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‘This is exciting for artists’: is this project the future of billboards?

·5-min read

In 1967, Elektra Records took a risk by purchasing a large hand-painted billboard on West Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard to promote a new album by The Doors, an up-and-coming local band in residency at Whiskey a Go Go, a nearby nightclub. It would ignite a golden era of advertising on the 1.5-mile stretch known as Sunset Strip, where large-format signage advertised the latest releases to passersby. The area has been home to advertising art since the era of speakeasies and silent movies, and in 1991, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that the iconic 70ft-tall Marlboro Man sign was “a more enduring urban monument than almost any other building in Los Angeles”.

Related: To infinity and beyond: the spectacular sensory overload of Ryoji Ikeda’s art

Looking to revitalize and update this rich history of billboards for the 21st century, the city of West Hollywood approved the Sunset Arts & Advertising Program in April 2019, a set of new zoning regulations and innovative public-private partnerships that aim to integrate billboards, architecture, public art and entertainment while honoring the traditions and character of West Hollywood. The program will allow digital billboards – banned by some cities including nearby Santa Monica – on the Sunset Strip in exchange for a share of advertising revenue, which are more flexible than and can be as much as six times as lucrative as traditional billboard space. In return, property owners will give the city a minimum of 40% of the signage profits and will devote 17.5% of screen time to arts and public service programming. In addition to supporting the arts, the program is expected to generate $3m in annual revenue for the city’s general budget.

Sunset Spectacular, a 64ft-tall sculptural billboard at 8775 Sunset Boulevard is the pilot project for the program’s mission to move beyond simply placing artworks in a traditional billboard. “We shared a vision with the city to reinvent what the billboard could be,” said Pete Scantland, the CEO of Orange Barrel Media (OBM), a Columbus, Ohio–based media company that led the team for the project. “Sunset Spectacular signals a new path for both outdoor advertising and public art that is interactive, inhabitable, and programmed.”

Los Angeles–based Tom Wiscombe Architecture (TWA) designed the three-sided, full-motion digital media tower. The designers set out to rethink the typical “sign on a stick” format, opting instead for a sculptural volume built from 72 prefabricated stainless-steel components, some weighing up to 35,000lbs. “We wanted to create a depth in the architecture that contrasts with the flatness of the billboard,” said Tom Wiscombe, the principal of TWA. The building-sign combination clearly demonstrates the mission of the arts and advertising program to reimagine the billboard as an integrated part of architecture. An iconic car city, Los Angeles has a long legacy of roadside buildings – those that attract attention from the road by looking like large objects – from the Brown Derby and the Chili Bowl to Tail ‘o’ the Pup and Randy’s Donuts. The city did extensive traffic studies as part of the arts and advertising program to minimize risk of dangerous, distracted driving.

While Sunset Spectacular’s tower will undoubtedly catch the eye of drivers, it is meant to attract walkers, too. Wiscombe compares its vertical orientation to civic architecture such as clock towers or obelisks. “The project is outward-facing in terms of its faces and screens, but it also creates interior space for public engagement and gathering,” he noted. Reflecting changing attitudes about public space in Los Angeles, it is designed to be a destination for pedestrians, and the inside of the tower will be programmed with sound by artists. Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, who has a studio nearby, is composing a piece for an upcoming installation. Sunset Spectacular will be surrounded by a landscaped public plaza (to be finished later this summer) complete with benches, lighting and giant succulents. Artists will also be able to customize the plaza’s lights for events that could range from installations to pop-up live performances or live-feed broadcasts.

OBM, in collaboration with Los Angeles–based independent curator Diana Nawi, have launched the Arts on Sunset series on the tower’s two screens. Currently on view is the inaugural commission, Volatile Landscapes by The Propeller Group, which shows the afterlife of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam war. Nick Cave, Pippilotti Rist, Catherine Opie, and Cauleen Smith will follow this summer and fall. All are well-known for film, video, and photography as well as using commercial and advertising aesthetics to think about larger relevant issues. For Los Angeles–based Opie, it was the public reach and the context of West Hollywood that piqued her interest. “Sunset Strip has a long history of iconic images dotting the cityscape and many artists have had projects there. However, nothing on this scale!” she said. “I am excited to have my work interact so directly and immediately with the urban environment and to be part of that rich history.”

Because OBM owns the tower and has the city’s support, the curators will be able to focus on art rather than negotiating new billboards and going through red tape. “This is exciting for artists because we are creating something for a much larger audience – we’re really able to connect with a broad public,” Nawi said. “We are looking forward to collaborating with a range of artists and institutions who could benefit from the visibility of this platform.” It is estimated that 500,000 people will see the artworks each day.

In July 2020, the city of West Hollywood approved 21 additional projects in the arts and advertising program to be curated by the city and funded using money generated by the billboards. (Sunset Spectacular’s programming, however, is operated and curated by OBM.) Expected to take almost a decade to complete, this next wave includes digital and static signage, as well as new buildings, public space improvements, and historic preservation projects. Some of LA’s finest architects are participating, including Eric Owen Moss Architects, Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, Rios Clementi Hale, Office Untitled, and Hodgetts + Fung. Office Untitled’s Invisible Frame uses cameras and LEDs to project an image of the sky on to the sign’s frame so that it appears transparent. It is scheduled to be operational in July.

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