I-70 Sign Show: A Conversation with Anne Thompson

Anne Thompson’s I-70 Sign Show is public art project installing socially-sensitive artwork by contemporary artists onto billboards along I-70, the interstate highway that arcs across Missouri from St. Louis to Kansas City. Spanning the past ten months, the project has contrasted commissions like Kay Rosen’s red-state, blue-state spectrum BLURRED, Ken Lum’s labor-centric diptych Bindy Sangeet: Employee of the Month and Alia Naffouj: Hooked on Tennis,  and Mel Bochner’s BLAH BLAH BLAH with a visual landscape littered with ads for Monsanto, strip clubs and scripture verses.

However, the sign show shifted into new terrain towards the end of 2014 as Mickalene Thomas’s billboard was installed at the West Florissant exit in North St. Louis. The billboard, which happened to be the first that had been installed in the St. Louis metropolitan area, entered into an unexpected, complex social and visual environment. The billboard was sited just a few exits away from Ferguson, which by that time was in the second wave of dramatic upheaval following the non-indictment of the police officer responsible for the death of teenager Michael Brown. Public space and speech had taken on a different meaning in St. Louis, with any image measured alongside handmade posterboards in thousands of protesting arms or CNN scenes of violence slashing across screens.

Ahead of her lecture on February 19th at fort gondo*, I spoke with curator Anne Thompson about the show’s reception, evolution and endpoint.

James McAnally: As an entry point, what was the trigger for you to initiate the I-70 Sign Show to begin with? Did you have specific arc in mind from the outset?

Anne Thompson: The billboards have always interested me, since we moved from New York to Columbia about eight years ago, because they work so aggressively to get people to pay attention to them, and yet most people seem to hate them and actively try to ignore them. Plus, so many of them are blank, which made it seem like an ideal condition for a billboard art project. On top of that, the intense political feelings and polarities that often play out on the billboards seemed ripe for commentary. I also wanted to stay connected with artists I know and admire working elsewhere. All these things combined made me start thinking about the best way to do a billboard show along the interstate.

JM: In driving around the country, Missouri’s billboards have always seemed particularly charged. I-70 both runs through very socially conservative communities and, at least anecdotally, has the largest number of adult stores in the nation. Did the artists work with that context specifically in mind?

Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2004/2014 installed in Hatton, MO for the I-70 Sign Show.

Kay Rosen, Blurred, 2004/2014 installed in Hatton, MO for the I-70 Sign Show.

AT: All the artists I invite do work that deals, generally, with language, signage, or cultural messages. Then, I work with them to select an existing artwork—or for them to make a new work or adapt an existing work—that will comment on one of the contentious themes along I-70. Themes like sex, sexuality, beauty, Christianity, labor, consumption, etc. With the first artist, Kay Rosen, I approached her with the suggestion that we use BLURRED, an existing artwork, because it comments so directly on blue-vs-red-state polarities—and the potential for some kind of compromise or overlap. The most recent artist, Ken Lum, I invited because his project deals with labor, leisure, immigration, and social class, which I thought would be nice to talk about in relation to all the “right to work” billboards, among other issues.

Ken Lum's "Bindy Sangeet: Employee of the Month" and "Alia Naffouj: Hooked on Tennis," installed on the Main Billboard in Hatton, MO.

Ken Lum’s “Bindy Sangeet: Employee of the Month” and “Alia Naffouj: Hooked on Tennis,” installed on the Main Billboard in Hatton, MO.

JM: As you’re saying, the work all has a social subtext, but is entered into a public sphere with particularly loaded politics. How has that played out over the course of the show? Have there been any direct questions, complaints or public feedback?

AT: So far, I’ve heard no complaints, though I’m always braced for it. You never know what’s going to bother someone. The info I get is mostly anecdotal, and people around Columbia seem to like the project and find it entertaining. But the main goal has never been to be outright “offensive” but instead to insert art as a more subtle and playful commentary: something that will make people see the billboards in a new way—or start to look at them to begin with—and maybe have more awareness about what the messages actually say.

For example: female sexuality is all over the interstate—in messages about porn and abortion, but also in more subtle and sometimes ironic or strange ways, like these ads for plastic surgery that say something like “Confidence is power,” which I think is supposed to sound like “you go, girl” feminism, but actually the message is that you feel insecure and therefore have no power because you think you look bad. Which, of course, is a weird message. Or this casino ad (and I’ve talked about this a lot) with a picture of a woman and the slogan “Still Missouri’s Loosest Slots”—which is hilarious in being so blunt. Usually, when I talk about about this in public lectures, people recognize why this is strange, but they seem to have never thought about it. And I’m not Margaret Mead bringing info from the outer reaches of some foreign culture. We live here.

The Mickalene Thomas billboard started out as a commentary around gender politics—a different representation of the female body from a female perspective. And initially it was right next to a billboard for a strip club. So the message about gender politics was pretty direct. But then, that context—and the potential meaning of the piece—shifted when it moved to the West Florissant exit site.

JM: That was interesting because it was installed at a moment when public speech was particularly loaded: artists, activists, protestors, pro-police groups and so on, were all vying for platforms to speak, but her image was direct, but also had no text, no blatant commentary.

AT: I think it might have been more powerful for not having text. The women are so strong in their physicality. They look comfortable and secure, really rooted in their place. Their body language is one of confidence and pride. And if you look at their faces, one is looking directly at the audience, the other is sort of looking to the side. And their expressions aren’t smiling or necessarily super happy—which is how women are usually represented in advertising, smiling and cheerful or posed to look sexy. In the Ferguson context, I sort of saw the women as guardians or sentinels, watching over the fray.

JM: The presence of strong women – specifically strong black women – as the leaders of the movement around Ferguson has been absolutely underrecognized. I love the idea of the billboards as sentinels or witnesses in that sense. Did the artist comment at all on its move to the Ferguson area? I’m just curious if that unintended intersection was interesting for her.

AT: I talked with Mickalene before the billboard moved to make sure she was OK with the new location because I hadn’t approached her with the idea that her work would comment on race politics. It was really more about flipping the “male gaze.” With the way the project works, each artist is on the main board in Hatton, MO for two months and then moves for another two months to a different location chosen by DDI Media (the billboard vendor I’m working with), depending entirely on what boards happen to be blank. I never know what board I’ll get, and haven’t thought to ask the artists if the new site was ok—except in this case, because, as you say, it was a really fraught, and tense moment. And Mickalene was good with it—I know she was intrigued by the potential impact the work could have in that site. But we also talked about how there could be a big reaction, or potential a negative reaction—because you never know—or there being no reaction at all. So we just agreed to put it out there. And in interviews since then, she talks about her work generally but leaves it to me, as the person running the project, to discuss the context.

Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2013 at the Main Billboard in Hatton, MO.

Mel Bochner, Blah Blah Blah, 2013 at the Main Billboard in Hatton, MO.

JM: Now that you are almost at the end of the project, what have been the most interesting moments so far?

AT: Ken Lum is the second to last, with the final project planned being by Karl Haendel. After that, the project could potentially continue if I get more funding. The most interesting moments to date have been the unexpected, inadvertent ones that happen when the billboards move, like Mickalene’s going to Ferguson and suddenly having this charged context. Kay Rosen’s BLURRED moved to Warrenton in front of this elaborate patriotic Monsanto ad where farm furrows turn into the stars and stripes. So, that was pretty perfect. Then Mel Bochner’s image BLAH BLAH BLAH moved near a Walmart and a housing development, making his image about the generic as well as the entropic nature of language. With Ken’s board—and it’s just up now on the main board—the process of choosing the image was really satisfying and fun. Initially, we had selected “Bindy Sangeet, Employee of the Month,” which shows a brown-skinned woman getting a certificate from a white guy in what looks like a mall. Then we realized that the billboard dimensions were exactly double the size of that image. So instead of making it more panoramic, it occurred to us to create a diptych. So now the “employee” is next to an image of a teenager “hooked on tennis.” So suddenly we get to talk about social class, labor and leisure, and aspirations toward success. And that all happened in the process.

JM: I love how these images, inserted anywhere in this space seem to bump against new meanings.

AT: Totally! It’s one of my favorite things along the interstate. Gun ads next to emergency room ads. Or the pairing of a McDonald’s ad for a $2 triple cheeseburger that says “Triple the (heart shape).” And next to it is an ad for the Passions sex shop offering a three DVDs for the cost of two. I could never plan that. Ken’s board was a great surprise, because it allowed us to acknowledge those weird pairings, along with commenting on politicized messages about work and leisure.

I now see you were talking generally about how all the art billboards, wherever you put them, will take on a new potency. And that’s true. With Ferguson, I talked with some of my students (I run an Honors Tutorial at the University of Missouri connected to the project) about how BLURRED or BLAH BLAH BLAH would have functioned in that site, opposed to Mickalene’s board. And the general consensus was that the Bochner would have looked really aggressive and maybe dismissive, like the conversation about race was just nonsense, or that no one was listening. And—this surprised me—they said that BLURRED made them think about the police, because of the red and blue on the white background.

JM: Absolutely – when the space itself is so loaded, no speech is passive. It’s all taking a stance. You’ve touched on this some elsewhere too, but the whole swath of I-70 in a state like MO exists as this highly charged space – whether it is about abortion, the right to work, or whatever.

Going forward, would you do the project differently? Or what would your plans for a future iteration involve?

AT: Yes, the entire interstate is a constantly changing portrait of political contentiousness and commercial banality—and it’s all interesting and worth attention, because it’s like a portrait of the state’s character, or at least how the state is presented through ads in a public space. Moving forward, I’d love to take the project into the 2015-16 election season and heighten its engagement with political commentary and opinion.

And a final note: Since doing this project, I’ve come to realize that the interstate, or maybe billboards generally, are one of the last places we see information or opinions that doesn’t conform to our tastes or values. Online, everything is tailored for us via algorithms; we just get more and more of what we “like.” But on I-70, I see all kinds of things I don’t like at all, and there’s something sort of wonderful in that.

Images courtesy of the artists and I-70 Sign Show.

*Editors note: Anne Thompson’s lecture is presented as a collaboration between The Luminary and fort gondoThe Luminary is also the publisher of Temporary Art Review.

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