‘The Last Billboard’ is an ongoing project by curator Jon Rubin and designer Pablo Garcia, wherein each month they choose a person who gets to place any message they want on a 36-foot long rooftop billboard in Pittsburgh. In this exclusive interview with Rubin, we ask him how the quirky project began and how people have reacted so far to the messages. [read our original post about The Last Billboard here.]
How’d you get a hold off a 36-foot long rooftop billboard?
From 2009 to 2013, I ran a project in the storefront below the billboard called The Waffle Shop. The Waffle Shop was a functioning restaurant that produced and broadcast a live-streaming video talk show with its customers as the guests and sometime hosts. Just before I started renting the storefront space Lamar Advertising decided to not renew their lease with the landlord (who owned the billboard on top of the roof). The ad company removed everything but the bare frame of the billboard.
From the looks of it the structure must have been built nearly sixty years ago during the heyday of Pittsburgh’s economy. I approached the landlord and asked if I could lease the space and construct a custom billboard that would function as a space for thoughts and ideas as opposed to advertising. I asked my talented friend Pablo Garcia to design a rail system that would allow for the manual changing of wooden letters.
I liked the idea of physically getting up there and changing each sign in a very slow and deliberate way. In a world of instant and ephemeral communication the labor of maintaining the billboard seems to give more weight to what is said. I also like how the use of the rails let the words sort of float in the sky.
Who came up with the idea to post messages instead of the usual ads we see on billboards? Is there an underlying message or theme with the project choosing the former over the latter?
From the start I knew that I was not interested in using it for advertising. There is no signage or branding on the billboard. In fact many people in the city have no idea who runs it or what it ‘means’. This all runs counter to the schemes of advertising, where even if you come upon some sort of enigmatic message in the public it always leads back to a product at some point.
But I wouldn’t say that my main impulse with the billboard is to critique advertising. I really just see it as a slow form of publishing, and what I like to publish are the types of thoughts and ideas that you rarely see in public space.
How do you choose the message of the month? Is there a criteria for it?
There is no set criteria for what I select each month. Usually, I’m asking someone I respect to use it any way they deem fit. Sometimes I might suggest a specific direction or even text that that person has already produced. Often there is a little back and forth before we settle on the final text.
For some people it’s an incredibly daunting task to come up with something they are happy with, almost like deciding on a tattoo.
How do people react when they see the billboards?
To be honest, I don’t spend a lot of time watching people’s reactions.