of those cheesy autobiographical, "I've been abducted by aliens" stories, it does indicate the potential impact a strategically sited artwork can have. Only a few years later did I find out that the poster was in fact an artwork, produced by Victor Burgin to accompany his show at the Robert Self Gallery in Newcastle.

Perhaps, it is the billboard's site specific nature and its ability to solicit passing trade, which is so attractive to artists. The opportunity to stage contact between spectators and images in unexpected locations, is rightly identified by many artists as having the potential to unsettle and dislodge established expectations and meanings. Lacking financial investment and access to sophisticated promotional resources has led some artists to recognise the folly of trying to compete with the advertising industry on its own terms. Instead, many have adopted strategies which play to the differences, rather than the similarities to, commercial iconography. To this end some artists sought to resist the rapidly scanning gaze of the shopper by means of enigmatic or unexpected imagery, winning attention through a slowing down of the process by which meaning is attained. Others operate as if they are cultural double agents, using the language and conventions of corporate promotion against itself, so as to undermine or ridicule its authority. In the end, what marks out the more interesting examples of billboard art, are those moments when we are presented with images which stop us in our tracks and offer us something we didn't know we could have.

David Campbell 2000


(1) Marx, Capital, Vol.1,p.202