In 2016, every time the artist Caroline Caldwell wanted to leave her New York apartment, she had to walk past a giant billboard advertising Brazilian butt lifts. Sick of being forced to look at an advertisement focused on making women feel inferior about their bodies, Caldwell and her partner RJ Rushmore decided to start a campaign to replace ads with art.
Their project, called Art in Ad Places, ran the entire length of 2017. Each week of the year, the duo surreptitiously replaced an ad on New York phone booths with a work by a different artist, and then street art photographer Luna Park documented the project. Often, the artworks would be taken down within 24 hours, though some lasted weeks. We’re nearly a month into 2018 and Rushmore says there are a few still up, scattered about the city. And now the documentary photographs have been collected into a book and will be displayed in an exhibition at Lucas Lucas gallery in Brooklyn.
The photographs themselves are stunning visuals that highlight not just the works of art by artists like Molly Crabapple and Shepard Fairey, but how striking they look within an urban context. Some works, like an illustration by Mel Kadel of a crowd of women, are lovely works that brighten up the grey concrete streetscape. Others, like a work by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh that features a woman staring defiantly out into the street with the words “stop telling women to smile” below her bust, are more political. The work by Molly Crabapple, which features a tragic image of a ruined streetscape in Syria, was deliberately posted near the UN. Some play on the theme of the project–one, by the art collective For Freedoms with artist Hank Willis Thomas, shows a young black man curled up on the floor of a prison where the silhouette of a vodka bottle is painted in white, with the words “Absolut Solitude” below, in the style of the alcohol brand.
Rushmore considers the project a marketing campaign in itself, but not for any product. “We’re advertising for a different use of public space,” he says.
He’s particularly frustrated with the use of payphones for advertising. “There’s no actual use for payphones–most phones don’t work. I’ve maybe seen one person making a call,” he says. “Yet they’re still venues for advertising. What benefit does that have as a society? . . . Let’s make better use of public space and maybe not pollute our public space with ads. Maybe an empty wall is okay sometimes.”