On ViewBillboard Project – through October
If art is to play a role in political change, the first step is to get it out of the galleries and into the streets. A great example was set by Postmodernist artists in the 1980s, such as Barbara Kruger, who borrowed aesthetic strategies from advertising and utilized public space to comment on the power structures embedded in mass media. These methods were later appropriated by AIDS activist artist collectives such as Gran Fury, who famously rented billboards and bus signs to expose the government’s failure to take action against the health crisis. Practices such as these have largely lain dormant since television and social media took over the discursive power that public space once held. The last few tumultuous months, however, have witnessed an increased return to public space for political activist art, and while it often doesn’t leave liberal enclaves, this impulse has slowly started to bleed into more conservative areas of the United States. Silky Shoemaker’s Billboard Project, a series of four graphically striking anti-Trump billboards installed in rural Pennsylvania, is one example.
In early July, Shoemaker woke up to three gunshots in the front yard of her hometown Winfield, Pennsylvania, where she had retreated earlier in the Spring to quarantine with family. The target of the gunshots was a sculpture of Ahmaud Arbery that Shoemaker had placed on the lawn in May, and which now lay scattered in pieces across the grass. Quarantining in rural Pennsylvania after spending many years in Oakland proved to be a poignant reminder for Shoemaker that the majority of this country does not live in the liberal bubble she had become accustomed to. Yet a trip to the farmer’s market, notoriously filled with Trump propaganda, offered a pleasant surprise. While wearing a self-made “Trump is a dumb bigot” shirt, Shoemaker noticed people who quietly expressed alliance, thanked her, or subtly winked at the sight of her t-shirt. It was this experience that impelled her to use her artistic practice to discourage locals from voting for Trump.
Cleverly choosing the highway as a site to reach people who would not otherwise seek out political art, Shoemaker designed a billboard that went up during the first week of August. Borrowing from 1980s political art in its straightforward juxtaposition of image and text, the billboard features a grainy closeup of the lower half of Donald Trump’s oddly orange face, with the mouth in its signature O-shape. Superimposed on the right side of the design is the following text: “CHAOTIC LEADERSHIP BAD FOR OUR: NATION ECONOMY COMMUNITY CHILDREN HEALTH.” This initial billboard proved very successful. Shoemaker received enough unsolicited donations in response that she was able to commit to three more designs. For the second billboard, which went up in September, a similar aesthetic strategy is applied: the same part of Trump’s face is again juxtaposed with text. This time, however, the president wears a clown’s nose, and a circus tent is depicted in the background. “ELECT A CLOWN, EXPECT A CIRCUS. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, VOTE 2020,” the billboard reads. The gritty aesthetic of these designs purposely avoids the sleekness and polish of advertising, a decision that seems crucial in addressing Shoemaker’s working-class audience. In the third billboard, which will be unveiled the first week of October, Shoemaker takes a different approach. Here, she shows off her training as a painter. A large mural depicts the country as a dumpster fire, with the heads and torsos of right-wing politicians sticking out of a trash bin abandoned in a back alley. The background is filled with graves of COVID-19 victims, while people in MAGA hats riot in the street and an ambulance waits in their vicinity. A mordant political satire, the vibrant mural calls to mind the long tradition of muralism used as a vehicle for political messages.
The billboards can be seen on a local commuter highway in Allenwood, PA—a location that Shoemaker chose carefully, as it is a road largely taken by employees of a nearby prison. Since the commencement of the project, several people have reached out to the artist asking for instructions on how to create their own billboards, and Shoemaker has kindly provided an illustrated guideline on her website. She was not alone in this endeavor to begin with, however, having recruited her entire family to help brainstorm billboard ideas. She was also supported in the graphic design and painting process by her brother Brick Shoemaker and her partner Samara Halperin. Amidst the general ennui that defines quarantine life for many, Shoemaker’s ability to engage her entire family in an anti-Trump art project testifies to both her creative drive and the rare wholesomeness of her project. While it is not yet finalized, Shoemaker reports that a fourth billboard planned for later in October will likely read: “NORMALIZING BIGOTRY HAS CONSEQUENCES. VOTE 2020.”