Deep in the Missouri Midwest, above the 250-mile stretch of Interstate 70 that connects St. Louis with Kansas City, a billboard read: 'Keep Abortion Legal'.
Artist Aleksandra Mir’s stark political message jostled for attention with adverts for casinos and burger joints. Although it’s not unusual to see political statements along this stretch of the rural highway, seeing a pro-choice message is virtually unheard of. Missouri has some of the tightest abortion laws in the US, and is currently seeking to enact even stricter requirements. Billboard companies almost always refuse to display pro-choice messages for political and religious reasons – despite the fact that pro-life statements, funded by Christian and right-wing groups, are commonplace.
Devised by Aleksandra Mir back in 2005, the ‘Keep Abortion Legal’ design was intended as an antidote to the graphic and aggressive banners of anti-abortion protesters she saw in NYC. Outraged by their vocal protests and unnecessarily gory posters, Mir felt the pro-choice movement needed an effective visual counterpoint. The artist initially imagined she had devised a relatively innocuous design: the message, which after all advocates the continuation of a (currently) legal procedure, is written in neutral Helvetica font with baby blue and baby pink colouring. Nevertheless, the artwork has attracted controversy and outrage, being rejected by fashion labels and banned from a museum show even before the team at The i70 Sign Show chose to arrange for its appearance on a 21 x 60 foot billboard.
Anne Thompson, the organiser of The i70 Sign Show felt the artist’s pro-choice design was perfect for her political billboard project. Since 2014, she and her team have enjoyed capitalising on the state’s surplus of advertising hoardings, making use of them for creative and cultural ends. They have addressed topics from religion to race, using the interstate as an open-air gallery space, playing on the tensions already apparent between the conflicting viewpoints and messages along the route.
Previous billboard projects include Ryan McGinness’s barbed jibe at the American electoral system ‘Re-elect Skull & Bones’ (2015). Designed to play against adverts for political campaigns, McGuinness draws attention to the famous Yale secret society, whose former members include Democrats and Republicans alike. In 2016, Ed Ruscha’s ominous ‘The End’ stood above the traffic on the highway, riding the line between sharp warning and menacing future prediction.
Having previously received funding from a variety of corporate and media related sources, the most recent ‘Keep Abortion Legal’ billboard was funded by private contributions via a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo. The project has been a creative way to give prominence to political viewpoints and challenge tastes and values in the area. ‘Keep Abortion Legal’ in particular was a reasonable but thought-provoking response to a litany of opposing messages, a single yet powerful alternative voice, and an inspired way to reach those who may never set foot in a gallery. By Kate Neave
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