The Last Billboard, designed by Pablo Garcia and Jon Rubin, is a 36 foot long billboard perched above a high-traffic street corner in East Liberty. Each month, the wooden letters are arranged by hand on a steel rail system to convey the words of a different thinker. Currently, Rubin curates the piece by invitation only and many of the contributors are visual artists from all over the country. The messages are presented anonymously, but for those who are curious the website affiliated with the project credits each iteration with an author.
When Rubin opened the doors of The Waffle Shop in 2008, the Lamar owned billboard on top of the building was not in use. Rubin asked the building owner if he could use the space to broadcast information about the restaurant/talk show below. For a brief period the piece listed a number of things the space needed to continue its operation, including a “beautiful leafy plant” which was soon donated. Prior to its current rendition, the billboard was made available to the public for $100 per week of use.
The minimalist, text-only design deviates from the aggressive tactics typically employed by commercial billboard advertisers. The imagery and slogan-speak of those structures that saturate the environment with visual pollution, treating the public as a perpetual consumer rather than a thinking individual capable of engaging in a critical dialogue. While eschewing this kind of commercial approach, the billboard drew international attention to the the public art transpiring beneath it.
In some ways, the work can be read as the physical instantiation of a social media platform. In its commitment to brevity, the billboard’s physical constraints echo the 140 character limitation enforced on Twitter. The space is another forum that offers up a simple and direct statement that is accessible to a large audience. Perhaps due to this congruity, a Buzzfeed article mistakenly attributed the words to anonymous internet users.
Past installations include Sarah Keeling’s & Daughters, which drew attention to woman-operated businesses by providing their name and telephone number and Lenka Clayton’s contribution in which she perched atop the roof and recorded the number of times someone looked at the sign.
Pablo Garcia is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Contemporary Practices at the the Art Institute of Chicago. He has previously taught at Carnegie Mellon University, University of Michigan, and Parsons School of Design. Garcia earned his graduate degree in architecture from Princeton University in 2003 and found work at an interdisciplinary design firm before turning to academia. As an artist, Garcia locates his practice between traditional technique and technological facility.
Jon Rubin received his MFA from California College of Arts and Crafts. He is an Associate Professor of Art at Carnegie Mellon University and leads the school’s Contextual Practice area. Rubin grounds his work in social practice by generating unexpected opportunities for political dialogue and meaning-making within the context of everyday life.