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23 Artists Hacked New York's Busiest Digital Billboards

'Commercial Break' kicks off Public Art Fund's 40th anniversary season by hijacking advertising all over the city and turning it into art.

If you find yourself in Times Square, downtown Brooklyn, or at Westfield World Trade Center in New York City, you may be surprised to see those spaces' ubiquitous ads for soft drinks, fast fashion, and electronics swapped for poignant and gorgeous video art. The switch, part of a citywide exhibition called Commercial Break, kicks off Public Art Fund's 40th anniversary season with disruptive, artful advertisements taking over the city's largest and most technologically advanced screens. Curated by Associate Curators Emma Enderby and Daniel S. Palmer, Commercial Break features 23 artists whose work can be seen on billboards in Times Square, the 360-degree "Oculus" screen outside Barclays Center, 19 digital screens at Westfield World Trade Center, hundreds of LinkNYC kiosks all over the city, and embedded as pop-up "ads" on PublicArtFund.org.

The idea for Commercial Break sprang from Public Art Fund's formative exhibition series Messages to the Public , which ran on an 800-square-foot animated Spectacolor screen in Times Square from 1982 to 1990. Every month, one of 70 different artists, including Jenny Holzer, Guerilla Girls, and Alfredo Jaar, presented a 30-second animation within a 20-minute loop of commercials. The intent of the project was similar to that of Commercial Break: fighting propaganda by means of propaganda. The artists this time around had to confront time limits and embrace brevity. Their challenge is cutting through a litany of information surrounding outdoor advertising by relying solely on visual language.

Meriem Bennani, Your Year by Fardaous Funjab, 2015, Courtesy of Jayson Wyche and Public Art Fund, New York

Almost 20 years after Messages to the Public, this new series could not be more relevant to our overstimulated society. Considering the current state of affairs in the US, it's appropriate timing to disrupt the daily routines of ordinary New Yorkers with a collection of thought-provoking works invading public space. Martine Syms's Lessons LXXV, on view in Times Square, is part of a powerful ongoing series exploring notions of blackness. In her piece, a forlorn woman dripping in milk stands before a black backdrop. The beautifully filmed, high-contrast video is slick enough to be an ad, but in reality, the work is a reference to the demonstrations in Ferguson, MO, where protesters would carry milk to counteract the painful effects of tear gas.

Moroccan-born artist Meriem Bennani's provocative work on view at Barclays Center addresses the cultural significance of the hijab. Similarly, Turkish-born artist Hayal Pozanti takes over Westfield World Trade Center with a text-based piece juxtaposing technological languages, like that used by AI, with human expression. Her self-created alphabet of shapes floats across screen while an English translation spells out "RELENTLESS TENDERNESS," creating a soothing transitional space that makes one question the nature of the phrase as it drifts from screen to screen.

Hayal Pozanti, RELENTLESS TENDERNESS, 2017, Courtesy of Jayson Wyche and Public Art Fund, New York

The modern world consists of multitudinous screens that subject us to thousands of advertisement on a daily basis. Commercial Break is a welcome opportunity to slow down subliminal messaging in spaces trafficked by millions of people each day. "The blurred lines between art and advertisement and the bombardment of information both in our public and private spheres is exactly what we wanted this exhibition to address. As well as running artworks in various ad-cycles, the exhibition includes a pop-up webisode by the artist Casey Jane Ellison on PublicArtFund.org, where the other exhibition artworks run as commercials within Ellison's work. This directly addresses the fact that streaming, browsing, and clicking play is an increasingly pervasive part of contemporary reality," Enderby tells Creators.

Palmer adds that, " Commercial Break invites a generation of artists working in new media to create site-specific interventions across advertising platforms in New York City, to show how our era of ubiquitous computing with smartphones and pervasive advertising have resulted in a much more intensified situation of connectedness, and distraction, than the era of television ever could have dreamed.  We hope this has a positive impact on the landscape of the city and makes people think reflexively about the current situation, even if only temporarily."

Commercial Break is on view through March 5. For a full rundown of Public Art Fund's 40th anniversary programming, visit their website.

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