48SHEET transformed Birmingham into a urban gallery by using 100 billboards across the city to exhibit large scale art works by regional, national and international artists (the name 48SHEET refers to the format of a traditional billboard). Billboards serve to expose brands and advertising messages across the world to audiences who have no choice about whether they see them or not (we are told that ‘293 million people in 3,400 of the world’s largest cities see JC Decaux advertising structures every day’). These highly visible images are often deceptively sophisticated and are designed to provoke a very specific reaction; buy this product! 48SHEET redefined the reach of art and questioning the validity of corporate saturation by utlising these prominent public advertising platforms in a new way.
Amongst the artists and agencies who presented work, Raqs Media Collective from Delhi, MadeIn Company from Shanghai and Tidal Grace from Vancouver, was Birmingham’s own urban media outfit Redhawk Logistica with ‘Whatever youre doing now, dont’. This work is part of the ongoing series Message Boards and the photographs are of street interventions that took place around Greenwich Village, New York in March 2011. Intended to be seen as part of a wider series, another of the New York photographs ‘These Bad Days Must End’, was presented as a large scale paste-up in the Mailbox project space.
The work is a response to the diminishing opportunities for individual self expression in public spaces that are increasingly dominated by global branding. It is a demonstration that individuals can reclaim high street real estate from the mainstream marketing machines and can, in simple and playful ways, display their own messages. We use found texts that subtly question meaning, provoke fun and offer poetic moments. The actual phrases come from public information announcements, corporate hoardings, religious notices, literature, popular culture and general usage. We give them a new physical context and dress them in the language of the retail environment. The texts are deliberately dislocated from their origins and are offered up at face value for the casual observer to take away subliminally and digest at leisure.
Our street interventions have so far taken place in Birmingham (UK), Bradford (UK) and New York (USA) and we aim to continue infiltrating the data soup of our contemporary cities wherever we go. We re-present the documentation photographs as large scale paste-ups, giving them a second life in galleries and other public spaces. The life size paste-ups are usually presented in series, butting up against each other to provide a homogenous cityscape backdrop. Their scale give viewers the opportunity to scrutinize the details of our contemporary civic spaces and also to place themselves in these cityscapes, sometimes holding their own placards that they have made with us in workshops.
It was definitely worth seeing the 48SHEET billboards in real life, set in the context of a humming city and competing with the regular bombardment of corporate communications. There were some powerful and surprising images on display and the sheer volume of them was unprecedented, forcing one to question why it seems normal to put up with usual visual onslaught of advertising. The alternative could be so much more interesting and engaging for locals and visitors alike.
Getting these images out of the hallowed white wall galleries and onto the streets demonstrated that ‘the city as a work of art’ is not only possible, but infinitely preferable. How disappointing when the billboards sites resumed their usual role of promoting shiny haired models selling shampoo, expensive cars with the latest gadgets and yet more fast food. 48SHEET ran between 2nd – 29th April 2012 and you could visit all of the billboards by following an online map that detailed cycling & walking routes. There was also a programme of free events by featured artists at the Mailbox 48SHEET project space, including artists talks and workshops, with more details about all the artists who took part on the 48SHEET website.