Felix Gonzalez-Torres' Billboards
Artpace, San Antonio
Closed December 31, 2010
by Leslie Moody Castro, Noah Simblist, and Andy Campbell
In conjunction with the organization’s fifteenth anniversary, Artpace San Antonio organized a Texas-wide exhibition of thirteen billboards created by artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres between 1989 and 1995. Developed with special permission from the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, this presentation was the first-ever comprehensive survey of Gonzalez-Torres' billboard works in the United States. The billboards were on view throughout 2010 in various locations in the cities of Dallas, El Paso, Houston and San Antonio. Major underwriting for this Billboard Exhibition was provided by the Linda Pace Foundation, with generous in-kind support from Clear Channel Outdoor.
During the run of the exhibition, Artpace also facilitated a series of conversations between Leslie Moody Castro, Andy Campbell and Noah Simblist. This material was originally meant to serve as an educational component to the exhibition, but has remained unpublished until now. We wish to thank Artpace San Antonio and education curator Alex Freeman for making this project a reality.
In the last issue of …mbg, we included two excerpts from this conversation about queer activism in the 1980s and how we might read Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ activist gestures today. In the second installment of this conversation, Moody Castro, Simblist and Campbell discuss the politics of display surrounding Gonzalez-Torres’ work.
How to Slum with Felix Gonzalez-Torres
Leslie Moody-Castro [LMC]: Let’s talk about the billboards’ context. Artpace didn’t choose the physical locations of the billboards in the cities. They are sort of arbitrary. So that adds something to problematize this exhibition, both in terms of its history as well as its physical location now.
Noah Simblist [NC]: But Clear Channel is choosing these sites for the billboards because there wasn’t much demand for advertising in those areas.
Andy Campbell [AC]: Right—they tend to be sites at the edge of suburbia, at the edge of industrial warehouses. So they’re low-traffic sites; they’re not places where lots of people will see them. It doesn’t mean that no one will see them, just that a very specific set of people will see them, people who work in these industrial parts of the city.
LMC: "Untitled" (The New Plan), 1991, the billboard with the image of denim, is located very close to the site of a former Levi’s Factory here in San Antonio that shut down about fifteen years ago. That event was the catalyst for the formation of the non-profit activist group Fuerza Unida. In short, when the factory shut down in the ‘90s, all the female seamstresses, who were mostly Mexican immigrants, were laid off without compensation of any kind—no severance pay, nothing. In response, they formed this activist group that is meant to empower women and families through education and advocacy.
NS: What’s interesting about the economic factors is that the billboards end up being located in “marginal” sites, which keeps these billboards at a distance as a kind of marginalized activism. They’re sited in a way that is not normalized, and the ideas that Felix Gonzalez-Torres is talking about are not normalized. Maybe it’s not an explicit choice on the part of Artpace or Clear Channel to say, “Let’s put this difficult and tricky politics off to the margin...”
AC: But it just stays relegated to that place, yes.
NS: Maybe it speaks to the political moment now. There is a less explicit kind of marginalization, but it becomes implicit through other political forces.
AC: We can talk about the billboard images, the physical images that are on there, and how they fit into Gonzalez-Torres’s body of work. But we would be fools to not engage with Clear Channel and these other issues. Even if it is marginalized through economic disparity, it’s still marginalized. Why and how does that happen? Is that transparent, and is that marginalization something that is acceptable and accepted? I think it’s good that the billboards are still bringing up these issues, but it also makes me wonder about the art crowd and whether they’re going to “slum it” and go find the billboards. I mean, they are going on bus tours, which is a different kind of enactment of power and privilege and economic disparity.
NS: I know from living in some grungier parts of Dallas that Clear Channel is very specific about the way that they choose the kinds of advertisements that they direct at particular neighborhoods. For instance, where I lived it was mostly advertising for alcohol or gentlemen’s clubs.
LMC: The same thing is happening in San Antonio. One billboard is located in the parking lot of a neighborhood taqueria, and right next to it is another billboard advertising the World Cup in Spanish. San Antonio has a really interesting type of urbanism. At times I forget where I am; I walk down the street and turn a corner and forget that I am in the U.S. altogether.
NS: When you think about art and activism and ephemeral work, you think of work that engages these issues as being so specific to a given time. One would think that it can’t be reproduced in another time and place, but the billboard projects, just like the takeaway pieces, can be easily reproduced. As much as they’re ephemeral – these billboards will only be up for a few weeks in a given site – the image is still archived and can be reproduced in another context ad infinitum. But does this change the meaning of the work in each of these new contexts? What would it mean to do this project in Cuba?
Viewers and Institutions: How the Work Lives On
LMC: Let’s move on to the intimate and private life and talk about Gonzalez-Torres’ relationship with Ross, and the relationship of Felix Gonzalez-Torres as the author with the viewer.
NS: He had said that he thought Ross was his main viewer.
AC: I think that was a really savvy political move, to force everyone who’s looking at his work to actually consider this person Ross Laycock, whom they actually might not know or otherwise consider. Everybody who writes about Felix Gonzalez-Torres knows who Ross Laycock is, and in this way he actually succeeded in memorializing and keeping Ross around, even if only in museum labels.
NS: When you see a strategy like the billboards, using public spaces like the way Group Material did, you can think of him engaging activist strategies rather than just being a solo artist and making discrete art objects.
AC: I actually think that the whole “Death of the Author” thing could be taken even further. I feel like it’s apparent in the billboards, but it could be pushed more by institutions. I can imagine an exhibition of pieces of paper from all of his stacks, but just pieces of paper, not the stacks themselves...
NS: Just individual sheets?
AC: Yes, just an individual one pinned to the wall, and that being a retrospective of some kind. But at this point, his foundation and other entities would never allow that to happen. So I think that, yes, we’re dealing with a complicated notion of authorship, but these billboards are still buyable and they are work by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
NS: There’s certainly the foundation, but collectors of his work, both individuals and institutions like museums that own specific pieces, also claim a certain authorship. Take the foundation, for example: they’re agreeing or not agreeing to do certain things with the work because of their notions of his intentions.
AC: Here’s an example: an unnamed museum at a small liberal arts college had in their collection a sheet, which was accessioned as part of a larger donated collection. But one of the objects in this collection was a sheet from “Untitled” (Death By Gun), 1990. And they didn’t know what to do—it was a big deal and they had meetings about it because it was entered as a Felix Gonzalez-Torres work, but it wasn’t the stack work. That work is owned by MoMA, so they were actually in the process of de-accessioning this unlimited multiple.
I thought it was such a great moment of self-doubt and reflection for an institution. I can imagine a world where people can actually play with the definition of work a little more, and I don’t believe that rigidity is the artist’s intention. I think that the promise of play is there, but the actual delivery on that promise is not usually followed through with the work, sadly.
NS: Because you can imagine that they could make the choice to exhibit it, not as a work of art, but as ephemera, as something that does not hold value.
AC: Is it troublesome that these things are fine to be exhibited in houses and domestic spaces (even though I’m not sure that they really are), but that they’re not okay for museums to play with? If that is true, then the way that the work has evolved becomes much more problematic, because I think the political power evaporates a bit. I actually think it’s not as potent as it once was if it just becomes a beautiful image and only that.
LMC: I think what also makes it difficult is that the billboards are in neighborhoods where arts communities have not been integrated in the past, and it really forces us to do our research as well. What does the community center around? Where can we eat? What non-profits would be interested in this? To educate ourselves about the billboards is really difficult!
AC: It’s for a good reason, and I think it’s because arts institutions have not been interested in the activism.
AC: I think that conversation works both ways, and again, the double bind of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work is that it’s open, beautiful, and can be read politically, but if you follow the Felix Gonzalez-Torres line completely, you might end up in a really unpleasant place. Any work that’s overtly political can’t really make it, and there should be a place for overtly political work. So the fact that there’s not a lot of love between arts institutions and activist groups/geographies isn’t surprising because their work, their art, their visual culture isn’t as valuable as a billboard of birds in the sky.
NS: The difference between the AIDS activism that Group Material did and what Felix Gonzalez-Torres did was that Group Material was much more in your face and overt, and got in trouble as a result. The tricky part of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ work is that it can be misread as something that’s safer…
AC: … as something that’s more friendly.
NS: Exactly. But it shouldn’t be. I think we could be tempted to choose one methodology for activism, sort of the old Marxist argument, but ultimately what’s best is pluralism. I think a fantastic curatorial project would be to bring together different examples of activism that were happening at the same time, that were working with the same issues and that were engaging with the public space in some way. Such an exhibition would challenge the art world to engage in genuine political discourse without descending into what Tom Wolfe famously called “radical chic.” What happens when you’re having these big fundraisers with wealthy patrons who clink their champagne glasses and point to the beauty of Gonzalez-Torres’ images? They’re less likely to do that if the more difficult aspects of the work and their contradictions are more obvious.
AC: Absolutely, but that’s where we come in.
Leslie Moody Castro is the visitor services manager at Arthouse at the Jones Center, and a former graduate intern at Artpace San Antonio. She graduated with her Master's Degree from The University of Texas at Austin in 2010 in Museum Education, and worked at the Blanton Museum of Art while earning her graduate degree. Moody Castro has also curated exhibitions at Women and Their Work, Mexic-Arte Museum, and is a co-founder of Co-Lab, Austin.
Noah Simblist is an Associate Professor of Art at SMU and a PhD student in art history at the University of Texas, Austin. His most recent curatorial endeavor, the group exhibition Out of Place, is on view at Lora Reynolds Gallery in Austin through March 5.
Andy Campbell is a PhD student in the Department of Art History at the University of Texas in Austin. He is currently writing about gay and lesbian leather communities and visual cultures in the 1970s. He is co-curator of the group exhibition SUBstainability, which opens on January 20 at the Texas State University Gallery in San Marcos.