Artists Decry Company’s Decision to Pull Mass Incarceration Billboards

Artists claim that a billboard company declined to display their 10-artwork series in Texas in a move to avoid discussions about mass incarceration in the conservative state. Titled 8 x 5 Houston in reference to the minimum required square footage of a jail cell in Texas, the project was slated to debut November 11 across 10 billboards in Houston, where 15 people have died this year at the city’s Harris County Jail.

Art At a Time Like This (ATLT), which exhibits public art physically and online, spearheaded the project alongside SaveArtSpace, another public art nonprofit that showcases work in spaces traditionally reserved for advertisements. The groups commissioned 10 artists, many of them Houston-based and formerly incarcerated, for the project: Mel Chin, McKenna Gessner, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Monti Hill, Kill Joy, Chandrika Metivier, Jared Owens, Jenny Polak, El Rebo, and Faylita Hicks. 

SaveArtSpace’s Executive Director Travis Rix told Hyperallergic that he began planning 8 x 5 Houston in late August. He was working with Clear Channel, a national billboard advertising company that displayed another version of the 8 x 5 series in Miami. In the course of the negotiation process, Rix said Clear Channel required that the artworks include a “paid for” line listing ATLT and SaveArtSpace as funders, which he said is typical for displays containing messaging across the political spectrum. In an email chain reviewed by Hyperallergic, a sales representative communicates a subsequent string of increasing demands, including that the billboards include sources for data cited in the artworks.

Although Rix repeatedly asked over email to receive a contract (he said he normally signs one two to four weeks in advance), the sales representative never sent a finalizing document. Then, Clear Channel pushed back the opening to November 11. Finally, on November 2, a little over a week from when the billboards were expected to go on display, Rix said he received a phone call to inform him that the series could not be shown. When Rix asked for a reason for the display’s cancellation, he received no definitive response.

Clear Channel has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.

Faylita Hicks’s work in the series (courtesy Art At a Time Like This)

“In my mind, it’s Texas, it’s conservative area,” Rix said. “The person in charge of that branch for those markets is conservative, and they don’t see the prison system as a problem.”

Rix explained that it’s not that unusual for a billboard company to decline to show a SaveArtSpace work, but normally the nonprofit can just move the exhibition to a new site. This series was different.

“It’s a Houston-based and Houston-targeted exhibition based on what’s going on in the Harris County Jail,” Rix said. “These billboards would be accepted in New York or Los Angeles or Michigan or somewhere.”

Rix reached out to two other companies with sign setups in Houston — national corporation Outfront and local company SignAd Outdoor — but he said both also declined to show the works. Neither company responded to requests for comment, but an email reviewed by Hyperallergic shows that an Outfront representative cited the reason for not displaying the series as it not being “right for the market.” 

“Just based on where we’ve been rejected over the last few years — It’s always in conservative areas,” Rix said. ATLT co-founder Barbara Pollack, a critic, curator, and Hyperallergic contributor, pointed out that Texas is holding an election today, November 8 and said that there were political posters up all over Houston.

Fraylita Hicks, a poet and visual artist who was commissioned to create an image for 8 x 5 Houston, had created a work featuring a self-portrait and two texts. One urges the viewer to consider the humanity of incarcerated people. The other includes a quote from the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which outlaws “excessive bail.” The photograph shows them outside of the apartment where they were arrested.

One of the trucks now showcasing the works (photo by Alex Barber)

Hicks, who is originally from Texas and recently moved to Chicago, told Hyperallergic they were incarcerated in a Texas jail not far from Houston where they were held for 45 days before trial because they could not afford bail. 

“It’s a continuation of censoring individuals who have direct experience — I have direct experience — inside the criminal justice system in Texas,” Hicks said of the billboard companies’ refusal to display 8 x 5 Houston. The artist called the state of incarceration in the state “extreme.”

“We’re determined that we’re going to do it in one version or another,” said Pollack.

On Saturday, the group held a panel discussion at the Houston Museum of African American Culture. Despite the setbacks, one local company — Premier Mobile — agreed to showcase 8 x 5 Houston artworks on the sides of two trucks. Rothko Chapel, the Museum of African American Culture, Arts League Houston, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and Project Row Houses allowed the vehicles to park outside their institutions, and the trucks circled Harris County Jail later that evening and before the event. ATLT and SaveArtSpace will continue working with Local Premiere for the next few weeks and are considering additional options for display, including banners and wheat-paste posters.

“We are people first, we are not our charges first,” Hicks said. “As artists, it’s our job to remember our humanity.”

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