Approaching a digital billboard as an artistic medium presents a myriad of opportunities to interact with both the surrounding landscape and unsuspecting passersby. In her submissions to the Nashville and Savannah Billboard Art Projects, Michele Guieu started with the fundamental idea that the canvas is also a sign and then created work that addresses how the viewer interacts with the sign.
Born in southern France, Michele is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs de Paris, where she studied graphic design and multimedia. She was a graphic designer for years before moving to the U.S., working as a graphic designer for prominent nonprofit organizations, museums and corporate companies. She now spends most of her time in her studio devoted to her art. Michele lives with her family in Sunnyvale, California, and took a moment to talk about her artwork and the Billboard Art Project.
Billboard Art Project: We understand that your background is not exclusively that of an artist. When did you make the transition from graphic design to art, and what prompted it?
Michele Guieu: After a few years of being a graphic designer, I needed to work on something else other than projects for clients. I began a personal series of paintings and drawings in 1991. My graphic design work and my art work were separated in my head and in the facts: I was doing computer work for the graphic design, and I was using traditional media when I was working for myself. In 2005, after moving to the US and taking a break for a few years (I have two children), I finally (f)used all the techniques I’d learned in art school and afterward into my art work. I was no longer torn between being a graphic designer and a fine artist. I was an artist using traditional and nontraditional media.
BAP: What experiences and lessons did you take as a graphic designer that cross over to your work as an artist?
MG: Right after I graduated from art school, I had the unique opportunity to work with the most daring group of French graphic designers, Grapus. With them, I deepened my knowledge of how to work on images and subjects that matter. I endlessly manipulated images, trying and trying again different solutions. There are many possibilities to “frame” an image, to move around each element, to play with the proportions - and therefore to change the meaning. Everything has a meaning; you have to know what you are doing with space, colors, signs, text.
BAP: When you first heard about the Billboard Art Project, what was the initial appeal?
MG: I saw the call for the BAP Nashville on the “San Diego Artists - Resources, Opportunities & Online Community” Facebook page. I thought it was a great opportunity to work in a new medium, and I was interested by the scale. I always have been fascinated by billboards, but they are almost inaccessible - to work on/with - for individual artists. I visited the BAP website, and it looked like an inclusive and generous project, with a broad variety of artists from very different horizons and places.
BAP: Did the project speak to you as both an artist and a graphic designer?
MG: Absolutely. Although the first series I submitted is an adaptation of a series of paintings I had created previously for an installation in a gallery, I almost immediately thought I could create something special for the BAP, a series of images in direct relation to the context of the town, the street, the highway, using the graphic language of the road signs.
BAP: In your submissions, you have approached the signs in a number of different ways. Defragmentation is a series of images you adapted from some of your previous work to be shown on the billboard. Can you tell us a little about how you originally created those images?
MG: “Defragmentation” is an installation (mural, paintings, video) I had shown at Project X Art in Solana Beach last December. It comprises a series of approximately 70 paintings. Each painting is the interpretation of a photo I've taken. I take photos on an everyday basis: landscapes, people, people in landscapes, details of natural elements.
Defragmentation - Nashville, April 2011
BAP: Some of those images seem to have an almost X-ray-like quality to them where ghostly images of metal objects float in the background. What processes do you employ to get this effect?
MG: Through filters in Photoshop, I strip my photos of most of their details to obtain a black and white image, which I crop. With this image in hand, I then work a background, in relation to the structure of the image, directly on the canvas. It is a layering process of acrylic paint and spray paint with the use of stencils: objects like old brushes, and all sorts of kitchen utensils I find at the thrift store. They come in all sorts of shapes which are quite interesting once stenciled. Once the background is done, I project the image I previously worked on, and then paint it - it becomes the dark layer of the painting. For “Defragmentation,” I worked with shades of silver and a very dark blue.
BAP: How do you feel the images in Defragmentation translated to the billboard format?
MG: I think the adaptation worked very well. The images are mostly an evocation of vast natural spaces which echo the symbol of the American urban and road space the billboards represent. It also worked well because the format of the paintings was almost the same proportion as the billboard: narrow and long. I did not have to crop much. I’ve got a few photos of the “Defragmentation” series on the billboard, in the context of the town. Luckily they were taken at dusk. There is a beautiful effect between the dark blue and silvery painting playing with the color of the darkening sky. Also, the painting's silvery background is enhanced by the billboard LED technology. The silver shimmers beautifully when lit.
Signs - Nashville.
BAP: In another series of images, "Signs," you play with a variety of colors and symbols, mostly arrows and some images of clip art. As the title suggests, these images relate more directly to the medium as a sign. When you saw the documentation from the project in Nashville, what were your thoughts?
MG: After adapting the series “Defragmentation,” I developed a series in direct relation to the medium, but with a slight twist: the billboard as a (faux) road sign, not as an advertisement. The billboard was working in direct relation with the space it was displayed in. I saw only a few photos in context. The photos from the images using only the arrows worked very well. I could not go to Nashville to see the display and take photos, so I was thrilled when I received the photos you sent me. It was rather magical - I sent to you a series of jpegs to be displayed on a billboard and I received photos of the images on the billboard in the context of the town! I think part of the interesting aspect of the project is the documentation. In that sense, in Nashville, I got lucky: the series of arrows was displayed right next to a highway with other road signs around, and there was a sense of strangeness and playfulness - it was perfect! The series adds to the confusion already existing with the abundance of signs. A scene from “Brazil” came to my mind: “My complication had a little complication.”
Signs - Savannah.
BAP: You submitted a progression of similar images to the Savannah show. Did you feel they had the same contextual impact?
MG: For Savannah, I created a new series of faux road signs with only arrows. I wanted to focus on what worked well, because I had seen the documentation of the Nashville show and I could now adjust my designs in response. Unfortunately, the surroundings of the billboard in Savannah were less interesting - for my images - than in Nashville. I can really measure the impact of the context on the content of the images: depending on the context, the images get stronger or lose their strength. That's when I starting thinking that it would be great to get a photo of the billboard - in its context - before I start working on the images. And this time, for the Duluth show, we do have an image, which is very interesting! The best thing, of course, would be to go see the billboards and their surroundings. I hope to do so for the San Bernardino show, as it’s a 5 hour drive from where I live.
Miles To - Savannah.
BAP: You also had another submission in the Savannah show that played with the fact that these images were indeed being displayed on a sign. Could you talk a little bit on what you did with this particular series?
MG: I wanted to develop another series of faux road signs. The proportions of the billboard are very close to those of the green signs on roads/highways indicating the mileage. As I was thinking about how to use them, another idea came along and gave me the content I needed: I was listening to the news, as I often do when I am working, and the names of towns in the Middle East and Africa were referenced often in the programs. Also, the Savannah show would take place not long after the beginning of the Arab spring. I decided to make a series of road signs indicating the mileage from Savannah to a series of towns situated in the Middle East and in Africa. The mileage on my faux road signs is the exact one between Savannah and each town I chose. To calculate the distances, I found a helpful website. With this series, like with the series of arrows, the approach is simple and poetry plays an important role. There is, of course, also a political aspect. To see the names of the towns on an American road sign makes the towns feel closer, maybe more real to the viewer. The jpegs in themselves are not very interesting. What is very interesting is to see the images in the context of an American town, such as Savannah. Fortunately, close to where the billboard was standing, there is the name of a street that is undoubtedly American.
BAP: What is your personal take on the United States’ regional involvement in the cities you listed?
MG: I am thinking more in terms of the question, "What is the significance of those names repeated over and over in the media?" The average American citizen does not have much knowledge about what is really going on. All of these towns are far away. When you live in Europe, these towns are much closer, and people travel to Africa or the Middle East. Living now in the US, I really measure the “distance” between here and anywhere else in the world, especially the Middle East and Africa. The series is timely and puts these towns on the “American map.”I also like the idea of surprising the viewer. And that is not easy, given the number of billboards everywhere with thousands of well-thought-out messages (which does not necessarily mean they are interesting – but they are made to catch the viewers attention).
BAP: Have political musings worked their way into your art in the past?
MG: When I started working on my art again in 2005, one of my first paintings was a large portrait of a Muslim woman. I then painted a series of portraits of American soldiers, portraits of women abducted in two different conflicts, and quite a few pieces directly related to the Iraq war. But the core of my work is about personal and daily experiences: places, landscapes, family and friends.
I lived my teenage years in Senegal, Africa, where I was put in front of the reality of the world at a young age. In my art school, I worked closely with a group of politically engaged professors, and later, with the group Grapus, which was also politically engaged. So the political background has always been there, but I find peace and an endless inspiration in nature. I was 11 when I went for the first time to the Sahara, and I still remember it vividly. I always traveled to see beautiful landscapes and I still do. I first came to the US to visit the Southwest and the National Parks of the West. Now that I am an American citizen, I vote and I try to make sense of the complicated world I live in. It’s there in my work. But lots of other things are in there, too!
Words - Nashville.
BAP: Going back to Nashville, there was one other piece entitled "Hello" that spoke to passersby. What was your intent with the messages in "Hello," and how did the background images work with the piece?
MG: “Hello” was part of a series of signs including “Hey,” “You,” and “How Are You?,” all direct messages addressed to the viewer. The few photos I’ve got are interesting because they are taken at night in a deserted parking lot. The effect is strange; it’s as if the billboard is speaking into the void.
BAP: Having participated in two shows, and having the intention of participating in others, do you see the roll of digital billboards as an artistic medium developing past a few random shows?
MG: I am definitely interested in exploring the possibilities of using an LED billboard space, in developing different series in different contexts. The fast pace (a few seconds per image) is a limitation. If nobody takes a picture, there is no documentation and it is gone! For me, documentation is key in this project. That is why I think it would be great to see the same series in a different context. If you show the jpegs, they will look the same. But if you show the images in different contexts, the meaning would be different each time. When a billboard is placed in a different context, it tells a different story, and that is what interests me.
BAP: How do art installations on billboards differ from other public art?
MG: The Billboard Art Project offers one very interesting way to work on billboards. There is a certain format: each event is a projection of several series of images by a group of artists on LED billboards, with a certain pace and time frame, a different town each time. The artists have only to create their images and the rest is taken care of. It would be different to create a single unique image for a billboard - printed or handmade. It would be another approach. I would think about it differently. The Billboard Art Project is a public, incorporeal, ephemeral and nomadic project. Four wonderful qualities I am more and more interested in. Public art is obviously public, but not necessarily incorporeal, ephemeral and nomadic!
To see some of Michele's images, visit her Savannah and Nashville albums in the photo section. Savannah Nashville
Castle Rock State Park Visits of friends or family is the occasion to go to places we sometimes already went to. And it is always a pleasure to see those places with a different light, at a different time, and to see things we did not see before.
Well, except when it is a good size copperhead rattlesnake coiled right there on the side of the trail. Our first encounter in the San Francisco Bay area. It did not look very happy as one of us almost stepped on it and then our group was separated in two. The trail was narrow and bushy. Although we were very close at first, the photo I took is very blurry.
The funny part is that I looked on my phone to see what was the best way to pass it (the distance we needed between us and him). here I was in the middle of the forest - but connected - checking Google. It turned out the distance was not big enough and we found a way to go around the trail.
Otherwise it was a beautiful hike!
Muir Woods National Monument In Muir Woods, one of us noticed a sign explaining that in 1945, when the United Nation were born, the international delegation came to Muir Woods and gathered in the "Temple of Peace", one of Muir Woods beautiful Redwood groves.
Lost Trail / Ocean View / Fern Creek Loop. 2.6 miles.
We hiked on the Lost Trail, a beautiful loop back to the park headquarters. Stunning difference between the busy trail next to the visitor center and the quietness of this part of the forest. It was damp, due to the fog at the top, the condensation made it feels like it was raining.
The Golden Gate Bridge This time I saw the underneath of the bridge. We parked North of the bridge, on the left of it. To get to the sidewalk to walk the bridge, we walked a paved path underneath the bridge and then took the stairs up. The passage is very noisy and impressive, the whole bridge vibrates and resonates. We walked half the length of the bridge and back. We saw lots of dolphins.
Psycho Donuts in San Jose Kooky Monster, Suicide Squeeze, Cadillac margarita, Rocky Road, Spare Tire, Blue Velvet, Head Banger and more. Served by a sexy nurse!
Someone in our group noticed this road sign just before arriving at the headquarters of the park- I've never read it/saw it before. Big Basin Redwoods State Park A 6.2 miles loop: Skyline to the Sea / Meteor Trail up to Middle Ridge Road / Dool Trail.We saw salamanders, racer snakes, lizards, banana slugs, millipedes, one inch ants, butterflies and lots of birds. A few mosquitoes too.
Banana slug, along Rodgers Creek (Meteor Trail).
On the Redwood Trail, Chimney Tree: this tree burned from bottom to top due to successive fires, but is still alive and growing.
Melitzanosalata (grilled eggplant, roasted garlic and fresh milled herb spread) and Htipiti (whipped feta and rosted pepper spread with a slight kick to it) were served with a fresh house made grilled pita. We sampled amazing "Greek fusion food" from MYTH taverna and Lounge, which just opened downtown San Jose.
Lara Sophia helping the kids make their own terrarium with layers of tiny gravel pebbles, coal pebbles, Pete moss and compost soil last. Then there are succulents, seeds, and plants to chose from. Finally one can chose a few elements of decoration like figurines, glass beads or cool rocks.
And I love it. It's been there for two weeks. It is a cave, a hut, a meeting room, a hiding spot, a camp, a nomad tent... An important place. It has pillows and books, lamps, blankets and stuffed animals. It whispers and it laughs. It's there. I am watching.
I am lucky.
I will remember.
photo by Lori Lipsman, taken during the opening reception
I am very excited to have participated in this exhibition. I wish I could be there for the closing reception but I can't, that's the way it is. If someone who reads this blog goes to the closing reception and takes some photos, please send some to me, thanks! From Space 4 Art website: Closing Reception: Drawing Expanse
Moderated discussion and walk through featuring artists from the show and jurors, David White and Karen McGuire, as well as a live art-making performance by Anna O’Cain and Richard Keely.
Gun Powder Mandala/Hair of the Dog Artists, Anna O’Cain and Richard Keely, use gun power to burn symbols, varied patterns, and target designs on to geographical and meteorological maps of the world. This collaborative work is influenced by Mandala production from various cultures. O’Cain and Keely work together creating the gunpowder drawings as a ceremonial act of reflection and awareness regarding how individual and collective decisions can effect the world.
Artists Albert Atrillo, Alexander Jackson, Barbara Simco, Chelsea Ramirez, Claire Zitzow, Emily Booth, Hollis Swan, Jon Gomez, K.V. Tomney, Kirsten Rae Simonsen, Lea Anderson, Louis Schmidt, May-ling Martinez, Melinda Barnadas, Michele Guieu, Nicole Aponte, Richard Keely and Anna O’Cain, Richard Allen Morris, Sandra Doore, Tim Conaway, Tom Driscoll.
Drawing Expanse / Closing Reception SUNDAY JULY 17, 2011 From 6 to 8 p.m.
Space4Art 325 15th Street (between J and K) San Diego, CA Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10 am to 4 pm Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Space4Art on Facebook Phone: 619-269-7230
When we left Sunnyvale the sky was bright; when we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, like very often in San Francisco in the summer, it was foggy and cold and it felt like it was another season. We put on warm clothes on and walked the bridge (only half of it and back, a 1.7m loop). I realized that the bridge is really high above the water, the boats look like toys. When one walks on the bridge, one can see the water far below between the concrete slabs. The slabs are very thin: only 2 or 3 inches. The strange thing was that it was really windy up there and still, the fog would not go away. I was struck by the number of the warning signs, specially those concerning jumping off the bridge.
From Fort Point (Marine Drive)
After the walk, we drove to Fort Point, below the parking lot. Then we went back up and drove across the bridge to Vista Point Overlook, where there is a view of the bridge from the North.