By Pia Singh
EXPO Chicago hosts “Override,” a public art project running the duration of the fair that subverts the commercial usage of digital billboards across the city, targeting the gaze of drivers, museum-goers and non-art audiences passing by at over thirty miles an hour.
Twenty-eight sites across the city will be activated through Chicago’s Digital Network, exhibiting work by over thirteen artists selected by a committee comprised of EXPO Chicago’s IN/SITU curator, Jacob Fabricius; artistic director Stephanie Cristello; exhibitor relations manager Alexis Brocchi; and director of public art Lydia Ross and director of visual art Daniel Schulman from DCASE, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. The committee chose to create a space for intergenerational conversations between international and local, established and up-and-coming artists. For Jacob, bringing younger Chicago artists in conversation with more established Northern European artists was an exciting prospect. Billboard takeovers are markedly an American tradition, with “tags” and graffiti often finding their way onto the advertisements. As the latest icon of site-specific public art projects, the billboard project has grown into a full-fledged, curated digital exhibition where one can’t help but question, what truly accounts for public art in Chicago?
Previously, artists were selected for the program by galleries participating in EXPO. This year, in creating a more generous curatorial call, the committee opened the application process to all artists, from the 135 galleries hosted at EXPO and to those without gallery representation.
“A lot of the program was solicited as we also wanted to host a dream team of artists that would make for a great thematic grouping, though there were some wonderful surprises in the open call,” Cristello says. With over fifty applications, “Override’” showcases thirteen artists whose work parse social issues such as identity, gender, art and craft, leading to an expanded exhibition in the city’s largest public space. In an attempt to increase the art fair’s visibility and make contemporary art more accessible, over two million people will encounter “Override” on their daily commute.
“Because of the way it’s experienced, the program functions on three levels for me. The first is, if you’re a stranger to the art world, you may see an image that is not an ad, and you may not know who the artist is or where they are from but, subconsciously, that image becomes a part of your visual culture,” Cristello says. “The second are those who are interested in knowing more about art and do not know the artist, where ‘Override’ can provide them with an opportunity to discover new artists through the work. The third are audiences who may be visiting town for the fair, who will immediately know or be able to recognize who the artist is for a particular artwork and be able to then draw connections to why the work was selected and how it is related to artists practice.”
It is not an exhibition in a conventional sense. With multiple billboards rotating images every half hour, it is fragmented, an exhibition in parts and moments that can be viewed in full by standing still or by passing by at different times of the day.
The tradition of the landscape-oriented, rectangular proportion of the billboard is turned on its head at one site. Here, a portrait-oriented billboard hosts the works of four selected artists who address feminist histories and themes of representation, specifically in the economies of art and craft, looking closely as what is traditionally read as women’s work. In past years, internationally recognized Chicago names have shown works on this coveted site. EXPO, hosted Theaster Gates’ Black Madonna project, from Fondazione Prada In 2018, working closely with Richard Gray Gallery to bring the body of work from Europe to Chicago. The year before that the portrait board showed the work of David Shrigley.
The tradition of appropriating signage and text is also one that runs the course of graphic design and graffiti history. Here, artist Kay Rosen uses text to secretly imply hidden political messages. But how does one read works like these? Are they advertising for the art world or are they advertising nothing but themselves? How does one begin to curate billboards keeping in mind the sensitivity of issues that may affect communities and neighborhoods surrounding these sites?
“There are a lot of unknowns that we can’t have any control over,” Cristello says. “All context becomes unpredictable, which is also part of the fun of the project, but it’s also made us think deeply about how we would like to create exhibitions in this form in the future.”
Even so, the curators admit that there may be those who do not register the works as art. Similarly, one wonders whether the presence of the billboard as a commercial structure in a cityscape momentarily transforms as the bearer of two-dimensional text and visual information to a three-dimensional form, or architecture, or public sculpture? What may be the biggest question is whether viewers take away any of the messaging situated in the contemporary art world outside of it, as there would never be any way of knowing what could have been transmitted.
In the democratization of the art world and its increasing efforts in community engagement, “Override” provides more questions than it does answers on the accessibility and role of contemporary art in everyday life. Images shared in a landscape of fast food restaurant signage, cable TV services and life insurance providers occupy a vast public space that serves as a reminder of the volatility of images, and the unpredictability of our desires from them. It also reminds us of the neverending potential of contemporary art to extend its arms up from the ground up to the vastness of the sky.
“Override” will be on display at billboards throughout the city, September 9-29.