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.
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.
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?”
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?”
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.”
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?”
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.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.