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Manifest Destiny

More often than not, a billboard on the side of the road recedes into the scenery. But in the right—or a profoundly wrong—context, it can hold unexpected power. (Remember when Bret Easton Ellis’s nihilistic narrator, glancing up at a Los Angeles intersection in Less Than Zero, confesses, “All it says is ‘Disappear here’ and even though it’s probably an ad for some resort, it still freaks me out a little …”) That sort of impact is what artist Zoe Crosher and non-profit art organization LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) were going for when they launched The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project two years ago. They asked 10 artists to put up billboards in 10 locations along I-10, beginning in Jacksonville, Florida, and ending, this month, in L.A. Here, a few tales from the road.


Jacksonville, FL

“My parents now live near Jacksonville, and every time I visit I’m entranced by the sky and the spectacular clouds. So grand. For the billboard, I looked back at depictions of the Florida sky dating to the first European settlers who arrived in this area, where the 10 freeway begins. It turns out it’s the site of the longest continuous European settlement in the New World, dating back to 1565. A sense of manifest destiny brought them here to Florida; it seems fitting the Manifest Destiny project start here.” —Shannon Lutker

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


Mobile, AL

“As a child, my father worked as a Naval draftsman in Biloxi, Mississippi, which is right near Mobile. It was where, as a kid, I first experienced the understanding that my skin tone has different currency in different places. I was about 12 years old, and we walked into a Chuck E. Cheese in Mobile, and, I swear to God, the whole place stopped. Everyone stared. They couldn’t make hair or hide of us. At that time, there wasn’t very much racial diversity in the Deep South. But now there seems to have been a shift, and Latinos are moving to that part of the country. Bringing a part of the barrio to Alabama was my goal.” —Mario Ybarra, Jr.

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


New Orleans, LA

“We shot in the northeastern desert of Ethiopia, right on the edge of the Danakil Depression in an area called The Afar. It’s infamously desolate. (It’s even in National Geographic as one of the harshest places to live on Earth.) We were there for three days or so—it was all we could take. You don’t really see the desolation in the image, which is a serene nightscape that reminds me of an ocean, even though we were sleeping outside on cots, in the desert heat. Throughout the night and into the morning, these pickup trucks would pass by, taking workers from one camp to the next every 20 minutes. They were usually drunk and rowdy, and carried firearms. I remember waking up and thinking, ‘Anything can happen right now. They could just jump off.’ The situation was scary, but there’s calm in the image. And I think New Orleans also has that effect—you can tell it’s a little bit dangerous, but also very beautiful. The politics, the segregation, the incarceration complex of the city are atrocious, but there’s also a lot to be seduced by. This picture wound up in New Orleans because it’s something that shows the calm beneath, or before, the storm.” —Sanford Biggers

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


Houston, TX

“We had been driving for three hours from New Orleans to Texas, and this is basically the first billboard we saw. There was a billboard about the Bible on the right side of I-10, and then a few seconds later, on the other side of the road, we saw the one pictured here: ‘How Can You Feel So Reasonably?’ I remember the sun was about to set. We got out of the car and walked through the tall grass underneath it. Even though cars and trucks were passing quickly by, it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere.” —Eve Fowler

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


El Paso, TX

“This was the first of 10 locations that we came across for my Marty Robbins billboards in El Paso. It seemed weirdly poignant that it was sitting at the edge of a vacant strip club on the outskirts of town. But later that evening, we went back to take some night shots and learned that Dreams Cabaret was far from abandoned—it was booming! I nearly got run over several times while standing in the driveway taking pictures.” —Jeremy Shaw

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


Las Cruces, NM

“During the run of my billboards in New Mexico, a story ran in the local Las Cruces Sun News, in which locals were interviewed. They expressed concern that the billboards were some kind of threat or warning; they believed that ISIS might be involved. The irony is incredibly dark, since the text was written with a fabricated language made up from paleo-Hebrew and Cypriot Greek, discovered at a local archaeological site.” —Daniel R. Small

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


Palm Springs, CA

“So much of what I’ve been interested in, particularly with this Manifest Destiny project, is the notion of the imaginary of Los Angeles—the disconnect between the fantasy and reality of the place. A big part of that has to do with what people project onto the work. So the timing of my billboard launch, during the first weekend in April, was rather uncanny. It coincided with Gov. Jerry Brown’s announcement of the first-ever mandatory water reduction in California, which happened at the very same time the amazingly charming Tom Tucker was interviewing me on a freeway overpass for ABC News. It provided an entirely new way to think about the 10 images of an entropic garden that decayed progressively the closer you got to Los Angeles. It’s a series I conceived of and shot in the spring of 2013. This outcome, and its timing, I could never have predicted.” —Zoe Crosher

Photo courtesy of LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division).


Los Angeles, CA

“L.A. is a city I could live in, but don’t. I drive around wondering why, and judging everything. I drive, waiting to see my billboards. At first, every billboard seems to advertise some film about Twinkies that do carpentry called “Onions.” But then they’re there, both blending in and sticking out like sore thumbs, their meanings changing with context. Each night, I meet someone new: Hugo Hopping, Jeremy Shaw, Bobbi Woods, Joaquin Phoenix. In the end, it’s the people that make a place. And that’s why I’m here.” —Matthew Brannon

Matthew Brannon, Certain Snakes, 15 billboards, Los Angeles, CA, 2015. A LAND Exhibition: The Manifest Destiny Billboard Project. Photo courtesy of Christopher Adler.