Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Smartening up the Skyline: Putting Art on Billboards

The urban landscape is a visual riot. Almost everything tends to catch your attention—the gleaming buildings that bristle in the horizon; the shanties with their motley of scraps huddling together; the vehicles that whiz by; the power lines that crisscross over everything; the signs that blink, blink, blink. But nothing catches the attention like billboards, the most effective outdoor advertising tool, because their sheer size and their visual content.
Some scholars believe that outdoor advertising began in ancient Egypt some 4000 years ago with stone obelisks used by merchants to promote goods. Billboards, which were basically large posters on the sides of buildings, began in the United States during the late 18th to early 19th century, when lithography made “real” posters possible, and spread as roads and highways increased. In the Philippines, billboards were first used to advertise movies with hand-painted posters much like today’s vanishing ones. It became the primary medium of advertising in the 1960s and experienced a kind of boom in the mid-1990s with the advent of digital technology, facilitating increased production and enhanced imagery.
Though lagging behind its Asian neighbors, the Philippines’ capital and largest urban center has a substantial number of billboards. According to Benjamin “Dondie” Bueno, chief operating officer of United Neon Lights and spokesperson for 2nd Media, the public affairs arm of Advertising Association of the Philippines (OAAP), there about 2,000 billboards in Metro Manila, mostly with the width of 40 feet and height of 60 feet or width of 30 and height of 50.
Like any other modern cities in the world, billboards have become part of the skyline.
“It’s a daily visual experience,” said artist Tina Fernandez. “People see the same things again and again they don’t look anymore.”
Every now and then, billboards gather attention when a new interesting one is unveiled or a celebrity is featured like the billboards of the local clothing company Bench, which is often used by celebrities as launch pad for a sexier image. Otherwise, billboards have become like paper litter on gray and gleaming grass, usually ignored and, if noticed, usually in the bad light.
There is the concern about road safety. Billboards have been accused of distracting motorists and causing accidents, but it was found to be not true. In 2007, the super typhoon Milenyo toppled many billboards, prompting the government to take notice about their safety. But mainly billboards are associated with the problem of visual clutter.
Architect and heritage conservationist Augusto Villalon once lashed out against outdoor advertising in a newspaper, “how advertising debases our vistas.”
“Ads are everywhere, totally trashing our visual landscape,” he wrote, and further told how one once enjoyed driving through Edsa with a vista, crossing the Pasig at Guadalupe that “was a visual exclamation point where you could look at the water that stretched from Manila Bay to Laguna de Bay.”
He lamented, “Gone is the visual impact of the Pasig as Manila's historic life-giving waterway, even if the choked river has a difficult time surviving these days. Gone, too, is the soothing visual panorama of the adobe Makati-Mandaluyong bluffs, signifying that nearby the highest quality adobe was quarried for building purposes.”
“Nobody did anything to stop its mad proliferation that has blindfolded the unsuspecting eyes of today’s Pinoys who now accept visual pollution as a fact of their modern consciousness. That is sad,” Villalon said.
Haphazardly built and with a dearth of public art, the urban sprawl of Metro Manila has become generally unsightly and frequently chaotic, badly needing beautification. For better or worse, billboards are part of it.
Some feel that billboards can be vehicle for beautification and a little advocacy. Thus, the Manila Outdoor Gallery Art Route was created by 2nd Media of OAAP. Unveiled on October 16, 2008, and run for three weeks, the project reproduced visual artworks on billboards along North Luzon Expressway and Edsa on the Quezon City area, northern part of Metro Manila.
“This will herald a new era for billboards because it has debunked all existing negative perceptions about billboards and the industry,” enthused Frank Abueva, president of the OAAP.
The OAAP has been a forerunner in outdoor advertising in the country. In the advent of outdoor advertising in the Philippines, OAAP was formed, in August 13, 1963, “to promote growth of outdoor advertising by establishing its own code of ethics and guidelines that underscored the different facets of the industry including public safety and well-being and environmental aesthetics.”
From the 15 founding members that made up of its first aggrupation—Acme Neon Lights, Advertising Associates, Hi-Art Reproduction, House of Racor, Luzon Advertising, Manalang Advertising, Manila Neon Lights, Martin Outdoor, M.J. Gonzales and Associates, Modern Advertising, Outdoor Advertising of the Philippines, R. Lunod and Associates, Sierra Neon, United Neon Lights, Universal Sales Promotions—OAAP now has 89 active members all over the Philippines, 63 in Metro Manila, 11 in Cebu City and 15 in the newly-formed Mindanao chapter. Its members have about 160 billboards scattered over Metro Manila.
Priding itself as the self-regulatory body for outdoor advertising practitioners and becoming “instrumental in the industry’s efforts to ensure the safety and integrity of billboards across the metro,” the organization is working with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and other government agencies on the current issue on billboards.
Now, they have embarked on Manila Outdoor Gallery Art Route, which has been dubbed the biggest outdoor gallery in Asia and the change that the billboard industry has been waiting for.
“Art throughout history has always inspired change by always going beyond the frame,” Bueno said. “And together with the OAAP, we aim for the Manila Outdoor Gallery Art Route to be a catalyst for change in the metro by pushing the boundaries of what billboards can be.”
Bueno admitted that the project is “different the way we do business,” and that its primary aim is to “change the perception of billboards” and “evolve the use of billboards”— “that billboards can be used for advocacy other than advertising.”
Several advertisers, who have long used billboards for their products, are excited about the idea. “It's a very interesting idea, probably the first of its kind. As a company that's also very active in promoting social awareness, like in this one saving the environment, this is definitely something that we support and commend,” said Suyen Lim, brand manager for Human.
The most noticeable impact is the breaking the visual monotony and inured-ness.
“People are not used to seeing paintings on a billboard. This momentarily takes them out of their daily grind and they start to notice. Can you imagine a better way to drive your message across than to evoke reactions from passersby?” said Bueno.
Fernandez of the gallery ArtInformal, who together with artist Christina Quisumbing Ramilo served as curator for the project, mentioned about people getting used to billboard that they ignored them altogether. She also said that the images on the billboards are the same—beautiful men and women. What was lacking was the imagery of nature.
Thus, the theme of the artworks chosen for the project was an environmental one. Not only are they breaking the usual notion of billboards by putting art instead of ads, they are also sending messages across.
When Fernandez got a call from OAAP about the project, she admitted that she and her artist friends were shocked. They soon sat together and chose a theme on the environment. Fernandez summoned 10 artists, mostly friends, to contribute for the project, and gathered about 20 paintings and photographs.
The featured artists were emerging ones. Bueno admitted that they started with up-and-coming artists because they were intimated by big-name artists who may charge them high. That fear though turned something positive with the idea of highlighting emerging talents.
The artists were Popo San Pascual, Riel Hilario, Eddie Boy Escudero, Jose Terence Ruiz, Mario V. Fernandez, Gari Buenavista, MM Yu, Christina Quisumbing Ramilo, Lotsu Manes and Tina Fernandez herself.
San Pascual’s Mating Call is a celadon-blue entanglement of vegetation and flowers with a monkey hidden in it, looking like abstract from afar or a pattern for a skirt. Escudero’s photograph Rice Terraces to Heaven depicts a lush part of the Ifugao rice terraces with a row of unfinished houses. Hilario’s somber Eternal Return has a tree with falling leaves and birds with human faces. Ruiz’s You Are What You BrEAThe looks like a ad itself with the title printed on the work an human figure showing his lungs. Mario V. Hernandez’s Hayup Ka portrays an Eden-like menagerie. Buenavista’s photo Best Things shows a boy bathing in a small creek with the words The best things in life are not always things. Yu’s photo Red shows a fire hydrant in a sea of grass. Ramilo’s “Mag Resiklo” Daang Bakal shows a collection of recycled things. Fernandez and Ramilo’s Hingang Malalim is a realistic rendition of clouds. Manes’s Hangin shows a child pumping air into a deflated globe.
It is still uncertain what the impact of the project will be, if it will really change people’s notion of billboards and if it will draw motorists to art.
“We want these paintings and photographs on billboards to enrich and entertain people. We want them to engage in discussions about the artwork they saw at Cubao or how they liked the one in Ortigas better,” Bueno said.
The problem lies in time though. Driving through a busy highway, the motorists can only afford a cursory glance and not contemplation as when inside a gallery or museum. But organizers were initially hoping for breaking the humdrum-ness of scenery and debunking usual notions of billboards, maybe to jolting people into seeing and observing their surroundings. For Fernandez, it is okay and she is happy if it only affects one person. She also hoped that project will beautify the skyline and the artists will benefit from it financially.
Many questions and eyebrows will be raised. That realistic painting about clouds: why look at it when you can look at the clouds themselves. Another painting perhaps should be selected. Many will still assert that the way to beautify a city is to eradicate billboards altogether. That point will be well taken. Still, billboards are part of our landscape and are powerful tools for communication and meanwhile they can be harnessed for better or worse.

To see more of the art works and the images available for sale, visit www.outdoorartgallery.com.ph.
Published in The Daily Tribune, November 7, 2008, page 12.

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