Billboard #1 at night above interstate highway (Image courtesy of the artist)

Daniel R. Small’s Billboard #1 at night above interstate highway (all images courtesy the artist)

A series of ten billboards erected along Interstate 10 in southern New Mexico by the art organization Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) has provoked suspicion, anxiety, and even outright antagonism. The billboards are part of “The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project,” a series of artist-produced billboards that are unfolding across the United States through Spring 2015 and tracing the history of America’s territorial expansion from east to west. The project, curated by artist Zoe Crosher and LAND’s Director Shamim M. Momin, includes 10 artists — among them John Baldessari and Shana Lutker — who each have or will create a “chapter” of billboards along the route west.

The set of billboards in New Mexico is by Los Angeles-based artist Daniel R. Small, and are known as “Chapter 7: Pending Cipher for the Open Present.” Small’s billboard images contain information appropriated from two quasi-historical landmarks. The black writing is based on the inscriptions upon Los Lunas Decalogue Stone which contains the text of the Ten Commandments written in a language derived from old Cypriot Greek and ancient Hebrew. This text — which might appear to the average passerby like a swarm of indecipherable angular symbols — is then interspersed with modern proofreading marks in red and superimposed over photographs from the set of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1923 film The Ten Commandments in Guadalupe, California.

Location of Small’s ten billboards in southern New Mexico (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Location of Small’s ten billboards in southern New Mexico (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Taken together, Small’s red marks and black text meld into hieroglyphic-like symbols that have aroused curiosity and trepidation in some locals. Craig Melton, a resident of Las Cruces, told the Las Cruces Sun News, “I’ve been trying to figure out what it is, what it means.” Melton, who drives past the billboards several times a week, explained:

I was beginning to wonder if it was some kind of threat or warning. You never know, we’re close to the border and you think that ISIS or some other subversives might be trying to get at us.

Melton isn’t alone in his averse reaction to the billboards; in the comments section of Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook link to the article, others expressed both curiosity and distaste about the “foreign country writing” and “terrorist words” inscribed on the billboards.


Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Other commenters focus on the fact that the billboards were inscribed with a non-English language, lamenting that a translation was not readily available below Small’s text. “I thought terrorists were making their way into the city,” remarked one commenter, “this has been a concern in my mind since [the billboards have] been up … glad they are the 10 commandments-but how are we to know if we can’t read it?”

Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Others expressed their distaste for the billboards in person. In an email from February 13, Small recounts:

There was also a very hostile reaction from a local neighborhood when the installers from Lamar were up the billboard ladder. A group of locals surrounded the base of the pole shouting obscenities and claiming that the billboards were either Satanic or Islamic.

In this instance, the equation of Satanism and Islamism may stem from the Islamophobia rampant in the United States, and the intensity and tenor of viewer responses is bizarre. As one commenter laments, “If you can’t read something, the first thing that pops in your head is terrorists?”

Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Small did not anticipate this level of response to his billboards and notes that none of the other chapters of the Manifest Destiny project, thus far, have elicited such heated responses. The “misinterpretation” of the language on his billboards and viewers’ projection of meaning and provenance upon the text adds another dimension to Small’s layering of deceptive information. Both the text and image content of Small’s billboards are fabricated; according to Small, the language is formulated from a fusion of ancient Greek and Hebrew and “the site (The Los Lunas Decalogue Stone) was staged by archaeologist Frank Hibben who is known to have forged several archaeological sites to prove his theory about pre-Columbian contact with North America by an unknown civilization.”


Comment on Las Cruces Sun News’s Facebook page (Screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

The project engages with billboards’ place and function in American culture as sites of capitalistic excess, political promotion, and religious feuds sentiment. Unlike most billboards that dot the American landscape, Small argues that his are more than merely symbolic instructions.” By hinting at the history of the surrounding landscape itself, the project pushes back upon the perception of billboards as visual pollution. The history that informs Small’s billboards is, however, a rather inaccessible and opaque one of which few are aware. Most viewers expect billboards to be easily understandable and to impart their message with little resistance, so Small’s billboards, which call for greater contemplation and, perhaps even an acknowledgement of their incomprehensibility, have aroused anger and frustration in audiences to an extent that is both comical and illuminating. As commenter Daniel Rodriguez asks: “Meaning to who [sic] I’m an American [and] I can’t understand it wtf?”

Billboard #3

Billboard #3

Billboard #5

Billboard #5

Billboard #7

Billboard #7

The billboards in “Chapter 7: Pending Cipher for the Open Present” will remain on view through the end of February. The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project continues across the United States through June 2015. 

Kemy is an intern at Hyperallergic and studies visual art and global health at Princeton University. She likes to talk about her hometown (rainy Portland, Oregon) and tweets on rare occasions.

60 replies on “Billboard Art Project Sets Off Terrorism Scare Near US/Mexico Border”

  1. It’s possible to place conceptual art in the public domain that is not incomprehensible. This project was a little too obtuse for its location, although I acknowledge that some beholders had a slight overreaction!

      1. Could be, but I’m gussing that she did mean “obtuse,” and since one deffinition of “obtuse” is “difficult to understand” she would not be incorrect in doing so. Since obtuse means wide, it came to mean not pointed in the sense of difuse or obscure. Eventually it came to includ the deffiniton above which is from merrium webster. If you are going to detract from someones word choice at least check and make sure they are wrong first.

        Note: Abstruse would also have been an excellent word choice here.

        1. Haag, dude, I totally understand your desire to be corrective, it’s a tendency I often embrace with relish. But I stand by what I said: calling the art work “obtuse” lends the comment connotations that detract from the idea the writer is trying to communicate. As for checking for definitions from the internet, well damn I wish I had been smart enough to think that up, but I’ll keep it in mind next time I try to run your intellectual gauntlet. Plainly, you’re being obtuse, sirrah.

          1. That’s nothing Rudolfo, you should see what’s so delicately and calligraphically expressed on the Obverse, however it’s prolly not PG so entirely unacceptable for Internet Viewing and so I will leave you to your editorial chewing, however I see no fault in lexiconic consultation when it comes to Art or the expansion of the scope of hope within, or across the borders of our diverse nation.

      1. They’ve been educated by FOX News and its affiliated political party to regard anything unfamiliar (not white, not English, not a limited range of Christianity) as “terrorist.”

  2. I’ve tweeted LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) 2x now, asking if there are any Native American artists amongst the ten artists in this project — a project allegedly addressing Manifest Destiny, a project titled the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project. No reply.

    If no Native American artists are included, is the exclusion an explicit comment on — or reinforcement of — the 19th century “displacement” (genocide) of Native Americans across the project’s geography? Further, why are these artists complicit in this gesture?

    1. Or, you could just look at their web page and find the artists involved and see that Mario Ybarra Jr. is one of the artists instead of being knee-jerking and butt-hurt. (Note: he identifies as Mexican-American with mostly Native American ancestors.) Stop being lazy while hoping to be offended, though I imagine you might still think he’s not Native American enough.

  3. I guess I must be a terrorist when I tweet in Japanese and don’t provide translations for the Americans reading. Ohwell.

  4. I’m with those who criticize this bullshit art installation. The main problem is that its text and meaning are so obscure as to be incomprehensible to the general public, therefore naturally inspiring disorientation and fear. If that was Small’s original intent, then BFD. Anyone can be an asshole and piss people off. You don’t even need an arts grant or a BFA.

    As an artist myself, I despise these kinds of public art ‘installations’. If you’re an artist or musician with something to say, say it openly and clearly, using your best creative skills. Don’t wrestle with your audience – that creates resentment and hostility. Nobody wants to be made to look stupid. Don’t bullshit people with your narcissistic cleverness. Nobody cares how edgy you think you are. Don’t hide behind intentional obfuscation and vague references. That’s dishonest and it reduces you to just another weirdo artist stereotype, easily dismissed.

    Don’t aim so high above your audience that they can’t comprehend your message, then call them morons because they’re not in on your private joke. And don’t blame the public “sheep” audience for misinterpreting what you intentionally hid from them in the first place inside inaccessible coded imagery. That’s elitist bullying and serves no purpose other than wanking off at public expense: “Look at me! I’m wasting your public funds on my pointless bullshit!” Congratulations – now you’re John Boehner. George W. Bush. Great. I’m so overjoyed to foot the bill for your self-indulgence.

    This isn’t a gallery show. It’s outdoor advertising. People whizzing by any art billboard must be able to get a quick read of its meaning within 2.25 seconds max, just like with all billboard advertising. They’re not gonna stop to read a museum tag or legend, or immediately jump to your website, no matter how sincere your intent. Seen from the road, this entire billboard series resembles nothing so much as random street gang tagging. Wow, that’s really edgy.

    Check the art and strategies of Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer (or Keith Haring, Banksy et al) for powerful insights into communicating sociopolitical concept art effectively to the masses via split-second reads of outdoor mass media. They mastered this field decades ago.

    People get Barbara Kruger. Nobody gets this crap. Why bother, when it appears to most folks that it’s not even meant to be understood? It’s just demeaning to the viewer, and it ultimately degrades our own creative status and worth to society as artists. Meaning that the next artist seeking to do a billboard art installation in these towns will most assuredly be turned down. Meaning Small just sabotaged these local arts communities, but back in Los Angeles, he gets to promote his avant garde credibility at their expense. Way to go.

    Is art still “creative” if it only creates confusion and hostility? If so, the Koch Bros and Fox News must be creative geniuses, for their relentless propaganda similarly evokes xenophobic fear of terrorists and/or “those people”. This is an age in which public art should speak clearly and strongly for positive change, not hide behind baffling imagery nobody understands.

    If Small’s art audience were only CIA cryptographers, or maybe Biblical archaeologists, they might have understood this billboard art series. But the audience here is the general public, and I presume the aim of the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project was to inform, not to obscure.

    I don’t blame the people quoted in this story for their negative reactions to these billboards. Most folks are struggling to get by every day, and these installations are an artsy/elitist slap in the face, a contrived setup to make them look like uncultured hicks and reactionaries, almost as if that was the artists’ intent all along.

    Small openly admits he created these incomprehensible billboards using a contrived hybrid language of his own that nobody can understand, and there’s no key or deciphering tool provided to parse its various meanings. The imagery itself is false, based on bogus archaeological sites and a forgotten 1920s movie set. If this art was meant to invoke the public’s fear of a disorienting alien invasion by a foreign culture (ie Europeans and Manifest Destiny vs native Americans), then he came close to meeting that goal. But nobody gets his point, so he ultimately failed. Like telling a joke, but omitting the punch line.

    Even Christo’s art was more accessible, engaging the public in its mystery and meaning. This is nothing but masturbatory bullshit serving no purpose other than to pad the artist’s’ portfolio, secure future art grants, and boost outdoor display profits. As public education or a social statement about Manifest Destiny, it’s a total FAIL. I’d rather see these billboards used to direct people to Planned Parenthood, local clinics, voter resources or animal shelters. Use them to promote free public vaccinations, global warming awareness, critical thinking and respect for science. I believe in public art serving the public good, not wasting our goodwill and resources on someone’s pseudo-intellectual private jokes.

    1. I think the issue is that instead of trying to figure out what it was, the instant reaction was that it was dangerous. No sense of wonder. No thinking. Just fear.

      I guess it’s not a surprise, given that several US governments have instilled fear to gain power, control over the people and budget dollars. But I guess you reap what you sow, America.

      1. Thank John Watson and BF Skinner for the American way of life. (Look them up.) They both joined ad agencies in 1936.

    2. “The main problem is that its text and meaning are so obscure as to be incomprehensible to the general public, therefore naturally inspiring disorientation and fear.”

      What a sad state “nature” is for you tiny, terrified, disoriented little people.

    3. @randyrandyman:disqus
      Art does not require an audience to “get” it. Neither does music for that matter. Or film. Or writing/novels/books/poetry. Did people “get” the meaning of Beethoven or Bach? Do people “get” ambient music? Do they always “get” Banksy. Did they “get” Keith Herring’s work? NO…they either appreciate those things or they don’t. Who are you (or anyone) to determine what artists should or shouldn’t do?

      That we live in a time where there’s so much hate and misunderstanding towards cultures other than our own in the US is just sad. That didn’t remotely look like Arabic for the record––it’s ridiculous that these fearful people can’t even identify written words of those they fear and hate so much. Anyone who looks at art like that and assumes it’s from terrorists is a moron in my book.

      You say you’re an artist too? How would you like it if people told you what you should or shouldn’t do with your art? His freedom of artistic expression is the same freedom you enjoy when you create your art.

      I like this passage about freedom of artistic expression. It’s essentially a first amendment issue.

      “Freedom of artistic expression is the principle that an artist should be unrestrained by law or convention in the making of his or her art. Artistic freedom is vital to both the cultural and political health of our society. It is essential in a democracy that values and protects the rights of the individual to espouse his or her beliefs.

      Just as our nation’s free speech heritage protects the rights of artists to create, display, perform, and sell their artwork, so too does it protect the rights of the general public to dislike, criticize, and be offended by art. What we will call a “challenge” to the freedom of artistic expression is more than mere criticism or commentary. A “challenge” arises when the critic takes the significant leap from merely voicing distaste of the art to questioning its right to exist or be seen, and seeking to stop its exhibition or performance.

      Artistic freedom is threatened when art is challenged because of its content, message or viewpoint, rather than because of its aesthetic qualities or artistic merit. A challenge may be motivated by disagreement with the perceived message or the fear of negative public reaction. A challenge may be part of an organized effort to protest specific social issues. Challenges may come from members of the general public, representatives of organizations, or governmental officials. Challenges may also originate from within the arts community—for example, from curators, artistic directors, or funders.

      Although most challenges to artistic freedom share common themes, each circumstance is shaped by unique facts and nuances.”

    4. The Ten Commandments written in a fusion of Hebrew and Greek “…are so obscure as to be incomprehensible to the general public, therefore naturally inspiring disorientation and fear….” Yup, I agree with youse. The GOP “sells” FEAR – and looks like with you (and others like you) they have done their intent more than well…..

    5. Well said – though nailed in half as many words.
      I love all but the most inane conceptual art (in which case it ain’t art to me) but looking at these particularly austere locations, prhaps puttng something beautiful and uplifting there would have been the coolest thing to do. Why perpetrate angst in a a world where there’s nuff of that already? In any case, yeah, putting something indecipherable on a medium that’s designed for quick consumption isn’t a rad idea. It is a nice big, blank canvas though.

    6. My + My + My, but there seems to be an awful lot of rules in what your particular concept of what Public Art should or more— should not be! As referenced within the confines of your statement, and therefore so framed in a construct so restrictive, as to not be at all freely expressed in any manner whatsoever! Your Ultra-Critical view of these public pieces leaves little room for appreciation of a message so constructed as a means to freely demonstrate the diverse views of a collaborative group of Artists. What’s needed in the current divisive and propagandistic times of political deception and blame gaming, is more public art; which make us question the means and methods of manufacturing enemies for the sake of amping up the machinery of war while scapegoating the innocents as the provocateurs of conflict.

  5. The response to them is really quite sad…its ART. Now go and learn other languages like Greek. Messages fom wrong doers? Really sad & illiterate response from the citizens of The USA.

  6. Love that the guy who wonders if it is “terrorist words” is holding an automatic rifle in his pic. Now THAT is something to fear more than words on a billboard.

  7. I think that this art installation has accomplished something by uncovering the fact that just seeing something that they don’t understand is sending many into a xenophobic panic. Art does not have to explain itself and is there exactly to push people’s buttons.

  8. FYI, “The Ten Commandments” is from 1956 not 1923. The fact that it’s a “talkie” is a dead giveaway.

      1. Unfortunately I’m only 5. Apologies for my error. In defence if you google “The Ten Commandments” it defers to the 1956 version. But thank you for putting me in my place using your 6 yo intellect.

  9. Man… There are some dumb, chicken little motherfuckers in this country…

    “derp… I don’t understand so it must be TERRORIST WORDS! speak English… It is the official language after all. ”

    We live in the idocracy

  10. Artists (I’ve been painting for fifty years) really can be morons…arrogant, preposterous, chutzpahed out. It would be one thing to publicize the intention and code for these works so most everybody knew what they were when they went up, but obviously they’re going to freak people out just appearing out of the blue. I’d be offended and I’ve breathed and ate dada for many years. The billboard owner(s) should have known better. Artists go home. We don’t need your freaking surrealism…unless you bring us in on the fun.

  11. Well at least it’s a sign of progress. If the billboards had gone up last year they would have blamed it on ‘the Mexicans’.

  12. Interesting comments all. In my opinion, the work could have simply been a bit more generous to the local audience…

  13. Why are all so polemic? Art in public places always causes controversy. On the part of the artist: a little public relations, especially with such a profoundly conceptual work,would have helped with a general understanding.
    On the part of the public, taking a little time to learn more can lead to better comprehension and appreciation.
    Communication often closes the gaps.

  14. If these people were so afraid of ‘terrorist messages’ from a particular group or groups, why didn’t they just investigate further by checking out the written language they feared the supposed threat came from? Through even rough a process of elimination, I think they might’ve realised pretty quickly they were on the wrong track, and calmed down.

  15. I think the reaction was the point- or would be cool if it was. Social art- the audience is necessary to fulfill the goals of the art.

  16. love glyphs, letters, codes. traces of things. tracks, trails, inscriptions persist for centruries in arid NM. the landscaspe here is a palimpsest awaiting deciphering. and think “Roswell” or “Museum of Jurassic Technology” if i had time i’d drive down and see these.

    1. Connski–I”m a fan of the Museum of Jurassic Technology! Strangely, I didn’t think of it at all when I was writing this piece… totally slipped my mind.

  17. So, by New Mexicans’ definition, things I don’t understand like calculus, quantum mechanics, and London’s Metro map must also be “terrorism”? Folks, THAT is the art here.

  18. Just goes to show how ignorant folks are. It is obviously NOT Arabic. It is like terrorists would broadcast their intentions. JFC.

  19. Go for a really obtuse population in LA or NY. Manifest Destiny was a racist campaign to excuse genocide of the Natives already taking wonderful care of this country and beginning its destruction w/in 150 years. Resurrection this nightmare only allows those who feel smugly smarter than those they are waiting to laugh at for the intrusive caca that is as obtuse as its creators.

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