Public Space

Billboards: A Sanctuary for a United Public

Gretta Louw’s “Conscious Commons” questions the use of public spaces for commercial purposes, arguing that it should draw people’s attention for a better world instead

Billboards: a Sanctuary for a United Public

It is a beautiful Saturday morning as a group of people and I tour in Munich with artist Gretta Louw along the Isar river. She is guiding us through her current art installation in public spaces called “Conscious Commons,” displayed throughout two neighborhoods.

As we turn a corner, we are surprised by a large, square commercial billboard hanging on the wall of a building. The proximity of a commercial billboard at eye-level, twice my size, is overwhelming, but the message that broadcasts alleviates its otherwise intrusive presence: “HERE IS A MOMENT TO FEEL YOUR BODY MEETING THE WORLD.”

Then we all obey. It feels good to pause for a moment as the feeling morphs into the thought that we must brace ourselves against the current bombardment of negative messages and news. “But often we’re in our heads,” says Louw, “as opposed to being aware of the sun, the wind and this larger experience of being alive.” This billboard reminds us.

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Part of Conscious Commons by artist Gretta Louw / Photo credit Susana F. Molina

In 2020, Louw began critically thinking about the use of public space for the common good, beyond commercial purposes. She believes that the efforts of advertisers hijack our attention for profit and also interrupt our ability to react to and interact with each other in public spaces. “We are so used to commercial billboards that we just don’t even notice that they take much of our attention on the public space,” she concludes.

Conceived as a sort of anti-advertising campaign, Louw produced that same year her first public art installation in public spaces, “The Commons,” commissioned by the Cultural Department of the City of Munich. But with the outbreak of the pandemic, it ended up mutating into a poignant love letter to public green spaces. She also did a pop up version in Los Angeles in 2022.

Two years later, we find ourselves again in an unusually tense moment where public spaces and social exchanges are contested due to concurrent war crises, heated political discourse and rising living costs. Whether it is the increasing international instability, the growing economic inequality, or even the floods that recently hit Southern Germany, arguably related to climate change, people have a sense that life is getting harder to navigate. 

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Part of Conscious Commons by artist Gretta Louw / Photo credit Gretta Louw

Louw asks herself, how do we stop this polycrisis from breaking us apart? And how can we support each other through it all? “We tend to think about how we act upon the world or upon each other or the politicians deciding things for us. But actually, we’re all in this push and pull network all the time with each other.” Louw’s billboard “WE BREATHE IN WHEN PLANTS BREATHE OUT,” in the same vein as the previous billboard we confronted, insists on the idea that “we’re always in this very intimate connection with the environment surrounding us.”

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In “Conscious Commons,” Louw returns again to concise lyrical texts presented on billboards in public spaces and online. But the way she replays them is more like a harbinger of change than the previous ode to public space. Her intent has never been to create witty one-liners, but to provoke a conversation: “I don’t want to do anything that seems flat or too easy. It should be a doorway into some thought space.”

The billboards are puristically designed, and the colors for each of them are carefully selected. Together with the studio ATAC Design, Louw delved into color theory and the psychological impact of color, and chose, from a pre-selected harmonious color palette, the most suitable colors to attach to each message (such as hopeful messages in yellow and turquoise for tranquility or ones about bonding and community in pink). Louw uses the colors to aid in the communication of the message that speaks alone on the billboard. There is no name, logo, QR code or website : “As soon as you put any information on there, it becomes an advertisement for that, and again these public spaces would be sold for profit,” says Louw.

On the contrary, Louw maintains, public spaces should be stages for social and political participation, where hierarchies erode, and connections are made beyond the boundaries of filter bubbles. Louw subverts the idea of commercial billboards, deconstructing them into urgent, concrete ways to strengthen the community ties needed to sustain ourselves and help each other.

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Part of Conscious Commons by artist Gretta Louw / Photo credit Susana F. Molina

As we continue riding our bikes in the neighborhood, we see, and hear, a cheerful crowd congregating around one of the river bridges to kick off the Christopher Street Day’s parade. This set the scene fittingly for Louw’s next two billboards a couple of blocks down the river:  “STAND HERE TO FIND COMMON GROUND” and “IMAGINE A FUTURE THAT’S COOPERATIVE.”

Close to each other, these billboards are trying to find messages of unity and hope in a society that has become increasingly polarized. Louw believes that polarization is one of the hardest challenges to deal with and tackle. “Regardless of what our political views are, we can’t send the other side to an island,” she says. “We all live together. So somehow we have to be able to respect each other.” And she immediately clarifies:“it’s not about tolerating people with hateful views, but rather looking for ways to connect to people beyond some of the discourses that seem to put us into different groups or divide us as opposed to unite us.”

Louw gets back to the idea that our democratic and cultural values are embodied and formed in the commons: “the public is created in public spaces.” “We tend to think that this theoretical discourse is somehow not attached to the meat and bones of the everyday,” says Louw. So she decided to ground this idea by explicitly stating that the physical billboard is actually a space where people could gather and find a shared ground.

At the end of our tour, we reach two billboards that show messages of optimism going forward: “HOPE GROWS IN ACTION” and “THERE’S STILL TIME TO DO GOOD THINGS.” Louw admits that sometimes it can feel hard to have this kind of optimism, but she believes that it’s something that we have to work at.  “Particularly in the cultural sector, and for myself as an artist, I feel sometimes that it has almost become a trope or even a trend to be very critical of everything and to point out structural inequalities and so on.”

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Part of Conscious Commons by artist Gretta Louw (in the middle) / Photo credit Susana F. Molina

But somebody also has to put that imagination into the world in some real form and put hope into action, in particular for the younger generations. “We really owe that to them,” says Louw, at the very same moment that two youngsters on their way to the Christopher Street Day’s Parade stop in front of Louw’s billboard “HOPE GROWS IN ACTION,” and take a selfie.

The moment felt like a strong confirmation that it is our responsibility, even if it is sometimes hard, to do the work of imagining something better, “because it’s so easy to just allow yourself to be pulled down by everything or to retreat into this intellectualized discourse and analysis of things that are going wrong.”

And that’s where, obviously, the message of the billboard “HOPE GROWS IN ACTION” comes from. It is easy to feel completely hopeless, negative or bitter with all the terrible news out there right now. “And I don’t blame anybody that feels that way,” says Louw. “But I think each one of us can turn the work into something optimistic, something real for the future. I think that’s really what I currently see as the central part of my work as an artist, more so than pointing out the problems. We need solutions at this point.” I couldn’t agree more.

 

“Conscious Commons” by Gretta Louw is part of the Verbindungslinien 2024 program commissioned by BBK Bayern with funding from the Bayerisches Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst. Additional support for the project has been provided by Curt Wills-Stiftung.

There is an exhibition of the project coming next month (opening 18.7) at the Digital Art Space in Munich.

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