The function of all billboards is to insert subliminal messages into liminal spaces. From Barbara Kruger and before, to Pussy Riot and after, artists have long made disturbances in the field of commerce, substituting social messages for advertising ones by commandeering billboards, creating a momentary disruption in our passive consumption of capitalist imagery. Whilst a widening of the usual art audience is inevitably a consequence of this strategy, the kind of ‘access’ that such initiatives provide is necessarily diluted – an artwork, or an image of an artwork, seen from the street, mid errand, or from a car, mid traffic jam, is likely to be more fleeting than the experience of viewing it in a space designed for contemplation. It can still be an encounter with affect though.
Dave Beech, writing in 2009 on the failings of public art, asserted that, “the public is not to be found on the street, in town squares, in shopping malls or on traffic islands; it is the performative activity that fills these places with public life”. His position is that: “the public sphere is not public because of its spaces, but because of its activities”, and so, “there is no such thing as public space, only communicative exchanges of opinion that transform individuals into a public”. An effective public art would thus involve critical thinking about the public as a concept rather than as a body of people, and would engage with the complexity and difficulties of the erosion and fragmentation of public life in contemporary capitalist society. As Beech puts it, “the only hope for art in the public sphere lies with the very forces that have been challenging public art for so long”.
At its best the Marsh Lane billboard project embraced such a critique, engaging cryptically rather than simplistically with social ideas and how they might be constructed as ambivalently provocative messages, whether through words or images. The digital photographic montage by Sophie Chapman and Kerri Jefferis, for example, combining the glittering debris of a lesbian wedding on the floor of a working men’s club with a corner of a poorly maintained and vandalised playground, uses a marginal site to visually and conceptually amplify multiple layers of differentiated marginalisation within a marginalised community, on a site that is itself marginal.