150 Billboards Including One Outside Jefferson City, Missouri
The 2017 film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written, directed, and produced by Martin McDonagh challenged societal attitudes of inherent prejudice, misogyny and indifference seen in parts of small-town America. Winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, this controversial viewpoint was also fuelled here by a rather dilatory police force, where some officers exhibited lazy incompetence and casual racism. Winning the academy award for best actress, Frances McDormand starred as a grieving mother compelled to rent three billboards near to her home on the outskirts of town. A series of her provocative posted statements drew attention to this institutional apathy in the months following her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder.
Similarly looking to challenge and elicit a strong public reaction to sensitive social and political issues of-the-day, 2018 has seen three more evocative graphic public artworks established in Missouri. A small part of a huge nationwide art programme called 50 State Initiative, the three state installations include two billboards by artist Jeremy Dean’s called InDivisible and Hummer Stagecoach in St. Louis, as well as visual and performance artist Christine Sun Kim’s piece called Words Shape Reality in Jefferson City. Part of a much bigger civil programme set up nationally by arts organisation For Freedoms, this national crowdfunded project called was created to encourage and engage far more public political participation and reaction. The name of their organisation was inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms series created in 1943. His four paintings evoke Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impassioned call to Congress from 1941, advocating a basic human need for the public freedoms of speech, worship, want, and from fear.
As a result, a mass series of (reportedly) 150 artist-inspired graphic hoardings are being erected throughout the 50 mainland states, ahead of the November 2018 midterm congressional elections. There are no stipulating guidelines or restrictions to artistic content. The core basis of the project is simply to embrace artists creativity as a means of inspiring civic dialogue (or arguably disobedience), as well as provoking an initiation of far more community participation.
Christine Sun Kim’s Missouri artwork Words Shape Reality perhaps sums up the graphic power of simple statements used alone on billboards to evoke deep thought and meaning. There is some irony in this, as Sun Kim was in fact born deaf, and describes her learning process growing up as being only “shaped by American Sign Language interpreters, subtitles on television, written conversations on paper, emails, and text message”. She claims to approach sound by pushing it to a different level of physicality, despite admitting to a complex relationship with Deaf culture, whilst attempting to “translate sound while unlearning society’s views and etiquettes around it”.
The power of plain language to question and shape the reality of our lives can never be underestimated – but we need to think carefully about that, and never take it for granted.
50 State Initiative – Is a nationwide US public art project being curated by the arts organisation For Freedoms, which by its conclusion will involves in the realisation of more than 300 artist commissions across north America. Partnering with more than 200 national art organisations, ranging from grassroots cultural centers to major museums, selected artists include J.R., Marilyn Minter, Rashid Johnson, Tania Bruguera and Theaster Gates. Each artist has designed a billboard for settings located variously throughout the 50 US mainland states.
For Freedoms – Is a platform for greater participation in the arts and in civil society co-founded by artist Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman. It produces exhibitions, installations, public programs, and billboard campaigns to advocate for inclusive civic participation.
Christine Sun Kim – Visual and performance artist.