There's a stretch of Interstate 10 from Los Angeles, passing through Palm Springs to Tucson, that artist Zoe Crosher describes as a sort of "no man's land." Crosher knows it well from her early days in L.A., when she traversed it, regularly visiting her then-boyfriend, now-husband who was at the University of Arizona in Tucson. On that open-ended landscape that could have been excerpted from a sci-fi movie or a nuclear bomb test site, nothing lived but the desert heat. Crosher's vision appeared on one of those countless back-and-forth drives.
"I was in the middle of the deep, dark desert, wanting to get to Los Angeles," says Crosher. "I had this vision of a green, beautiful Shangri-La, like an image of perfection."
The heat of the desert planted these first water-necessitating seeds, becoming the Manifest Destiny Billboard Project, a curated experience that occurs cross-country along Interstate 10. Conceived by Crosher and co-curated with LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) Director and Curator Shamim M. Momin, the project offers 10 artists a chance to create 10 billboards in designated stretches of the interstate, anchored in a nearby city. Each billboard marks the landscape that's been tread tracing America's expansion from east to west, marking the problematic pathway of a determined, individualistic takeover of native lands, and a molding the landscape into what people wanted it to be rather than embracing it for its natural beauty.
The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project began in 2013. Starting in Jacksonville, Florida, Crosher and Momin staked out stretches of the 10 and gathered artists in relation to the cities along the way, including John Baldessari (San Antonio, TX), Sanford Biggers (New Orleans, LA), Eve Fowler (Houston, TX), Shana Lutker (Jacksonville, FL), Jeremy Shaw (El Paso, TX), Daniel R. Small (Las Cruces, NM), Bobbi Woods (Tucson, AZ), and Mario Ybarra, Jr. (Mobile, AL). The California leg of the trip finishes this Spring and Summer 2015 with Crosher in Palm Springs and Matthew Brannon in Los Angeles.
Is it Arabic, hieroglyphics, or what? Just as important, what do the symbols mean?
"I've seen the billboards," said Las Crucen Craig Melton, who delivers business supplies to Lordsburg, Silver City and Deming as many as three times a week. "It's pretty weird. I've been trying to figure out what it is, what it means.
"I was beginning to wonder if it was some kind of threat or warning. You never know, we're close to the border and you think that ISIS or some other subversives might be trying to get at us."
Each artist created 10 original billboard works along the I-10, which are meant to be seen while driving fast in that zoned out, sort of paying attention yet not really focused state that we enter when in cars speeding through landscapes at high speeds.
Crosher's project both comments on and indulges in the Romantic notion of Manifest Destiny. What could this long since historical term -- which is oddly still used by people moving westward today -- mean in a contemporary, capitalist-ridden Western landscape that's since been stripped of its native people, replaced by suburbs covered in strip malls, single-story houses, big-box stories, and other relics of American consumerism?
The billboard project reflects on the repercussions of manifest destiny, manifested.
Crosher plants her billboards in that same stretch of land where she dreamt up the project -- the deep California/Arizona border to Palm Springs -- when the speed limit shifts from L.A. County's 65 MPH to 70 MPH as it enters the Inland Empire. Her billboards capture images of this built Shangri-La green gorgeousness, which she commissioned collaborators, including artists, perfumers, and florists, to create based on their own fantasies of the West. The first Shangri-LA'd wall was built with LA-based florist Hollyfora; these creations are then photographed for the billboards.
Crosher's section of the billboards will manifest on April 2nd and 3rd at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert, a so-called stop-over point/stand-in Shangri-La. On April 3rd, people can head over to the small ghost town of Desert Center, located 45 miles from the museum, to watch the performance Composition I-10, with a musical score composed by Scott Benzel.
Crosher's billboards will be activated through Benzel's performance, which will occur at dawn and dusk in a now-abandoned circle of palm trees located in the ghost town of Desert Center. It might not be possible to find the billboards, making the activation performance matter even more.
"One important element of actually experiencing the billboards is trying to find them," explains Crosher. "We can't afford for me to go to every single one of them [across the country]. It's been this great situation where we are lost out on the 10 somewhere, in the middle of a place we don't know, and that's as much a part of the activation."
The project officially ends in Los Angeles with Matthew Brannon's chapter, which occurs only in Los Angeles and Santa Monica. His billboards will reference Castration Squad, an all-female punk band of the late 70s/early 80s that influenced death rock, goth and riot grrrl bands and movements. The billboards will function as fake advertisements for a documentary about this band that doesn't exist, graying the space of the billboard as a means for creating landscapes of consumerism into one manifesting fantasy that could perhaps one day become a destiny, reality or perhaps a new imaging of all three.
The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project concludes June 2015 in Los Angeles with events both locally and across the country. Events around L.A. are evolving and will be listed on the project's Kickstarter page.