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Light Treatment Gets Across Serious Messages

November 23, 1989|JAN BRESLAUER

SAN DIEGO — Bright lights, big city. Kinetic Spectacolor billboard lights in Times Square, that is, brought to you this month by San Diegan Louis Hock.

Moving the balance of art trade between the coasts ever closer, he's part of the first group of Californians to participate in this 7-year-old "Messages to the Public" project of New York's Public Art Fund.

Unfortunately, they may also be the last, since the project recently lost its $27,000 or more in National Endowment for the Arts Inter-Arts support.

"Messages to the Public" has artists program the 800-square-foot, computer-animated display that blinks down at passers-by from several stories high on the building at One Times Square, projecting a continuous program of artwork intercut with advertising.

Other Californians who have given their regards to Broadway include Michael LeBran, Mitchell Syrop, Barbara Carrasco and Anne Bray and Linda Nishio.

Besides the Spectacolor program, "800 BUY w/ ART," Hock also has a video called "Leaps of Faith (Unnamed Sources and Victims of Circumstance)" now at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y.

The site-specific work uses mannequin-like figures in tableaux that suggest violent events, viewed first on video monitors and then-- surprise! --in reality, contradicting the viewer's expectations. The artists says his work traces "the path between the make-believe and . . . belief in mass media."

Susan Freedman, executive director of the Public Art Fund, and her fellows made a "concerted effort" to reach out to non-New Yorkers, in part by having Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition's Joy Silverman on the selection panel.

Although the geographic and cultural diversity of the new blood pleased both the fund and the endowment, according to Freedman and the NEA's Loris Bradley, there just wasn't enough money to go around.

The Inter-Arts category was expanded this year, so that the applicant pool doubled while available funds remained the same.

The loss is especially painful in light of the success of the fund's "California year," Freedman said.

The project has convinced Freedman that West Coasters like a little topicality with their art. Hock and his fellows take the idea of "Messages to the Public" literally. "Many artists who are interested in public art also have an interest in social issues, and the California artists have been especially consistent with that," she explains.

"Especially" is the word. Especially when you consider that the owners of the Spectacolor board required Carrasco to alter three frames from her "Pesticides!" before it was shown in July. The frames, thought to be too harsh, had shown children about to eat insecticide-sprayed grapes.

Like Carrasco, Hock uses the advertising context to criticize advertising. "I figured it's an advertisement, so I made an advertisement. You have little time to convey information, enmeshed in advertising, in Times Square which is already swirling with ads."

The challenge, as he sees it, is to co-opt the power that is already there. "You try to create public space in a solid wall of private landscape which is advertising," he explains.

Hock, who along with David Avalos, Elizabeth Sisco and Deborah Small has also been creating a series of controversial public artworks in San Diego, is well-versed in such tactics.

On Nov. 2, the four launched "Red Emma Returns!"--an assault on Mayor Maureen O'Connor's Soviet arts festival, the ongoing battle over unionization at the Copley press and other free speech issues. It included a downtown performance created with William Weeks, Carla Kirkwood, Bartlett Sher and Scott Kessler.

Central to "Red Emma Returns!" was an ad announcing the performance and citing relevant local history that Hock and his collaborators tried to place in the San Diego Union. The paper refused the ad and will not disclose the grounds for their action, according to Shirley Haiman of the Union-Tribune.

The group's past projects include the infamous "Welcome to America's Finest Tourist Plantation" bus poster during the 1988 Super Bowl. This summer, their billboard taking the city to task for failing to name the new convention center after Martin Luther King Jr. prompted an attempt at the censorship of the sponsor, Installation Gallery, by the San Diego City Council at the same time the national censorship crisis was breaking.

Hock approached the Spectacolor board with an equally subversive agenda. "As with the bus poster, you use the rules of advertising because they work. Then you capture the power by shifting it off balance," he says.

"The Spectacolor board is a chance to be didactic in a way that gallery work won't accommodate, to extend a political voice into the world," he says.

He's also extending that voice via a toll-free phone number (1-800 BUY W ART), that viewers can call. According to Freedman, it's the first time a program has included such a number.

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