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SOMEWHERE ON INTERSTATE 70, Missouri — Those who spend a lot of time on I-70 can confirm that it’s easy to let your mind drift while driving this 250-mile stretch of Missouri. The land is flat and the highway mostly straight. A shuttered factory outlet mall here, a cow there.
Perhaps the only escape from the monotony, at least for less frequent commuters, are the billboards. They tower over the edges of the highway, brightly standing out against the landscape, no matter the season. Missouri, where laws governing billboard use are lax, has five times the national average number of such signs: about 15,000 billboards. Cars, food, porn, Jesus — everything is advertised on the giant structures. Just take the next exit.
But even the billboards begin to fade into the realm of the predictable. They can become background noise. But that is what captivated Anne Thompson, an art professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia (Exit 128).
She said we live in the era of social media, largely able to choose the messages we want to hear. Even on television, gadgets like TiVo allow viewers to filter out ads.
But not on I-70. “A billboard starts to look like the radical last stand of free speech,” Thompson said. “It’s the only place you see speech or opinions that don’t necessarily fit your values.”
And thus the “I-70 Sign Show” was born. Funded by the University of Missouri and curated by Thompson, the show displays critical art pieces on a billboard near Hatton, (Exit 144). The pieces are meant to challenge and critique the political, social and commercial noise that confronts drivers.
The piece “Plow Pose,” by Los Angeles artist Karl Haendel, shows a man in a yoga pose, largely confined to the parameters of the billboard. The piece, Thompson said, challenges the traditional definition of masculinity. Rural Missouri is football country, after all.
“Usually when you see sports on a billboard here, you see football or basketball,” Thompson said. “You never see a person doing yoga, and you especially never see a man doing yoga.”
Haendel, who visited Missouri in late February to see the landscape, found the new audience exciting.
“For me to do another show in New York City — I have to do that for my career. To me, it may not be that exciting,” he said. “I know that audience. They see a lot of art. They’re a bit jaded.”
He added, “I’ve never done anything in I-70, in the middle of the country. It’s a totally different audience, and to me that’s exciting.”
Pieces are first displayed on the exhibit’s permanent billboard near Hatton — next to a strip club advertisement — for two months and then are moved. The second location depends on billboard availability.
“When it moves and it goes to another place, that context changes,” Thompson said.
Perhaps the most poignant example is New York–based artist Mickalene Thomas’ “A Moment’s Pleasure (Billboard).” The piece features two black women. After its two-month stint near Hatton, the piece was moved to St. Louis, approximately 5 miles from where black teenager Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson (Exit 245B).
“When it moved to Ferguson, the potential meaning changed,” Thompson said. “It was still about feminist politics but moved to race politics.”
“The two women, with their solid poses and dignified expressions became like sentinels,” the show’s website reads. “Marking and watching over a scene of national pain and conflict.”
One of the more popular pieces is Kay Rosen’s “Blurred,” which challenges Missouri’s political divides. Three of the letters in the word “blurred” are blue, three are red, and the middle one is purple.
The work’s second location, in Warrenton (Exit 193) was next to a patriotic-themed Monsanto billboard and a stone’s throw from a housing project.
“Missouri has so many billboards, and it’s known for the level of divisiveness,” Thompson said. “It seems like the perfect place to have this project.”
“It’s not about a critique but changing up the normal way an image functions,” Haendel said. “I don’t want to feed people more of the same, and since I understand how to use images to produce different meanings, I like to try and mix it up. It’s not meant to say that … strip clubs are wrong or images of strippers are wrong. I’m all about democracy on the billboards.”
‘Missouri has so many billboards, and it’s known for the level of divisiveness. It seems like the perfect place to have this project.’
art professor, University of Missouri
Earlier this month, Thompson was awarded a fellowship at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, allowing the project to carry on through the upcoming political season.
Mike McKean, a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism who helped secure funding for the project, hopes that the “I-70 Sign Show” could turn up some interesting connections between journalism and art.
“The concept was just so interesting and intriguing to me,” he said. “She was thinking about how there might be some more explicit connections between that and the upcoming political season.”
There are already political campaign billboards appearing along I-70. Missouri’s abundance of billboards, combined with its history as a swing state, is fertile ground for political advertising.
But the “I-70 Sign Show” piece that got the most feedback, Thompson said, may offer a look into how Missourians really see the billboards. New York artist Mel Bochner’s piece is almost a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the presence of the billboards.
“That’s the one that people really reacted to,” she said. “It’s as if the billboard was talking about itself.”