Public Places, Private Spaces

In our cities we can’t escape advertising. Corporations compete to capture our hearts, minds and money, and the big ones can afford big signs, filling up walls and skylines.

What would happen though, if a city’s billboards were stripped of the usual ads for beers, cars and sex, and covered instead with notes from people reaching out to communicate with us through our hearts, not our hip-pockets?

This happened briefly in one of Australia’s cities. Poetic and often poignant messages suddenly started appearing on billboards around Hobart, written in bold white text on a red background. They’d catch your eye and trick your mind as you went about your business.

For me, home is about the things that
you’ve lost. What you call home is the
place where you look for them.

At traffic lights in your car, on foot as you walked the city, you’d see them move in from the margins of your vision, drawing your mind away from your own idle thoughts, into the private worlds of others.

I’m often asked what I’m
doing here.
This makes me cry.

Even as you left the city, on a main artery heading north, there was a billboard winking at you, slowing you on your well-worn way.

Everything’s rigged.

The people behind it were Justy Phillips and James Newitt. Artists and lecturers at the Tasmanian School of Art, they transformed the city in subversive and surprising ways for two weeks in the autumn of 2007.

The texts came from a trove of snippets and stories collected from 900 people: elderly women in nursing homes, Aboriginal people, prison inmates, refugees, young students. A city shopfront set up for a day lured people in off the street with the promise of extra Christmas spending money: a dollar a story.

Each person had been asked to talk about home, family, hopes and dreams, and what Hobart meant to them. From these, Phillips and Newitt selected 27, which was enough to cover most of the small city’s large billboards.

The project, known as write/here, was mounted during the 2007 Ten Days on the Island arts festival, with funding coming from a mix of corporate largesse, arts grants and merchandise sales. It was later documented in a book which revealed some of the stories behind the texts.

This was from an Aboriginal woman reflecting on different ideas about home.

Sometimes you make your own traps.

A prison inmate rang her father one Christmas day, for the first time in four years.

Because I miss him and I’m ready
to forgive him.

An elderly woman living in a nursing home hinted at a full, rich life.

Yes, I was a dancing teacher all my life.
My hobby was always the tap dancing, but I
worked for many, many years in the lottery
office as an ordinary clerk.

I was never ordinary.

Meanwhile, cultural awareness in contemporary Australia was painted large in three short sentences.

These kids have been child soldiers you know,
walking around in the army with machine
guns, and killing people. And then they come
to Hobart and all of a sudden teachers are
like ‘don’t wear sneakers, do your laces up’.

Imagine having lived through that and then
someone’s telling you to tuck your shirt in.

Billboards are a potent symbol of a type of power that money can buy. For a couple of weeks these altered billboards tipped the balance of things, giving visible presence to a different reality, in strangely hopeful and beautiful ways.