Brooklyn streets had a whole lot of blank white space on Sunday. Big rectangles of white were staring at people on Bedford Avenue as the sidewalks filled with locals and vendors.
The sparkling noon-time sun felt a little eerie as bed-headed late-night revelers and smartly dressed church-goers poured out to the street to see that the advertising billboards were bare.
Both the heavily sprayed set-n-teased church ladies and the brightly hued Rayban wearing hipsters turned and looked at the openness, not quite registering what looked strange. They tried to remember what was there before, and walked on. One of the new professionals clutched a coffee mug and made harried phone calls.
Of course it was only a short time before those ghosted quadrilaterals began to look like canvasses to enterprising artists and by late afternoon the normally buzzing neighborhood was augmented by speedily created art on the billboards. Artists and their friends looked a little nervous and very pleased as they completed the takeover of illegal advertising spaces all over the once-bohemian territory.
The billboards are considered illegal because they are placed on walls without permission of the City agencies that regulate outdoor advertisements in New York, according to the Public Ad Campaign and a growing number of community and arts groups who are drawing attention to it. According to the criticisms leveled at OOH (Out Of Home) advertisers, the process for controlling the quantity and location of these advertising messages is almost completely without civic voice, and the penalties, if any, are so nominal that they are considered part of overhead expenses for the companies. In short, goes the argument, the voice of the people is being drowned out by money.
In fact, the evidence of advertisers deep pockets may be revealed in the expeditious re-postering that took place within hours, sometimes minutes, of the billboards city-wide on Sunday. Various news accounts report about 100 (of an estimated 5,000) billboards were converted by volunteers and quickly re-claimed by advertisers, and that 5 arrests were made for unspecified violations. We didn’t see that kind of action in this neighborhood at all.
As recently as Monday night however, one set of billboards in Williamsburg were yet to be re-postered. Ironically the artist message on the signs were predictive – multicolored letters comprised of commercial paint chips spelling out the words, “Here Today” and “Gone Tomorrow”.
Aside from the legal, ethical, and aesthetic aspects of the events, the feeling on the street was pretty much “business as usual” with the additional feature of live art performance on a Sunday afternoon. We spoiled New Yorkers are feted to live street performance on a pretty regular basis, whether it is musicians in the subway, break dancers in the park, or newly minted street artists laboring on a big blank billboard.
As is the absolute norm today, many pictures were taken by pedestrians with a myriad of personal electronic devices, and many artists were engaged briefly by questions and compliments.
While trouble was reported elsewhere in the city with conflict between artists and the poster company employees, this little nook of Brooklyn known for a vibrant artist community had only one reported inquiry from two passing police officers. According to the artist, luck was on his side as the officers expressed appreciation for his work and continued down the street.
Kenny Aquiles, a performance artist by profession, blocked out in yellow a large portion of the billboard with a canary yellow paint, articulating a silhouette of a cityscape of some sort across the top. Then with large tipped black marker in hand he rapidly printed sentences from canvas edge to edge, a wandering rant about grilled cheese sandwiches interrupted only by a him sprinting back to the other end of the billboard to continue.
BSA walked by after the first sentence and a half were complete and while he raced back and forth writing, trying not to fall down the steps, we immediately thought of those game shows where contestants race through a grocery store to win prizes. Well located, Kenny was performing on the high-profile stage of the Bedford and North 7th subway entrance, with a steady stream of subway riders washing up and down the stairway behind him, sometimes stopping to take photos or discuss with other audience members gathered. Most people just watched to see what the story he was writing would turn out to be.
After he was finished we asked him some questions to better understand what was going on.
Brooklyn Street Art: It looks like you are a more traditional writer, rather than a graffiti “writer”. Can you talk about what you usually do to make art?
Kenny: I like to make stories about things I like. I know that may not be the most profound artist statement, but I try to not to make writing/art that revolves around snark and sarcasm. Most of my current work on the writing end is just writing over-drawn essays on things that made me feel safe on Saturday mornings as a child. Like cartoons, chocolate milk, and grilled cheese.
Brooklyn Street Art: What is this text about, and what inspired it?
Kenny: Well, the topic of this particular story was grilled cheese sandwiches. I had already written a short story revolving around grilled cheese, but recent events like my failed attempt to eat 20 in one sitting and my on-the-fly decision to buy bright yellow paint made me want to improvise something. It was just a lot more fun.
Brooklyn Street Art: As you were creating this piece, it looked like a stream of consciousness, occasionally interrupted by street noise and running from one end of the mural to the other.
Kenny: I studied ‘Improv’ for a few years and I also do a lot of performance art where fluid monologues are essential. The limited space (17 feet wide by 8 feet long), people gathering as they exit the subway station, the occasional person yelling “what are you doing, Mister ?,” and of course the fear of being arrested (I don’t look good in cuffs), put me in a very different writing state than usual. Usually I’m hanging at a coffee shop typing on my laptop, which is a different vibe.
Brooklyn Street Art: What interested you in being involved with this project?
Kenny: I’m usually highly skeptical towards activists etc, but this project has a personal stake, that being the city I live in and love. I’m by no means an ‘adbuster’ or anti-capitalist leftist. I actually work within the advertising world and here’s a secret – a lot of higher profile people involved in this project do too. I’m no spokesperson for NYSAT, but I do know what the NPA (the advertising company) do is illegal, and straight up ugly.
Brooklyn Street Art: What surprised you about this experience?
Kenny: I was half way done with my story, then two officers stopped to watch the small crowd that gathered. They eventually leaned in on the subway entrance and exclaimed “Excuse me sir, do you have a permit for what you’re doing ?” They asked me to step down from the ledge then asked me for identification. Turns out I got the one sympathetic officer who went to SVA. He simply told me to hurry up and enjoy the rest of my day. I wish I was making this up …
Brooklyn Street Art: Are you doing any interesting projects in the near future?
Kenny: My friend Jessee and I write experimental comedy shows and perform them the last Thursday of every month at Hugs on N6th street but on a street-level, probably not, since there aren’t that many wide open spaces where I can uninterruptedly scrawl 400 words.
This second “intervention” by the Public Ad Campaign may have had a small impact, if any, on the pedestrians on the street, as few interviewed were aware of what was happening or why. What makes the actions a hard sell for some is that the takeovers themselves may be considered “illegal”, even as their purpose is to draw attention to “illegal” business behavior. All things considered, this seems a pretty harmless stunt that aims to raise awareness through subsequent retelling of the story. What impact the Public Ad Campaign will have on the permitting process for outdoor advertising continues to unfold as more people weigh in the discussion.
For more about the Public Ad Campaign click HERE
For more about Kenny Aquiles click his website HERE