Art goes public as students tap into billboard power

Getting into the frame: Tubes and hoardings become showcase for a new creative breed
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The Independent Online
While shaven-headed creative types in advertising agencies may already think of what they do as art, an American movement that uses advertising sites as art galleries has taken off in the art colleges of Britain.

London Underground is to give over some of its advertising sites to satisfy the demand from art students and already an unknown guerrilla artist has started, without permission, using the advertising spaces in tube trains to exhibit their work.

This month LU found six rogue pieces of work made to size and placed in the advertising slots above passengers' seats. The drawings, a mixture of photography and drawing, are signed only as '97 S N' G. One seen by The Independent takes as its subject women having sex while drunk.

Because of the numbers of students asking if they can display their work, TDI, the company which sells advertising on the Underground, has decided to give over a part of its showcase Angel tube station to student artists' work.

But the trend is not confined to London. Last month Louise Gridley, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, booked a 10ft by 20ft poster site to display a piece of work from her final- year show. The work was designed as a comment on the way sex is used to sell chocolate. She claims that within a few days Cadbury had pressured the poster company, Mills & Allen, to paste over her work, but the company denies censorship.

"Within advertising, the chocolate bar is often seen as a phallus, the woman luxuriating in her moments of pleasure," said Ms Gridley. "My posters titillate and poke fun at the association between sex and chocolate."

Meanwhile in Birmingham, Surely?, a nine-strong group of artists and designers, is using advertising space as a means of getting its art to as wide an audience as possible. Surely? has used flyposting and the advertising spaces in buses to get its work seen and in the summer is planning to move on to bigger billboards and large projectors to impose its work on a whole street.

"We are looking for a mass audience rather than a gallery elite," said Andy Robinson, a member of the group. "We also want to infiltrate advertising space so that we can create a little blip in people's minds. Something that stops them for a few seconds rather than just washing over them like all the other visual messages they see."

Ironically, one of Surely?'s works, titled United Colours of Birmingham, has ended up in the Photographer's Gallery in London.

The subversion of advertising by creating art that uses the language and spaces of advertising was pioneered in the Eighties by the American post-modernist artist Barbara Kruger. Kruger, a former designer at Elle magazine, used billboards in Times Square in New York to make ironic comments of consumerism and shopping.

There was also work by the art collective The Guerrilla Girls which used bus shelters and tube trains as agitprop to expose male dominance of the arts. Photographs of their graffitoed posters are now highly collectable.

"There has been a movement gaining ground to re-use space because the Art Council is cutting back and there is less space available for art students," said Lorraine Gammon, senior lecturer in cultural studies at St Martins School of Art in London. "Covent Garden is just covered with flyposters that look like ads that turn out to be someone's art."

However, she believes some of the motivation for the trend is artists looking to get a job in advertising: "The space between consumer culture and art is narrowing," she said. "You only have to look at Diesel jeans ads to known that people in advertising completely understand semiotics - which was supposed to be used to deconstruct advertising in the first place. It seems more like the case that these students realise that once you can deconstruct advertising you can put it back together even better - and then you can get a job in advertising."

As if to confirm this, TDI plans to cash in on this by linking its Angel gallery with creative directors in advertising agencies to encourage the agencies to use its spaces. "The fact is they're all obsessed with being bloody famous," said Professor Gammon, "so that some of the art is connected to ego rather than meaning."