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The trios of the title are the industry name for the outdoor billboards that we think of as revolving, or rotating. This particular system was (so they claim) invented by a Vancouver company that now holds a worldwide patent on it. It is possible to see, in Vancouver, trucks from SeaBoard Advertising driving the streets “Trio Maintenance” written across their doors.
In these works of art that summarize Ross Muirhead's production and aesthetic strategy of the past two years (mid-1987 to mid-1989), we see a method of expression and presentation that positions the viewer at a point midway between the poles represented by photography and the cinema. And, as a result of the particular subject matter Muirhead has chosen in these four works, we find ourselves (as viewers) plunged into a formal situation occupying a median point between the worlds of commercial advertising and political activism. These works then are hybrids with regard to art as well as commerce, and it is through this hybridization that they achieve their particular syntheses as an “information delivery system.” Although there is nothing revolutionary in this—many artists have been through various other portions of this route, including Paul Outerbridge, James Rosenquist, Jenny Holzer, and Jeff Wall — Muirhead appears to be the first artist to incorporate the “trio” mechanism into a work of art. The newness of this work has to do with the machinery Muirhead has chosen and the way that this machinery places viewers of the work in a critical position that is predetermined by our memories and expectations, and then confined by the content of a continuous tripartite subject narrative that pulls us into, and then releases us from, the conventional set of responses we have evolved to seeing outdoor “trios.” The psychological connections made by viewers of commercial trios are quite basic — the combination of travel, food, fashion and cars will doubtless catch some of the people some of the time and it is these prior associations that sustain Muirhead's approach to his material. But Muirhead's associations — between suburban development and highway construction, between stock markets and corruption, between fashion trends and the architectural facades of commercial buildings, between “cooperative housing” and the face of the new humanism — develop their meaning through a straightforward and literal presentation of the facts of a situation, while relying on a generalized sympathy for the fate of the earth for the reception of these stories as a kind of “truth in advertising.”
In the ongoing dialogue between art and commerce one is never quite sure who is influencing whom, as the various bits of information that fuel this cycle move about with increasing rapidity. Certainly, 20th-century advertising has not yet caught up with the more advanced graphic work from the 1920s, but it has borrowed quite heavily from the artworld nonetheless. Artists can be seen to constitute an unpaid research team for the advertising industry, and from that point of view there is a certain pleasure in watching the artworld appropriation of technologies developed for “the industry.” It is, of course, the mass production for advertising that brings down the purchase price of the components of these revolving billboards, making the basic materials available to artists (for a price), at a fraction of what it would cost to develop them as prototypes.
Ross Muirhead's version of socio-political analysis in an indoor billboard content avoids psychologizing about the situations he depicts. Instead he seems to engage in a type of deconstruction in which the contradictions implicit in the situations he has chosen to depict rotate around themselves in a relation to the fixed component of the overall image. The sentiments thus revealed are those of a left-leaning dissatisfaction with the “way the world is going.” The aim here is to register a resistance to the ethics of a corrupt world; to continue the project of establishing in art an opposition to a commercial world that is apparently lacking any spirit of idealism.
These works raise interesting questions regarding the contexts in which the various vehicles of advertising are recycled in art. For instance, Jenny Holzer's sign works seem to function best out of the gallery and in the urban environment, while the kinds of imagery Muirhead is working with would probably not read in an outdoor urban setting. The question “‘what does it mean?” would prevent the communication of meaning. Yet, paradoxically, in the gallery context these same works scan so quickly that they could be classified as reductive. The question of intent is, as we would expect, also easily blurred by shifts in the context. Muirhead’s Awakening Captive, so clearly critical in the gallery, could be seen as yet another “creative” fashion ad if it were a billboard.
Perhaps one clue to this malleability can be found in Muirhead's idea that his Trios are "positioned across a history of the machine in art and the role of mass media in everyday life." While this may be true, it would seem that this relation to the machine, although quite secure regarding the history of art, is tenuous with regard to the longevity of the trio system itself which will doubtless be replaced by something resembling a gigantic television screen some time in the not too distant future. This technology will become extinct in its worldly use, superseded by another, more efficient “delivery system.” And, it is at this point that the problem of being a hybrid is mildly clear — if you can be neither a still photograph nor a moving image, perhaps you are here only temporarily.
As an artworld manifestation, though, these contradictions can be seen to disappear because, as Muirhead has pointed out, “The use of the machine in art as a legitimate model for artistic expression is firmly linked to its intrinsic dynamism as a symbol for a new (emerging) age." Again, he is referring to the linkage with art history here, rather than claiming an industrial avant-garde status for this sign system, thereby leading us to an earlier age when the belief that science and technology would solve all of our problems was commonplace. If the reverse is true today, as scientific research is certainly seen as having created as many problems as it has solved, it is in opposition to the blind faith in the machine that characterized so much of the period that we can now call the Futurist-Constructivist age. Yet, this unswerving faith in the future was not at all blind when it came to inventing applications, derived from Constructivist design principles and destined to serve the masses, such as the prototype news projection system proposed by the Vesnin Brothers in their 1923 plan for a new PRAVDA building in Moscow.
In choosing his subject matter for these works Muirhead has effectively revealed to us a first installment of his list of friends and enemies. And, in much the same way as the confusion resulting from multiple meanings for simple words caused the conversationalists of the 1980s, Muirhead’s project proposes an analysis of “developers” who destroy rather than develop, brokers who are perhaps intending the other meaning of being “broke” and “models” who are not really models for anything other than the consumerism that is the defining characteristic of our society. Nevertheless, taking an adversarial position is not as easy in Canada as it would be in a country in which the adversaries were more clearly defined. Muirhead is not depicting the victims of class struggle. Instead he limits his depictions to those who resist the domination of one group by another, and to those he sees as being in a position of power but who are guilty of the abuse of that power. He specifically singles out two kinds of “deals” that involve Premiers of the Province of British Columbia, one reflecting on the stock manipulation investigation involving the previous Premier, and the other analyzing a bridge construction project in the riding of the current Premier. These pieces therefore operate not only as generalized indicators to a set of complex political and social issues, but also as a representation of specific aspects of the political situation in the Province of British Columbia.
Ultimately the use of artworld vehicles for the representation of artworld ideas opens up a series of fissures into which we can read a variety of meanings, Art as ad, ad as art, subject as ad/art, and object as ad, are possible versions of the successful applications of billboards in art. And, as Martha Rossler has pointed out, works of this type are perhaps more successful as they have “less specificity in relation to their physical locales.” In this case then we can perhaps accept the gallery as the ideal place for these recycled pieces of billboard technology, both from the point of view of neutrality in seeing, and in terms of providing a space where that seeing can be patiently undertaken.