How often do you notice billboards? I mean, really notice what’s on them, not just acknowledge that, as part of your field of vision, you are seeing large surfaces with bright colours and bold letters?
The Your Space or Mine project by BUILDHOLLYWOOD takes over billboard spaces in cities, bringing art and creativity to the streets. Earlier this month, anyone walking around Manchester’s Northern Quarter, Piccadilly Station or the Gay Village encountered the art of Eve Stainton on various billboards, curated by Zarina Rossheart and commissioned as part of the All About Love project.
The pieces are obviously not advertising. They are large-scale, colourful and dynamic digital collages in which images are combined and overlaid. One common element is the presence of photographs of steel bars, on which words are welded. On most of the billboards, the words read as “You can take the _____ out of _____, but you can’t take _____ out of the ______”.
The empty spaces in the sentence are meant to be filled in by those looking at the billboards, and are the most evident engagement device, quickly drawing you in and asking you to interact with the work. Some might recognise the sentence the artist is referencing: “You can take the girl out of Manchester, but you can’t take Manchester out of the girl” – a sentence that has a lot of value for Stainton, and, in their words, can be used “as a double-edged sword, as it can have a sense of solidarity, if said in the right way, but it can also be quite aggressive”.
From Manchester originally, Stainton has been living in London since their late teens, not really having lived in their home town as an adult, and they had not brought their “full self” back to the city since moving – as they told me during our chat before the launch event.
“As soon as I was invited to be a part of this project, I started thinking back about my time in Manchester when I was younger, clubbing, and about the places where I would hang out” Stainton says. From our conversation, it was obvious how strongly they feel about Manchester. For instance, when talking about the gentrification of areas like the Northern Quarter or Ancoats, they remarked how, despite the change, “the heart [of the city] is still there”, and they described this large-scale public commission in the city as “quite a big moment” for them.
The primary background of Stainton as an artist is in choreography and performance, although they use many different media. The billboards for this commission are the perfect example of their polyhedric creative expression, as they combine photographs from previous live performances by the artist and images of the welded words, all re-worked as a digital artwork. The steel bars with the writing have been welded by Stainton, who has been trying their hands at this specific craft over the last few years.
There are lines, areas of colour, the relation among the elements, the juxtaposition of moments of abstract visuals and representational components, and these all somehow dance on the billboards. In fact, during our chat the artist spoke of the billboards as choreographies on which “encounters happen over time”.
The bold, colourful, impactful visuals of the digital collages perfectly match the context in which they are presented: Stainton observed during our conversation that the billboard lends itself to playing with the language of advertising, a visual language that is simple and catchy. And advertising is meant to engage those who encounter the message, which Stainton does with the blank spaces.
It is evident how important it is for the artist to make the work accessible, make it something that can live in the city and really speak to the people who live there. In Stainton’s view, it is vital to strike a balance between not “patronising” viewers by assuming they can’t interact with complex or conceptual work, but at the same time not making the work inaccessible. Stainton sees the achievement of this balance as the responsibility of the artist.
With their commission for the All About Love project, Stainton reaches their goal of engaging the city – their city – with a piece that is playful and impactful but also thought-provoking, open to ambiguity and brave, and something that allows them to come back to their home town as themselves.
In doing so, they ask us to think about our identities, and about the core aspects that shape us and could never be taken out of ourselves – and they offer us an example of how to truly love those aspects.
All images courtesy of Eve Stainton