Driving on the freeway, usually wanting to be someplace far from wherever we are at any given moment, we fixate on the speedometer, the exit signs, the lines in the road: proof that we are moving. In this liminal state, billboards become a sort of visual white noise or worse, a perceived assault that we try to deflect. Rarely do we appreciate or seek them out. A number of recent art projects, though, have repurposed these crass commercial expanses as spaces for beauty, provocation, and reflection, and none has done so more ambitiously than the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project by LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).
Conceived by the LA-based artist Zoe Crosher, who co-curated the project with LAND’s director, Shamim M. Momin, the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project is a coast-to-coast migration along the I-10 that kicked off in Jacksonville, Florida, in October 2013 and will culminate in Santa Monica, California, in late June. Divided into ten-billboard “chapters,” each featuring the work of a different contemporary artist, the project as a whole asks us to consider the history of territorial expansion and the mythical promise of the West. Looked at individually, each segment engages its host community in a totally unique way—be it Mario Ybarra Jr.’s insertion of images of East L.A. street culture into Mobile, Alabama; Sanford Biggers’s dialogue with New Orleans, most pointedly in an LED billboard across from the Superdome that reads, “Just Us”; Eve Fowler jolting the commuters of Houston with sensual, surreal Gertrude Stein phrases across vivid colorfields; or Daniel R. Small triggering a media frenzy when his faux-historic glyphs across Las Cruces, New Mexico, were interpreted as messages from ISIS. (In fact, they were derived from Cecil B. DeMille’s film of The Ten Commandments.)
Last month, drivers heading west between Indio and Beaumont, near Palm Springs, might have encountered Crosher’s LA-LIKE: Shangri-LA’d billboard series. For this, the penultimate chapter of the project, she asked the floral design company Hollyflora to create a wall of greenery and flowers representing their fantasy LA landscape. Then she photographed it over a month-long period as it died. In some instances, the differences are barely perceptible—a fern looks a little brown at the edges, or the hot pink bougainvillea has faded a shade—but then suddenly large leaves have collapsed and the colorful flora is gone.
Crosher is well aware that someone driving by the sequence of ten billboards at 70 miles an hour will see any of the images for only a “hot second,” if at all, but that also builds the imaginary dimension of the work. When that happens, she says, “it becomes about the conversation about the project.” The fact that her billboards went up the same day Governor Jerry Brown declared mandatory water restrictions across the state was a sheer coincidence that added a whole new, welcome layer of meaning.
Crosher likes these conceptual games of telephone and the details that get lost or found in translation. Her projects all walk a blurred line between fantasy, image, and reality—from Transgressing the Pacific (2008–10), a series of large-format photographs of notorious drowning sites along the Pacific coast, to her latest endeavors, Prospecting Palm Fronds (2014–15), which involves the bronzing and cataloging of specimens, and the Fools Gold Dust (Mimic) Paintings (2014–15), which use crushed pyrite on canvas. All of these are part of the larger LA-LIKE body of work.
The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project idea was born during a period from 2008 to 2010, when Crosher was making regular trips between Los Angeles and Tempe, Arizona, to visit her now-husband who was in school there. At the time, she was reading Joan Didion’s historic California memoir, Where I Was From, and as Crosher remembers it, at a certain point during the return drive, deep in the desert, “there would be this feeling of being so displaced when I passed that California border: Where is LA? Where is that Promised Land?” During one drive a vision came to her—a mirage, really—of a green Shangri-La glowing in the midst of a sea of brown: the first seed.
As part of her “activation” of the billboard sequence near Palm Springs, Crosher partnered with the Palm Springs Art Museum on Expanded LA-Like: The Actual Shangri-LA’d Disappearing Wall—a third iteration of the Shangri-LA’d wall, installed at the museum—and organized an opening weekend of talks and events, including a site-specific musical performance by LA artist Scott Benzel that incorporated the I-10 in an unforgettable way.
Crosher lives within earshot of the I-5 freeway, and she’d become attuned to the changing harmonics at different times of day. “The big rigs at 4 a.m. are very different than noon rush hour,” she notes. She asked Benzel, a composer and multimedia artist whose work also turns LA mythologies inside out (touchstones have included Sharon Tate and the 1960s film The Trip), to create a musical piece inspired by the sounds of the I-10. As it happens, Benzel is an Arizona native who’d also done some time driving along that stretch of road. The two discovered a shared fascination with a near-ghost town 80 miles east of Palm Springs bearing the hopeful name of Desert Center. Today, little remains beyond a shell of a gas station, some graffitied barracklike buildings, and a quasi-mystical circle of decapitated palm trees just off the freeway—the perfect spot, in other words, for an avant-garde musical performance.
Benzel was intrigued by the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project even before he got involved—in particular by how, presented sequentially, billboards act as frozen moments in time or “a film slowed down in space.” He elaborates: “Music and film are both time-based, and a billboard is space-based. From a purely phenomenological perspective, I was interested in those ideas of motion— moving through space and time.”
Modeled on several famous desert performances, including Iannis Xenakis’s Polytope de Persepolis (1971), Benzel’s Desert Center (Composition I10) was conceived as a 24-hour piece but only one two-hour section—Movement IV: Dusk—was performed during the weekend. After an initial performance in the courtyard of the museum, Benzel and his ensemble—a percussionist, an electronic musician, and a string quartet—set up a generator inside the ring of beheaded palm trees and began to play at golden hour. The music gradually picked up speed as intrepid spectators started to congregate, dazed and seemingly delighted to have made it to Desert Center at all. Some sat on blankets; others roamed around the circle, surveying the scene from multiple vantage points. Radio frequencies and live atmospheric samples tuned in and out as the steady, thumping rhythm (in fact, it was a drumbeat called “motorik,” popularized by Kraftwerk) built up and then screeched into the chaos of a traffic jam.
As the sun went down, a sweet, warm symphony washed over the crowd and the cars and trucks whizzing by became kinetic light sculptures against the blue twilight. It was a truly sublime moment, one that Crosher later categorized as “one of the rare times where the fantasy did match the reality.”
Having returned to the Palm Springs Art Museum a week later to document the progression of the decaying wall, Crosher shares her excitement over the results. “This one is dying more beautifully than the others,” she says, noting that she is hoping to bronze some of the dead foliage. Her fantasy is to re-create an entire wall of wilted, faded flora in Swarovski crystals, the ultimate expression of decay transformed into glamour.
For Crosher, this cycle is infinite, a Shiva-like loop of creation, preservation, and destruction. “I keep coming back to these Poison music videos from the ’80s that I saw when I was a kid,” she says. “There’s one of a girl who gets off a bus in Los Angeles, full of hopes and dreams of stardom, and then she ends up walking the Sunset Strip.” It’s the same theme in The Day of the Locust, she adds, and some of Didion’s writing: the construction of a fantasy so real one can almost will it into being until the inevitable clash with reality. “The imaginary keeps shifting, but it’s always some variation of the girl getting off the bus in the Poison video.”
Adding a final layer to the project’s multisensory, interactive nature, Crosher designed an edition of Manifest Destiny Billboard Project perfumes with The Institute for Art and Olfaction. The fragrance evolves with each chapter, starting from a base that includes notes of sun dust, hot vinyl, night-blooming jasmine, sweat, decaying foliage, and bourbon, marking a scent trail across the states. For Jacksonville, site of Shana Lutker’s dreamy cloudscapes, an orange blossom top note shimmers brightly, while Mobile includes a hint of waffle syrup. Mud and moss evoke New Orleans, followed by gun smoke and gushing oil in Texas (so big it got three chapters) until finally, for Matthew Brannon’s chapter in Santa Monica, there is at long last a whiff of salt air.