It’s Thursday morning, and a small group of writers and photographers gather at the back entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Zoe Strauss’ first PMA solo show, Zoe Strauss: Ten Years, kicks off with a dance party next Saturday, Jan. 14.
We’re here for a mini tour of the Billboard Project, a re-telling of the “Under I-95” narrative across the cityscape in association with Zoe Strauss: Ten Years and in collaboration with Clear Channel, who donated 40 of the billboards.As of yesterday, 54 billboards featuring Strauss’ photographs have been installed on billboards all over the city.
Some of the billboards are singles, others are diptychs designed to work the way Strauss’ books work, with two photographs carefully juxtaposed so that they resonate with one another, either thematically or aesthetically. As with the carefully designed grids of Strauss’ landmark “Under I-95”—in which each aisle has a structured theme such as “gender” and are designed to flow and intersect one another—as always, the placement is crucial and the sum is greater than its parts. The artist has explained many times that the underlying ideas behind the arrangements of the I-95 installations are based on the musical trajectory of Bruce Springsteen, a topic she is dedicating an entire speech to at the museum in March.
Outside and towering above buildings, advertisements and the hustle and bustle of life in the city Strauss documents, the billboard diptychs are theoretical triptychs when you include the context of the landscape.The first stop is South Philadelphia, where we’re going to watch the installation of “Antoinette Conti” on the billboard above Lime organic dry cleaners—across from the Acme (pronounced locally as Ack-a-mee) at 10th and Reed.
We pile into the van and, while turning down 15th Street, we spot a diptych at 15th and Vine. Strauss, riding in the front and bundled up in a blue 76ers skullcap, gasps loudly.“Oh my god! Gary, this is fucking amazing!” she yells.
Gary is Gary Turner, the Clear Channel rep along for the ride and one of Strauss’ partners in this endeavor. Turner says the project came about because Turner and Strauss had a mutual acquaintance at the 76ers, and they got to talking. Next thing you know, Strauss purchased five billboards, and Clear Channel donated another 40. Gary, clearly thrilled, seems as enamored of Strauss as nearly everyone who meets her. With her indefatigable passion for her work (and for all good work), her hometown, and everything else she deems awesome, Strauss has cult-leader charisma. Everyone likes her.
“I didn’t realize that one was up!” says Strauss, yanking her cell phone out of her coat pocket and snapping a cell phone pic she’ll upload to Twitter while still talking. The photographs “Take a New Look” and “Woman Laughing at Blowout” are installed at 15th and Vine.
In an interview over at Philadelphia magazine, Strauss explained the latter photo was taken outside a bar called the Blowout in Morgan City, La., on a trip to document the BP oil spill. “She was dressed up in this unbelievable glitter outfit, and it was before noon,” Strauss said of the woman in the photo, who is laughing uproariously with her head thrown back. The bar she’s standing in front of is decorated with exploding oil derricks, and the wash of color behind her is paint depicting smoke from the explosion. “She had not gone home from the night before. I don’t remember what made her laugh so hard. She also had one artificial leg.”
We head down 15th, curve around City Hall, and Turner, riding shotgun, turns to tell Strauss that the billboards are hurricane-proof. “This is the most insane love affair ever!” says Strauss, and they laugh.
We turn left onto Washington Avenue, pass the deserted parking lot used when Cirque de Soleil comes to town, pass the U-Haul warehouse and then the Vietnamese food markets. We make a right onto 10th and pass homes that still have glittery mummer decorations taped to the inside of the windows.
“Getting excited?” asks Turner.
“I am super excited,” says Strauss, who for months has been twirling in an orbit of bottomless excitement, endless exhaustion and total disbelief, saying things like, “Are you kidding me? Is this even happening right now? Someone tell me this is real!”
She’s been busy preparing for her first solo show at the Art Museum, the billboard project and selecting photos and writing copy for her second book. All the while, she’s been blogging and tweeting her process; Strauss says maintaining a transparent process is important to her.
The orange neon glow of Geno’s Steaks is visible across the empty snow-dusted field. We pull up to the closed Rita’s Water Ice and turn into the Acme parking lot.It’s 10 a.m. and a dude named Mike is there to install “Antoinette Conti” on the billboard above Lime organic dry cleaners at 1357 10th St. Turner presents Strauss with a tarp that has the photograph transferred onto it, and points out that it’s made of some kind of newfangled ecologically conscientious material. No more toxic glue. He presents it solemnly, like an officer presenting an American flag to a widow. They realize this and laugh.
Mike hoists a ladder, climbs it and threads a rope along the top of the tarp as if it’s a curtain. Suddenly, it’s there: a giant portrait of Strauss’ neighbor towering over the neighborhood.“Oohs” and “Ahhs” abound but you can really only see the full effect if you walk back toward the Acme and stand in the middle of Passyunk Avenue. As your perspective widens, you can see the CVS, the Rita’s and birds huddled together on telephone wires. Walk a tiny bit farther and you finally see why Strauss has had her eye on this particular billboard. Behind it is a cell phone tower, and at the top of the tower silver antennae-like prongs shoot into the air. Stand in the right spot or glance at the right moment while driving, and the silver prongs take the shape of a crown that appears to sit atop Antoinette’s head. Strauss, calling it “la corona,” knew that whoever would go up here would be king or queen of the neighborhood.
We head back to get a better look at 15th and Vine again before heading up 16th and turning right on Girard.“Oh! Hello!” exclaims Strauss.We pull over, walk past the Temple of Divine Love Church and behold the two billboards installed at 15th and Girard: “Black Friday Balloons” and “Cake from Shrimp and Petroleum Festival.”The top photo features red metallic helium balloons emblazoned with white numbers on them. A reporter asks Strauss if she was pointing her camera up; if the space between the balloons is sky.“Nope,” says Strauss. “It’s actually the ceiling of Wal-Mart.”
The last stop of the tour is to see billboards installed behind the train station at 30th Street and JFK Boulevard: “Don’t Forget Us” and “Osage Ave.”
The former is a message spray-painted onto a piece of plywood tacked to a pole that Strauss came across in Grand Isle, La., shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The latter is a shot of the back of dilapidated buildings.“The one on the right is the back of homes on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, which is where the MOVE bombing was,” Strauss says. “Of course following the bombing there was a great debacle in terms of the re-construction of the homes, so they were not rebuilt to last. There’s a much longer story about the tragedy of MOVE.”
After the three-hour tour, we’re back at the Art Museum, milling in the back entrance. Strauss is trying to figure out what she’s doing for the rest of the day. There will be more interviews tomorrow, and the day after. At one point, she jokes about being Medi-vacced out of the museum after the launch next Saturday night.
Employing massive shifts in scale and proximity, Strauss’ exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art features both modestly sized photographs in the gallery and an expansive installation of billboards that chart an epic voyage throughout the city.
On the corner of McClellan and Fifth streets in South Philadelphia, a group of young boys pass the afternoon executing daredevil flips off a stack of old throwaway mattresses. A woman driving by, novice photographer Zoe Strauss, glimpses the small bodies somersaulting through the air. Startled, she pulls over, and winds up snapping seven or eight quick photographs.