'Last Billboard' project shares ponderable messages
An East Liberty art installation is selling viewers on the idea that a billboard can be used for more than product placement.
“The Last Billboard,” a project of Pittsburgh artist Jon Rubin, sits atop the building at South Highland and Baum (above the Livermore). Each month, the 36-foot-long board broadcasts a new message, chosen by an artist Rubin selects from across the country.
“I like that it has an enigmatic presence in the city,” says Rubin of Point Breeze, who also teaches art at Carnegie Mellon University. “You can take what is said in many ways.”
Rubin ran the Waffle Shop on South Highland, a restaurant that doubled as a performance space with its own talk-show live-streamed online featuring restaurant patrons as guests. When the billboard space became available four years ago, Rubin asked the owner of the building if he could rent it to broadcast things talked about on the show. Rubin worked with fellow artist Pablo Garcia on the design.
Rubin later opened Conflict Kitchen, a restaurant that serves food from countries with which the United States has strained relationships. That venture has since moved to Oakland, and the Waffle Shop has closed. But Rubin wanted to keep the billboard and came up with a plan to keep its content engaging.
For more than a year, he's worked with artists from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles to display thought-provoking, eyebrow-raising or simply confusing messages each month. He changes the letters himself.
Messages must adhere to certain limitations. Rubin has only a certain number of each letter. The bill-board can accommodate 28 character spaces on each of its five lines.
Buzzfeed, a social news and entertainment website, posted a story about “The Last Billboard” on June 16. Since then, Rubin has been inundated with submissions from people all over the world, everything from personal messages to self-promotion.
“A lot of folks are looking for unconditional love,” he says. “There's a lot of self-help-type advice folks want up on the billboard. A lot seem to be emotionally lost.”
Adam Frelin, a New York-based artist originally from Grove City, used the billboard to propose a social experiment. His piece, called “Crier,” read: “Let's put loudspeakers on the roof of hospitals/Let's announce births and deaths as they occur.” The idea came to him during a trip to Brazil when a loudspeaker message could be heard throughout an entire village announcing the funeral of a resident.
“Very few moments in my life have I been reminded of birth and death; whereas, if you travel, there are lots of little moments when you're seeing life unfold in dramatic and pending ways,” he says. “We live in a really sanitized world where people dying is shuttered away.”
Frelin appreciates the project's wide reach yet simple construction.
“There's an elegance to the structure of Jon's project, that you can so efficiently make public someone's work,” he says.
Los Angeles artist Marc Horowitz was interested in using “The Last Billboard” to make a personal connection. Horowitz posted two things: a question mark and his phone number. Since the Buzzfeed article, which features photos of past boards, he's received at least 100 messages a day.
“It's been really funny, hilarious,” he says.
Some people simply text a question mark. But many others are looking for something more.
“I had a conversation with an eighth-grader about how broken our education system is,” Horowitz says. “Some have been really weird calls for life advice. One guy sent me pictures of himself doing heroin. I ended up consulting this guy on what he should do instead of doing heroin. Some are a little intense.”
This isn't the first time Horowitz put his personal contact out for public consumption. In 2005, he was working as a photo assistant for Crate and Barrel when he posted “Dinner w/Marc” and his phone number on a dry erase board that ended up being pictured in the company's catalog. Based on the response, he launched the National Dinner Tour and traveled the country meeting strangers for dinner.
“For (‘The Last Billboard'), this was just an inside joke for me,” he says. “I thought, ‘Let's just see what happens.' ”
Lenka Clayton of Polish Hill is the current billboard-featured artist. Her message, “Think about all the hours forgotten plays were rehearsed,” came from her personal interest in time and a note the busy mother of two emailed to herself one night for future pondering.
Clayton likes the idea of expressing a message with more staying power than a fleeting Tweet or Facebook post. She's helped Rubin change the billboard's letters and appreciates the effort involved.
“It's an incredibly old-fashioned mechanism,” she says. “The letters are really heavy. You have to go up a ladder. I really like the physicality of it. Then, looking up at it, it's so simple and direct.”