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A few months ago, five national museums and the Outdoor Advertising Association of America announced Art Everywhere, a massive exhibition that will bring reproductions of artworks to advertising spaces around the country in August, decided via a public vote. This morning the artwork with the most votes was announced: Edward Hopper’s famous diner scene, “The Nighthawks” (1942). Not the most surprising choice. Give the people what they want. The people want what they know.
“Billboards are the last bastion of the icon,” artist Zoe Crosher says, “because they work so fast. The images have to be fast, dirty, quick, and really loud.” A work like “The Nighthawks” meets these requirements; it’s a painting that’s become a part of popular culture. But what if you tried to give the people something different, something they may not even know they want? What if you put commissioned works of contemporary art on billboards?
That’s the idea behind Crosher’s The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, produced by public art organization LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division). Crosher and LAND Director Shamim M. Momin, co-curators of the project, have chosen 10 artists to create roughly 10 billboard artworks each at 10 locations along Interstate 10. I-10 is the southernmost transcontinental highway in the US, running from Jacksonville, Florida, to Santa Monica, California. Beginning last fall and continuing through next spring, the billboards are unfolding along the highway in sequential chapters from east to west, tracing the path of many a contemporary road trip and the footprint of many a 19th-century settler.
“I’ve had this idea forever,” says Crosher. “I basically had been meeting somebody in Tempe and making this very desolate drive on 10. It’s a very weak, brown landscape —you’re so epically lost, you can’t believe this kind of territory is real. And so, I’ve been thinking about this particular drive since 2008. A lot of my work deals with manifest destiny and going west and the schism between the imaginary and the reality.”
Crosher initially proposed the project to LAND, with whom she had worked before, as only covering the stretch of I-10 from the California/Arizona boarder to the Pacific shore. It was Momin who suggested — perhaps a little crazily — that they cover the whole country.
“It occurred to me that what could be more productive was, what if we did it across the entire Route 10, traversing this landscape, following the sense of movement from east to west, and all the things that come along with it in all those different destinations?” Momin recalls. “Essentially create a group show around a theme, but one that travels across time and space — each part with own identity, but one overall thing.”
As one might imagine, securing so many billboard spaces is a complicated, ongoing, and expensive process (the project’s biggest expense), says Laura Hyatt, LAND’s development director. Hyatt has managed to do it thus far through a combination of reduced-rate rentals and donations. “At first we tried to work on a national level, but with the scope of the project it ended up being most effective to work at the local level,” she explains. “Each chapter so far we’ve had to start over and develop new relationships, which has been a lot of work, but the companies we’ve worked with have been very enthusiastic and supportive.”
But in a way, that local approach mirrors the conceptual structure of the project, which is about site specificity, Crosher says, not just creating an eye-catching image to slap on a billboard. So, for the first chapter, which stretched between Jacksonville and Lake City, Florida, artist Shana Lutker drew upon drawings and paintings of historical skies in the Jacksonville area to create spare, nearly abstract renderings of the sky that stood on billboards against the sky. Lutker’s parents live in Jacksonville now, giving her an added connection to the place.
The second chapter, situated around Mobile, Alabama, was also personal: growing up, artist Mario Ybarra Jr. spent some summers at the ports in the area, and “it was a really significant experience for him,” Momin says. In addition to putting his images of what he calls “barrio aesthetics” on local billboards, Ybarra Jr. planned a range of events — performances, outreach — that drew the local community into his project, to the point where the local contemporary arts center brought his billboard vinyls in for an exhibition after they came down.
In the third chapter, which took place around New Orleans, artist Sanford Biggers focused his series of images and texts on the concept of manifest destiny. One of them was a billboard that read “just us” posted across from the Superdome — a powerful confluence of symbols harkening to the ghosts of Hurricane Katrina.
Chapter four, by Eve Fowler, features snippets of text from works by Gertrude Stein and opens in Houston, Texas, tomorrow. In addition to her billboards, Fowler has created free lending libraries stocked with Modernist writing in a handful of truck stops, hardware stores, and coffee shops around the area.
Crosher herself will do the second-to-last chapter, from Blythe to San Bernardino, California: “I had this tendency, when I was in this really deep brown desert — I had this vision of this green wall of beautifulness,” she says. “The way the billboards are going to work is you’re in the middle of the brown, you see this beautiful green, and then the closer you get to LA, the whole thing withers and dies. But it happens very subtly. Every time you get closer, it just looks a little more off.”
Of course, the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project is barely trackable: very few people will see them all, and those that to see any of them may not even know they’re art. This is, in Momin’s words, “the challenge of trying to work in a truly nomadic fashion and truly public way.” Descriptions and photographs — in addition to a Manifest Destiny Billboard Perfume that Crosher’s made with the help of the Institute for Art and Olfaction (scents included: car, whiskey, dust, jasmine, and musk) — are most of what the project leaves behind. But “in some way it almost doesn’t matter,” Crosher says. The billboards “exist in the imaginary. You know that they’re unfolding.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one along the way.