The billboard project does not have the conventional markers of public art. It’s not put out to tender, heavily funded or permanently sited; the images that temporarily dot the roads of East Belfast are not even made with this format or their location in mind. Instead, they are snapshots of artists’ practices, blown up and quietly slipped into the public sphere for a few weeks at a time.
An expansive yet physically low-key intervention, it’s got an incidental quality, maybe catching the attention of commuters stuck in traffic or pedestrians on their daily routes. There’s no statement of its basis or any titles or names in this summer’s iteration of the project, but to a passing observer perhaps there’s a sense of something bubbling up to the surface, and a pattern forming over the past six years.
The billboard project is repeated in this part of the city every year or two, under the “Art is the Eastside” title, and develops with each new edition. Creative Exchange , an artist-led studio in the area that founded on an ethos of artistic provision and cross-pollination, started the project in 2009. The initial aim was to bring the work of the studios to a wide audience rather than expecting people to arrive to them, and has since expanded and condensed in numbers to be awash on the streets or more subtly present, at times given an observable theme or stood individually. This year, twenty invited artists align with their twentieth anniversary activities, a selection recognizing past collaborations and ongoing working relationships. Four billboards of wishes written on blackboards join these pieces, each selected from the Wish Tree Forest, a coinciding public collaboration.
In the ongoing development of the billboard project, the studio group’s long-term, active interest in the area is visible and emphasized – particularly significant in a part of Belfast hit hard by the loss of industry and with little (but growing) creative presence. They may be long-term stakeholders in the area, but in the wake of many dilapidated community arts projects that line the footpaths, it makes sense that the project embraces a transitory, intermittent nature.
A previous project used the theme “Green”: contentiously associative in a predominantly Protestant area, but also a reference to the use of nature as a regenerative tool, such as in the Comber greenway and the establishment of community farms.The art may not be produced for the location, but neither is irrelevant to it, or dropped in without reason; its relationship to place is subtle but valuable to its effect, from simply echoing colours to finding a shared point of reference in East Belfast. Significance of locale is not hammered home but allowed to quietly exist, along with some of the nuance that art needs.
This year, for example, an image from Kentucky artist Tom Pfannstill’s Head Installation on a large junction evokes vulnerability and isolation within a crowd. Meanwhile, Stephen Millar and Nathan Crothers’ The Useless made Useful, a sandbag installation stencilled with the British government Tory cabinet in reference to the poor flood response in England, is intentionally sited near repeated spots of flooding within Belfast. An image of Short Strand, one of David Fox’s paintings of people-less territorial thresholds in the city, sits adjacent to one such area on its billboard, and Colin McGookin’s Our Father In the Theatre of Dreams has the composition and reverent symbolism that recalls the many political murals in the area, yet is a deeply personal tribute to his father.
Overall these twenty artists’ practices span painting, photography, film stills, performance, sculpture and more, but no matter what the origins of the image, they gain a cross-disciplinary quality. Compared to the directness of advertising, the image is more slowly absorbed and vulnerable, unsupported by the rest of the artist’s practice and open to a vastly different interpretation. The incentive here is not “sprucing up the place” or instilling positivity and pride, like in regeneration-based arts or the painting over of old political murals: it’s art’s statement of its own presence and position here, with no pre-requisite needed.