Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Cutting Through the Clutter with Art

A welcome bit of news came recently with the announcement that the Public Art Project in Ferndale is getting back into action. The nonprofit organization manages the billboard space on the side of the building on Woodward Avenue at Maplehurst that houses Paul Kotula Projects and Lemberg Gallery. For nearly 20 years, the billboard has been a site for artists to engage the public sphere with their work. (Disclosure: I'm one of them, having had a billboard installed in 1997 under the auspices of the collaborative, culture industries inc.)

The renewed effort has been kicked off with gold code: Art (2010) by Vagner Mendonca Whitehead (image above). A Brazilian, the artist is based in Detroit and teaches new media at Oakland University. According to the artist's statement, gold code Art explores the interface between mass communication and art, cultural productions that were once considered diametrically opposed to one another. As if to foreground the residue of that opposition, the artist presents the word "art" spelled out on the one hand in American Sign Language (a visual form of communication for those who can't hear) and on the other Morse code (which is meant to be heard not seen). A third element is added at the bottom in the form of Braille, which is decoded by touch.

The various elements and the way they communicate or don't, depending on your ability to understand them, invokes what communications theorists call reception theory. Basically, the critics of the mass culture/high culture divide (which included Clement Greenberg, Dwight McDonald, and Harold Rosenberg in America and the Frankfurt School, most notably Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Europe) saw mass media as permeated with the power of encoding, primarily for the benefit of the ruling class. (The conventional understanding of the time was expressed in Harold Laswell's equation: "Who says what to whom in what channel to what effect?," which only acknowledged the production side.) From that perspective, art represented true culture, that which constituted respite from the ersatz swill of the dreaded "culture industry."

But reception theory, emerging as part of the postmodern turn in the 1970s, factored in a middle ground, negotiation, which allowed for another kind of human agency: the ability to redirect dominant communications toward one's own ends. (In literature this is known as "reader response.") This position has been used by popular culture scholars, like Dick Hebdige and Angela McRobbie, to explore how punks, for example, appropriated safety pins as jewelry and steel-toed work boots as fashion footwear. Another example would the hip-hop appropriations of preppy styles.

For Whitehead, the process of encoding and decoding is slippery, continually done and undone, illumination for some, mystery for others. Art is as much imbued with these characteristics as any other form of communication. No better, no worse (as much as some artists may hate to hear that).

According to Darlene Carroll of the Lemberg Gallery, the Public Art Project is accepting proposals for additional artist's billboards. A set of criteria for proposals has been developed in part to make sure they comply with City of Ferndale signage regulations and also to help ensure that artists have the capacity to actually complete the project. The group is also working on funding to repair the physical site and even pay stipends. (That would be good as my project cost $800 out-of-pocket and I used every one of my then suit-guy connections to bring it in as cheaply as I could.) The current installation is supported in part by a grant from the Ferndale Community Arts program.

The billboard has a great history. At least six Kresge Arts in Detroit fellows, Harmut Austen, Lynne Avadenka, Susan Goethel Campbell, Lynn Crawford, Ed Fraga, and me, have done one. It's been featured in Dennis Nawrocki's book Art in Detroit Public Places and the catalog for the MassMOCA exhibition, "Billboard: Art on the Road: 30 Years of Artists Billboards." Whitehead's addition is a good one. Here's to many more.

Vagner Mendonca Whitehead's gold code: Art will be on view at the Public Art Project, Woodward Avenue at Maplehurst in Ferndale until September. Call 248 591 6623 for information.


  1. Thank you, Vince. Nice to see a thoughtful analysis of Vagner's work.

  2. the creative energy is invigorating....