The Art In Marketing

There’s something hiding in Regina’s digital billboards

by Gregory Beatty

A billboard art installation curated by Neutral Ground

Please Stare
Multiple Locations
Until Aug. 9

Marketing has yet to reach the sophistication that Philip K. Dick forecast in his 1956 short story The Minority Report,  in which people are addressed with personalized ads at virtually every turn. But through cable TV, the Internet and whatnot, we are definitely exposed to many more commercial messages than we once were.

“Bombarded” is another word I could use. Certainly, that’s the way it sometimes feels. At the same time, marketing provides us with lots of useful information — not just as consumers, but as citizens who are hopefully engaged with our community and the broader world.

The challenge for those seeking to reach people in a non-consumer context is: how do you compete with all the resources that get plowed by marketers enticing us to buy, BUY, BUY? Typically, the odds of catching the public’s eye with a low-budget promotional campaign are long — but if it’s well-crafted, it can be done. It’s vital that activist organizations, arts groups and other marginal players in our society figure out the trick to doing that — if they hope to have a presence in our crowded media landscape, that is.

That was one of the issues John Hampton was interested in exploring in Please Stare. It’s a digital billboard project he curated through Neutral Ground in Regina that’s on display in Regina and Saskatoon until Aug. 9.

“There are lots of similarities, I think, between creating an advertising campaign and creating conceptual art,” says Hampton. “Both times creators are working with a central ideology that they want to implant in viewers — it’s just that the ideology is typically different.”

Billboards have been around since the late 19th century. Digital billboards with animated images, though, are relatively new. For maximum impact they’re placed at high-traffic locations with clear sightlines that render them visible for blocks on either side. Critics argue that they constitute a safety hazard by distracting drivers. Concern has also been expressed about the degradation of the public realm through the intrusion of unsightly structures, and just the general inability these days to escape hard-sell marketing.

Hampton, formerly a resident of Regina, recently relocated to Toronto. For several years now, that city’s been embroiled in a debate over the proliferation of billboards. In 2009, in fact, it introduced a contentious billboard tax with the proviso that money raised go to arts and culture groups.

Please Stare has an aspect of that to it as well, says Hampton.

“Part of the pitch [for the Canadian Digital Network] involved bringing cultural content to these boards and allowing them to give back to the public visual space,” he says.

Hampton’s first step in curating Please Stare was to contact the Canadian Digital Network. “I told them we wouldn’t be doing anything that would directly antagonize their other customers and also nothing that would break the law on public decency,” says Hampton. “Our agreement was that we would follow those courtesies, and they would have the right to not air something that would break those guidelines.”

The next step was to recruit artists.

“I invited about 20 to submit, and most did. I put together an information package to tell them what I was thinking about and asked for informal submissions. Then I selected those that seemed to fit best,” says Hampton.

Seven artists, including two duos, have work in Please Stare. The pieces aren’t designed to specifically critique advertising, but it was an area Hampton was keen to see the artists explore. Because their work is on billboards, he says, “the artists are thinking as advertisers and about the need to grab people’s attention.”

In the ’60s, pop artists like Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton made mass marketing and consumerism in general a central focus of their work. And whether artists like to admit it or not, the art they produce, once it enters the marketplace, becomes a commodity, so the disconnect between art and advertising isn’t as broad as it might initially seem.

Still, before Please Stare debuted on May 17, Hampton hit a roadblock. While the Canadian Digital Network manages the ad content, the billboards are owned by individual property owners. And prominent hotels in both Saskatoon and Regina rejected the videos — which are 10 seconds long and blend seamlessly into the flow of regular ads.

“I was quite shocked,” says Hampton. “But Gabe [Rosescu, Hampton’s contact at the Canadian Digital Network] has been generous in trying to get us even more billboard space.”

Admittedly, the videos aren’t entirely devoid of political content. In their contribution, for instance, Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins reference Cuba — still a nominally communist country with egalitarian ideals that clash with our dominant capitalist philosophy. As it happens, Hampton recently visited the island.

“They don’t have any advertisements anywhere,” he recalls. “They have billboards, but they have political slogans on them. The most common was ‘Viva la Revolucion!’ But there’s nothing tied to the purchasing of things, so they’re anti-capitalist in that way.”

Likewise, Hadley + Maxwell’s video contains a nod to a poster image that was popular during socialist protests in France in 1968-69, and First Nations artist Dana Claxton’s video has a strong environmental message, with an allusion to treks that were undertaken as part of Idle No More.

Other videos, like Jon Sasaki’s riff on lolcats and the self-help aphorism “Hang In There”, and Dominique Rey’s playful reference to a mythical German creature called an Erlking that menaces children in the woods, are relatively innocuous.

But when it comes to art, I suppose, you can never be too safe, although the hotels’ refusal to air the videos does raise a troubling question about who controls communication in the public realm. Yes, the billboards are on private property, but the messages they broadcast extend far beyond the boundaries of their property, so a broader public interest would seem to be at stake.

Thankfully, other sites were secured to display the offending videos, so when you’re out and about in the next seven weeks, keep an eye out. To find out the billboard locations, visit neutralground.sk.ca.

2013-06-27