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Art in Ad Places is the Most Important Public Art Project Going on in NYC

Ollie Willems
Jul 22, 2017 · 15 min read
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Group photo by Jordan Seiler

RJ Rushmore,Caroline Caldwell, and Luna Park have started one of the most radical artistic endeavors this year

We’re back with another Member Spotlight, because our members are FRIGGIN’ AWESOME and always worth bragging about!

This week, I spoke to an old High School friend of mine, RJ Rushmore. In the years since graduation, RJ has made quite a name for himself amidst the street art community, curating shows, marketing artists, and most notably, starting one of the coolest ad takeover projects we’ve ever seen — Art in Ad Places.

He and his girlfriend, Caroline Caldwell, a fabulous artist in her own right, have co-created and co-curated this entire project. Art in Ad Places aims to replace a single ad on a single New York phone booth once a week, every week through 2017, with a different incredible piece of art.

Check out our conversation below:

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John Fekner. Photo by Luna Park

We knew each other in High School, but let’s go through your background anyway and how you emerged into the art world.

When I was still in High School, I started a blog, which I still run called Vandalog, which Caroline now writes for on occasion. And that was sort of my entry into ‘How do I fit into this thing?’ Because I’m not an artist. I can do all of the other stuff, I love all of the other stuff, but personally, my favorite thing to do is to find a wall someone can paint a mural on, get the permission from the property owner, get the paint, get the transportation sorted, talk to the neighbors to make sure they’re cool with the design, and just being able to have this person show up and do this really amazing thing, and paint whatever the fuck they want to paint. Just to sort of give them paint, give them a wall, and just say go, because that’s the thing I can’t do.

As I was figuring out what role do I play, because if I’m not going to paint, I have to have this support role in this thing I’m interested in. And I sort of stumbled into ‘Oh, blogging is useful.’ At the time in London, there wasn’t a blog that was publishing as often as I was, with an international perspective, also covering the big cities on a more day-to-day kind of way. I look back on some of these writings, and they’re terrible. the writing is terrible, the opinions are stupid, fine. But I was in the right place at the right time, I was able to put myself in that scene and prove my worth.

I then took a gap year after graduation High School, curated an exhibition, that I still think is one of the best things that I’ve curated, in part because it was one of the larger budgets that I’ve ever worked with and that just give you opportunities. I curated this show in Shoreditch, and it was this sort of pop-up. My concept for that was ‘What if a museum did a street art show?” Which at the time hadn’t really happened. There were people working on it, and there were attempts at it, but it wasn’t like they were inviting Banksy, or Shepard Fairey to come inside and show inside their museums in a serious way. So I wanted to know what that would look like.

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Pat Perry. Photo by Luna Park

I then got to college, tried to stay involved, kept the blog up, and met Caroline, who was involved in the Philly street art community, where I was going to school. Immediately we hit it off and have been dating for almost six years. She’s in many ways the opposite to me, she’ll write, she’s really good at interviews, but she’s an artist. Her way of contributing to the scene is as an artist, or an artist’s assistant. She’s worked for the last two years at varying points assisting a half-dozen different artists, because she really loves that aspect of it. She’s never gone to art school, but her training has effectively come from working with these people.

So at the same time she’s been doing some street art, some gallery art, and had been doing a few ad takeovers, even when we first met. Her family’s house is in the suburbs outside of Philly, and it’s along this suburban light-rail line, and there are ads in the stations. If you’re in the suburbs, where are you going to do graffiti and street art? There aren’t a lot of places in the suburbs where you can do that. You can put stickers on electrical boxes and lampposts, but if you want a frame or a wall, there’s not really that space. So she realized that she could use these ads, literally take the card stock ad out, take it to her room, paint something on it, and put it back. This is suburbia, if you’re there at 10 at night, no one’s waiting for that train. It’s not like if you were painting here. There’s no one there, nobody to care, and she was sort of using that to get into street art, and was accidentally doing ad takeovers from the very start.

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Shepard Fairey. Photo by Luna Park

What kind of art was this?

When she was just starting out, it was op-art. There was comic book illustration-y stuff. And the thing the first thing she went viral for were ad takeovers that were text-art, which was weird, because she doesn’t really do that. The two times she did text-art she went viral for it. These got taken down in a day, but we got a really got photo that got retweeted a lot, so that was sort of the inspiration for Art in Ad Places. That one photo, even if that lasted an hour, it still required an act of rebellion — stealing this sign, writing on it, reinstalling it, having something there that wasn’t supposed to be there. But it almost doesn’t matter if it lasted one day or lasted six weeks, because it got one good photo that got millions of notes on it. And now way more people have ever seen it than have ever ridden the metro north.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say, what’s weird about all that is that her normal style would be like really detailed illustrations of urban detritus. She’s taken a handful of art classes, one of which was just to learn printmaking. She’s basically self-taught. She had a residency last year at the Ace Hotel, she’s shown with Spoke Art down in the Lower East Side, she’s won a couple of awards, she’s done murals. So she has that side, and then her day job is assisting artists all the time, and just learning from them, learning other people’s styles, so that’s been her art school more than art school.

Nomi Chi. Photo by Luna Park

This is her first curatorial project. And it was something that we were coming up with together. She and I were super interested in ad takeovers, and I had looked at what a lot of our friends had done in that sphere; it was clearly one of the most important things happening in street art. The most radical thing happening on the street, consistently right now and effectively is ad takeovers — removing ads and putting up art, or just removing the ads altogether and putting up nothing, which is what some people like to do. So I was looking at it from this perspective, where I saw these mass-takeover projects, where you might have 50 to 100 artists all involved in one cohesive ad takeover. It’s an interesting concept, but looking at how some of these are played out, there are flaws, and I wanted to see what we could do to improve upon that concept. I thought it would be interesting, rather than doing 50 takeovers in one night, by 50 different artists, to see what would happen if we just spread that out over a year and consistently had one go up every week. If you can take over all the ads in New York in one night, that’s great, the problem is you end up getting a few good photos, and so only a few of the artists get the credit, since you only have the time and bandwidth to engage with a few of them. People forget about it really quick.

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LaLa Abaddon. Photo by Luna Park

So for us, we asked ourselves “What if we extended it? What if we said it’s going to take place over a year, where we’re going to work with the same number of artists and not take over the whole city. Just take over one spot and get a really good photo of each spot; all over New York.”

That was my logic for it, and at the same time Caroline took notice of this billboard right outside of our place, that was for a Brazilian butt lift. It had that thing that says “actual customer” and it was so clearly this airbrushed photo of a butt. It didn’t even look like a real photo, it looked like the illustration of a butt. And that was shitty, and she had to see that every damn day on her way to work. And it’s not healthy. I don’t think you need to see a billboard that encourages unrealistic expectations. And so that was her frustration.

We started talking about what I was thinking about, and about this billboard, and we both decided to do something about it. We both came to this point in parallel. So we said OK, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do one artist a week for a year, we’re going to put up one poster for each artist . We realized that payphones are cheaper to print than bus shelters, and they’re interesting, because they’re this remnant, they’re not useful. Whereas for a bus shelter, as much as I would object to an ad in a bus shelter, you might say it subsidizes the cost of running bus lines. Personally, I feel that any advertising is basically unhealthy, because it tends to rely on negative psychological reinforcement, saying “you need this because you’re shit.” But there’s no reason for advertising on payphones.

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Emily Lombardo. Photo by Luna Park

So we looked at payphones and asked ourselves what their purpose is. The initial trade off society made with the payphone company was “Look, you’re going to provide us with relatively inexpensive phone calls, because we need that as a public service. In exchange, you’re going to subsidize those phone calls and the maintenance and repair of these stations with advertising.” But now, the phones serve no public function, but the advertising is still being sold. Essentially, we as the public miss out on the intended public benefit. So we said payphones are a great target, because they’re so obviously a poor use of public space, because the only remaining function is to yell at us and make us feel bad.

The first component of the project was to spread it out over a year, which we could leverage to get press attention. Since there’s always a new piece going up every week, there’s no drop-off in terms of the attention we can gather.

The second was to get good documentation — we partnered up with a photographer, Luna Park, who’s a respected street art, graffiti, public art photographer. And she agreed to show up at every piece that we put up and take a photo.

Tod Seelie. Photo by Luna Park

And the last part was to work with really big-name artists. We’re intentionally working with artists who have a large social media following, often that following is different from the other artists we’re working with. We want to expose their work to new people, but we also want to expose new people to ourselves. The idea was “Hey, when we get Shepard Fairey, he’s going to introduce a thousand new people to this concept. And when we put up Sam Horine, he’s going to introduce a thousand new people.” And that overlap isn’t very much. So that was a big part of it, getting this big breadth of people who can get us a diverse audience that every week we add to. We have artists who the queer community absolutely loves, then we have artists who have absolutely nothing to do with that community, then some with a huge following within the abstract art community, or the pop-surrealism community, and we see every week a new group of followers.

So we’re an anti-advertising marketing campaign in that sense.

Do you reckon this company, Intersection, is following your Instagram account?

I am confident that they are, and is well aware of what we’re doing.

What’s the lifetime of each individual piece? And why don’t you think this company has pursued you directly?

So the lifetime of each piece varies from forty-eight hours to two weeks. And we can do things to increase or decrease that, within some degree of confidence. We can put up a piece and then wait five days to post it online, and that’ll probably last longer. Sometimes we’ll post a piece and will know that the company’s been through to change the ads in the area, but for some reason they’ve kept that one up. And then two days later it’ll be gone.

Sam Horine. Photo by Luna Park

We’re pretty confident that they know that we’re out there, doing this stuff. And my logic with it, is that it’s not in their best interest to give us more press by pursuing us and having making all this noise about it, because frankly they want these payphones gone too so they can replace them with LinkNYC’s. I don’t think that they hate having art in it. They recognize that their business model is advertising, but I don’t think the individual employees dislike having the art in there. And if you think about it over a year, the cost of dealing with only fifty-two of these is negligible. So I think they recognize some of the value of art, and of putting it out there, both for the public and for the ads. Because if I put public art in these ad spaces — which is kind of a funny thing about what we do — when people start looking for the installs that we do, they’re going to end up seeing way more ads than they see installs.

There’s an organization called Save Art Space, which is essentially claiming that advertisers should set aside a certain amount of their capacity for art. And so I think the company knows the value of having these installations associated with them to an extent. Even the Links have worked with the Public Art Fund. But for us that wasn’t us about recognizing that some of these companies might have an interest in public art, since at the end of the day they’re still an ad company, and we’re doing something different.

One of the things that was very important, particularly for Caroline, was going back to the content of the ads, and asking ourselves “What is advertising?” It is there to make you buy a thing, and the easiest way to make you buy a thing, either by increasing consumption. If you get to what most advertising does, I would argue that it’s not a zero-sum game, that it does increase consumption. It makes you feel bad about yourself or the things you’re able to do, whether it’s your looks or the things you can afford, and it says “Hey, buy this fancy watch or buy Coca Cola and you’ll feel good and have so many more friends.” The default response in advertising is finding out what they can do to make somebody feel like if they don’t buy this product, then they’re missing out. Or, like with luxury products, it’s about making you feel superior.

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Myles Loftin. Photo by Luna Park

So as we’ve been co-curating this, one of the major things that Caroline has brought to it is the idea that we need to make sure that there are certain voices that are represented. We have this one amazing piece that we put up by a tattoo artist and illustrator, Noel’le Longhaul, based out in Maine; she’s trans, and she’s super talented, and she did this piece that isn’t explicitly political, but she gave us this beautiful explanation of her piece — summarized as the absence of queer and trans bodies in public spaces — that complements the piece perfectly. So it was important to us to incorporate some of that; in addition to put up pieces by, say, Shepard Fairey, we’re also going to feature some artists that have a very small following but have this really important message, or are so talented that Shepard’s fan should know about them, and vice-versa.

So there was this element of trying to put out different messages — not just positive or negative messages — but also bodies or messages that don’t fit the norm.

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Noel’le Longhaul. Photo by Luna Park

How long as it been running and when is it running until?

We started in January, on the first. We were going to start in August, had some delays, and we were finally ready to go in November. We were going to start the weekend after the election. We were super confident and ready to go. And then Trump won, and we just had this moment where we understood we couldn’t start this now. Because as much as some of the work we’re doing is very anti-Trump and linked to Trump, we felt that at that moment we needed to protest, and mourn, and lick our wounds a little bit. We needed a break before it even started. We went back, printed another batch, went back to a few artists and asked if they wanted to do something more political, which a few of them did. So we figured we’d start in January and run it through all of 2017.

After that we’re not really sure what it’ll be. It probably won’t be every week, but what we would love to do is reach out to other groups of people, not just artists; reach out to scientists, or poets, or games makers, and see what statement it is that they’d like to make in a place like New York City. So the hope is to sort of pop up here and there, do a few, and do less of that marketing, and do more to leverage the following we have at that point to explore more of what you can do in a public space.

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Michelle Angela Ortiz. Photo by Luna Park

Are most of these artists making this art deliberately for these installations?

It’s mostly stuff that’s pre-made and they’ll just reformat it to our needs and crop. We don’t want to make work for the artist; the work for the artist is “Send us a high-res file that’s our size. When it goes up, post it to your social media and write us a little blurb about it.” When I’m doing projects where I’m getting paid, I pay artists; when I’m not, like this one, I feel still feel weird about asking, but I can be upfront about it. I think we’ve been pretty clear with people, where we’ve clearly said “We’re not going to try and sell you on why this is good for exposure. We’re not going to debate you if you think you need to get paid, because you should be paid.” What we’re going to say is that this is an activist project, where we’re volunteering our time, and if you also feel an affinity for it, then send us a file.

It’s been really cool to see who’s been interesting to work with, who’s been enthusiastic, who’s been easy to work with, and who’s provided the energy that we’re putting into it. And we’ve found people that I would never have expected to do anything like this, because their norm is so far outside of ours, and we’ve just found a connection. Like we’ve got the GuerrillaGirls coming up in the fall, who have been in the scene since the ‘80s about sexism and racism in the art world. And they were on board! You don’t go into that expecting these people will say yes to your favor.

So to connect with people like the Guerrilla Girls, like Shepard Fairey, who could so easily say no but who love this idea, and even with people who aren’t as famous, is so cool to be like “Here’s this artist who’s so down with this crazy idea we just had in our bedroom that should be as successful as it is!”

Jonathan Gardenhire. Photo by Luna Park

That’s it for this week’s Member Spotlight. Make sure you check out Art in Ad Places to see all the new amazing pieces of art going up every week in NYC. Follow RJ, Caroline, and Luna on social media to keep up with all the amazing work they’re up to.

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