A 35-year-old tile grouter was standing in front of a 14 feet by 20 feet plant that germinated and was taking root, growing over Route 15 in Richmond, Va. 65,000 people drove by the growing flora. Some pulled over. Others stared while sitting in traffic. And even more didn't notice that their highway was being overtaken by this digitally-enhanced giant of a plant. What did all of these passers-by think of the 14 feet high plant? Was it normal for this to be there against the freeway bypass? Did the 14 feet plant belong here?
These are the questions and hypothetical conversations that propelled the tile grouter to plant the digital fauna in the LED dirt of a 14-by-20 billboard.
His name is David Morrison. He's the instigator, you could say, of the Billboard Art Project, an idea that occurred to him while he was stuck in rush-hour traffic en route to one of his number of mundane jobs at the time. He was selling cars and he hated it.
"I have had jobs from teaching, to running a tile restoration company, to helping a friend open up a taxidermy business; (it's really fascinating actually) to working as a consultant -- always traveling and taking things in."
One of those times when he was taking in his surroundings was five years ago. While sitting in traffic he noticed a billboard that was running test images for different wallpaper treatments of the new Windows PC.
"I was used to tuning [billboards] out as a piece of advertisement -- it was just visual white noise to me, but when there were pictures, there was something so disarming about the images," he says.
He saw something in the sequential changing of the billboard that he believes spoke to him "generationally."
"To be driving to a job I didn't like, yet to think of something that was totally contextually out of place was refreshing. And I thought I would love to do that for other people. That idea sat and ruminated for a while."
Like the digital fauna, his billboard art idea took time to take root and grow – four years to be exact.
Like many artistic endeavors, it got pushed to the side while Morrison became mired in the daily task of paying bills by starting a company called Grout RX. Almost unintentionally, he recites the tag line, "Prescription for all your ground and tile needs." It specializes in tile repair, restoration and re-grouting. Interestingly, the tile business became the proud financier of the art project when it was time for its fruition. He admits it's "sort of a strange brew. Never would've imagined it."
Since starting Grout RX, Morrison had been tucking money away into savings. And after four years, with no wife, kids or financial obligations to anyone but his two dogs, he realized he had the freedom to indulge in the social experiment that had been sitting in his mind.
The experiment would be to engage 64,000 otherwise deadened minds numbed by stop-and-go traffic, and incite their sites to see and experience a thought process unique to all others witnessing the 14-by-20 artwork. It would only cost him $1,800. His response?
"What a deal!"
"For me, being able to put this together, watch it change, meet the people is thoroughly rewarding," he says, despite the end price tag of up to $5,750 for renting the billboard space.
The first show was in October 2010.
"I had talked to Stewart [his PR rep] who took awhile to get back to me. I had to write a letter explaining what I was doing. All the sales execs and sales manager were like, 'Why?' They really couldn't understand it. Stewart probably regurgitated my idea a thousand times saying, 'He basically wants to put up pretty pictures of people.'"
While an advertisement is based on the principle of repetition to drill a product or message into the consumer's mind, Morrison wanted to take the complete opposite approach with the artworks that were to be displayed in this space normally used for advertisement. He wanted the art to be fleeting, so that it'll sit at the perimeter of the consumer's mind.
There's a "flashmob quality" to the art that Morrison particularly enjoys. "A lot of people will miss it but to a certain extent, well that's what it is. Sort of like life experiences that if you're not paying attention, you're not privy to it."
The images would change every 10 seconds, so there has to be enough images to take up a full eight hours without repetition. The math comes out to six images per minute, 360 images per hour to come to a total of 2,880 different pieces of art for an 8-hour cycle that gets repeated in a 24-hour slot.
The idea would be, "Here it is. There it goes. No publicity. Just a purely social experiment on a level that would have no value outside of the minds of the viewers that took it in."
Word soon got around and he had artists submitting work from Belgium, India, and Italy. From graffiti to impressionist paintings, the different artwork displayed on the billboards – all portrayed through the digital medium of LED lights – vary widely with no thematic tie between them. The pieces experimented with the unique scenery and location of the art space, along with the changing parameters of the images' sequential progression.
Due to the art's highly isolated experience, the "success" is difficult to ascertain – the part of the project that Morrison finds most intriguing. "There are romantic qualities to it in the idea that there are experiences of people passing in cars that I will absolutely never hear about," he says.
After the first billboard in Richmond, Morrison did one in Nashville, Tenn. Then another in Savannah, Ga. across from a Walmart.
"One of the beauties of putting these in different places is that you're able to take art out of the white cube and put it in front of people that aren't expecting it, like in an isolated parking lot in Missouri. It might not get that much traffic but it creates a diverse experience, unique to the individual, the town, the road," he says.
"There's something very American about this project in the sense that billboards are synonymous with road, highway, adventure, and are culturally historic centric to our country's 20th century. We developed around roads. Roads have been the center. Ironically they might be of an undoing for us. And these billboards, like the roads, take the art and the viewers to different places through the artwork," says Morrison.
For 2012, he plans to take the Billboard Art Project on a road trip across the country to Chicago, Ill., Reading in Pa, and even the sleepy valley of San Bernardino in California.
"I keep doing this and it keeps getting more interesting with more facets. Like a Christopher Nolan movie – I can watch it again and again."
So why not jump on the Interstate and take a drive – not to get to a destination, but as a destination?
For the Billboard Art Project schedule, visit the website at billboardartproject.com.