— Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
Like the motels and fast-food joints along America’s interstate system, billboards are a ubiquitous roadside feature, a revealing (if archaic) format that refuses to disappear in a digital age. In Missouri, where there is a billboard surplus, these low-budget advertisements can seem like a back-and-forth shouting match in the culture wars, with their commentaries on sex, gambling, firearms, unions, and religion.
The “I-70 Sign Show” is a yearlong event launched in April that engages the Missouri landscape by exhibiting art on an interstate billboard near Columbia, halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. Six artists are on the main board for two months; then their work rotates to an available board elsewhere on the interstate for another two months, a different location each time. I talked with “Sign Show” organizer Anne Thompson, an artist and writer living in Columbia, about her curatorial agenda.
I. THE BILLBOARDS ARE THE SCENERY
THE BELIEVER: How did Missouri become a billboard capital of the U.S.?
ANNE THOMPSON: It goes back to the Kennedy Administration, when the interstate was new. There were federal subsidies to regulate signage, and Missouri turned those down. Since then—and I’m really simplifying—there’s been this contest between highway-beautification efforts and a powerful ad-industry lobby with money and political clout. About 15 years ago, when it looked like a regulation law might pass, billboard companies went on a construction binge because existing signs would be grandfathered in. Going by state transportation data, which isn’t that current, Missouri has at least 15,000 billboards, which—allowing for states with no billboards (like Maine) and states with lots (like Florida)—winds up being roughly five times the national average.