Can ‘thinking like an artist’ help journalists find new uses for outmoded media?

Artists have a long history of repurposing and otherwise punking the sites and methods of mass communication. Some infiltrate up-to-the-minute technology, such as the Futurists with the newspaper or Richard Prince with Instagram. 

Instagram paintings: Richard Prince exhibition “New Portraits” at Gagosian Gallery in New York, 2014

Others absorb communication formats once they lose their currency. When technological advances render a medium impractical or obsolete, artists find new uses for it. Take photography. A hundred years ago, the camera liberated painting from the burden of having to document what the world “really” looked like, leading to impressionism to cubism to total abstraction. Today, in the wake of the digital era/revolution, artists experiment with old-fashioned tools in the darkroom or even out in nature, using emulsions made from vegetables and fruit.

This relationship between art and mass communication benefits artists, but what if it was reciprocal? Can “thinking like an artist” help journalists find innovative uses for outmoded media and, in the process, reach new audiences?

This question forms the core of my research at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. During my fellowship, I’ll be looking for ways to deploy art approaches in analog contexts, with an eye toward collaboration between media outlets and the arts.

My particular interest at RJI — as an artist who happens to be a former Associated Press reporter — is exploring the physicality and content of the newspaper. But what started my thinking about all this were billboards.

In April 2014, I launched the I-70 Sign Show, a public-art project that claims the Missouri interstate and its surplus billboards (five times the national average) as art territory. I invite artists to exhibit on mid-Missouri billboards, choosing images that engage typical signage themes such as beauty, religion, weapons, athletics, and, more often than not, politics. Artworks enter this existing “conversation” as commentary on the culture-war messages that proliferate on the abundant and affordable ad space.

At the same time, I’ve been photographing all the physical billboards between St. Louis and Kansas City. I’m guessing there are at least 500. The 350 I’ve shot so far are compiled in a database that provides an online context for the artwork and becomes a parallel Sign Show of its own.

After countless hours spent wandering and scrutinizing the interstate over the past 18 months, I came to realize that the supposedly “dying” medium of outdoor advertising actually has some significant democratic-speech potential.

Online, algorithms increasingly limit our exposure to things or ideas that we already “like.” Billboards may be one of the few remaining places where we encounter messages that challenge our opinions—that bore, irritate, offend and disgust. This sign-versus-screen comparison raises an important question: How is democracy altered when the information we consume only reinforces our values, however “correct” they might be? To follow up: Beyond billboards, what other analog or “struggling” media might have unexplored advantages over the digital?

The I-70 Sign Show continues during my fellowship, allowing artworks to interact with the red-versus-blue signage rhetoric of the presidential campaign season.


Top: “The Futurist Manfesto,” by F. T. Marinetti, 1909


Anne Thompson  
University fellow


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