How and why did Basque artist Itziar Barrio end up creating a public billboard art installation on the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Fulton Street in Bed-Stuy? Barrio spoke with us about the concept of her irreverently engaging piece, and why the ideas surrounding art and community are more universal than local.
(To see a slideshow of Barrio’s work, scroll to the bottom of the page)
Brooklyn The Borough: One aspect of your three part project is a public art installation at the corner of Fulton and Nostrand in Bedford Stuyvesant. The imagery includes a tropical scene and the text reads, "Welcome To The New Paradise. You, a Lonely Wildcat." Who is the wildcat and why is this the new paradise?
Itziar Barrio: The Bed-Stuy neighborhood is full of tropical signage, signage with images of palm trees blowing in the wind, bursting suns, ocean waves, advertising fast food, Caribbean food, clothing stores, bars and 99 cent stores, etc. The image on the billboard embodies the symbolic language of the neighborhood’s advertisements. In much of my work, I am using or abstracting commercial symbolic language, meaning that, I use icons to create a larger conversation, speaking about the icons themselves and the use of iconography to create and reflect the social codes that inhabit our daily lives. I distort the quotidian to establish a “re-lecture” of these codes while talking about the influence of this language on our Individual and social behaviors.
With the palm in particular, I used as a classic stereotypical image of the so called paradise. Many of the residents in the neighborhood have left tropical settings such as the Caribbean Islands, South America and Africa, to make their homes in New York City, while, on the other side, many long time New Yorkers take regular vacations, seeking peace, serenity and a taste of ‘paradise’ to the places these people have left. I try to put the spectator in touch with two of the essential concepts of the project: paradise and holidays-leisure society and also making reference to immigration and dislocation.
The immigrant experience in America is often sensationalized as a marvelous adventure, someone coming from nothing, embarking upon a new land of uninhibited wealth and growth. While in reality many immigrants find themselves still living in poverty, now alone. The interpretation of the piece has to be resolved by the spectator through their personal dialogue-experience with it, of it.
BTB: What message are you trying to convey to the community, and what do you hope this billboard has accomplished? What does this medium in particular accomplish in your eyes?
IB: First of all, this neighborhood was the place where the billboard had to be, not only conceptually, but because it was the context where the project started to make sense in my head and started to grow in other directions. At the same time the billboard was the perfect media to relate the concepts of paradise and holidays, with the mass media language, using the media itself.
Aside from this, I think exposure to works of art boosts the quality of life for residents of any community. By playing with the idea of commercial advertisement and using a traditional ad space for creative purposes, I´m talking about our quotidoun and constant relation to commercial advertisement in general.
Placing an art piece in the public space, makes art accessible, visible at the same time it gets mixed and integrated in our daily day lives. With this particular project, I use signs associated with a certain environment which disarticulates in order to configure a new system. From the art itself, I as an artist can only hope that the people have a personal experience with the work.
BTB: How does this installation relate to your work on Governor's Island and your solo show at the White Box gallery in Manhattan which just closed?
IB: Welcome to the New Paradise is conceived as a three-part project: a public art installation, a site-specific and one solo exhibition, which took place on three islands: Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Governors Island, on three different levels, in the sky, on the ground and in a basement.
The first part, titled “RETURN” is the public art installation piece, the billboard in Brooklyn. The second part, “PUBLIC COLOSSAL,” took place in a house on Governors Island, which I transformed into sort of a personal jungle. The first room featured the main video, "Welcome to the New Island." The video, a mixing of film and animation, places two women in a tropical setting, where pink bombs explode in the background. Another room presented a series of photographs with stereogram-like inscriptions, such as "Public" and "Colossal" etched over lushy jungles.
The third part, WELCOME TO THE NEW PARADISE, was also the title of the solo at White Box in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was a solo show. It started with the main video, and, as in Governors Island, photographs and drawings complemented the setting, while banners sustained with branches create shelters, refuge for LCD screens showing additional videos.
The entire project, addressing issues of paradise, vacation, migration and the publicity industry, also dealing with domesticity, contemporary occidental societies and the wild natures lurking in all of us, constructs a new fiction, a new mythology, and ultimately an alternate reality, and reflects, in full, the symbolism of diurnal realities.
BTB: As your projects conclude this month, what do you plan on doing next?
IB: The Billboard will be up until December 10th at Fulton and Nostrand in Brooklyn, by the Nostrand stop on the A train, so it’s not over yet. In the coming month I want to do an oral history project, a sort of short video documentary, speaking with people on the streets and getting their response to the billboard. We’ll see what comes out of that. Aside from that I have other projects I am beginning to work on, but I’m not ready to start talking about those yet.
The only thing I could say is that I may be working with a theater director and performers in order to create a video about group dynamic and behavior.
(All images courtesy of Itziar Barrio)