Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Billboards as Art

Inbound: Houston

Installation artist Karyn Olivier brings her space morphing work to Houston with INBOUND: HOUSTON, presented by The University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts. Billboards of images of what we would see if they were not there will line Houston freeways. Olivier, a former Glassell Core Fellow and now a professor of sculpture at Tyler School of Art, sat down to share her ideas behind the project. Inbound: Houston

29-95: Familiar objects, like chairs, tables and playground equipment, often factor into your installation work. How did billboards, another almost too-familiar object in our everyday world, end up your list of things to play with?

Karyn Olivier: I think it comes from the fact that I didn't come from the art world. I majored in psychology and then worked in business and retail. Fashion is a world full of props, almost like a still life. Coming to art late in life, I had to make sense of a world I didn't yet understand. When I moved here it seemed that Houston was all about billboards and sky. So billboards have this presence for me. While I was here I did a billboard project in a park as part of Project Row Houses.

29-95: Is it still up?

KO: The billboard is, but the photograph has changed, which was exactly the idea I had in mind when I did the piece.

29-95: Your work often involves a perceptual puzzle and this piece is no different, in that the work is both additive and subtractive.

KO: I am always trying to do something impossible in that I am trying to catch something that is a bit off and also right as the same time. Depending on how tall you are, the time of day, the image will match up differently. The billboards are both real and artifice.

29-95: How did you choose the time of day to take the photographs?

KO: I thought the morning commute would work best. It's a good time to awaken yourself.

29-95: I used to do the commute grind and arrive at work without any memory of how I got there. I can imagine drivers looking up and wondering, did I just see that?

KO: It will be an uncanny moment. It's a reminder that the sky should be there, but it's by no means an anti-billboard piece.

29-95: David A. Brown actually took the photographs that will be used for the billboards. How did your paths cross?

KO: He came so highly recommended and knew the city so well, he was a natural fit for the project.

29-95: How does your psychology background inform your work?

KO: Certainly in my focus on perception, what's assumed and what shifts. But also in a sense of nostalgia, a kind of pining for time where people can pause. I hope to make work that allows people to be present.

29-95: Did you actually have to buy billboard space?
Yes, I thought I could get it donated but that wasn't possible. But, due to the recession, they were about a third of the cost they would have been in 2005. I worked with CBS Outdoor in securing the billboard space because have an investment of the arts.

29-95: Who knew the recession could have an upside to artists? Logistically, the piece can't have been easy.

KO: That's why it took me so long to actually put it all together. I got the grant in 2005, but I needed to find partners and it just so happened to make a perfect fit for the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center.

29-95: I noticed most of the billboards are on I-59 and not I-45. What's wrong with I-45?

KO: It was too dense already with billboards so there was already too much visual stimulation. Also I was more familiar with 59. When I lived here, it was a road I traveled, and the billboards are more evenly spaced out.

29-95: There's also a music concert with original compositions by UH AURA Ensemble composers Joel Love and Paul Wadle, which also features a film by Grant MacManus. How does this fit into the project?

KO: I wanted to enlarge the event, and music can embellish an experience. Also, the film is shot at night, which will be very different.

29-95: What will happen when the show is over and we see ads back up on those billboards?

KO: It will be kind of poignant when it comes down. I know people are going to miss it, that's often thread in my work.

The University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts Presents INBOUND: HOUSTON: A Public Arts Project by Karyn Olivier, on October 26-November 22, 2009. AURA Contemporary Ensemble will present a concert on Monday, November 16th at 7:30 PM at the Moores School of Music. Call 713-743-3313.

Reprinted from 29-95.com.