In the Context of No Context: A Digital Billboard in Chicago Raises Questions About Art in the Public Sphere

Vik Muniz’s George Stinney, Jr. (2016).MEG HANDLER

Vik Muniz’s George Stinney, Jr. (2016).


Flashing brightly for a few seconds at a time, the black-and-white mugshot of an unnamed African-American male loomed against the Chicago skyline, interrupting the mundane ads—for sandwiches, lawyers, Hondas—that shared space on the same digital billboard. I only just glimpsed it, peering from an overpass, but the haunting image has lingered with me ever since.

George Stinney, Jr., an artwork by Vik Muniz, stood out not just from regular billboard programming but also from 19 other works that were part of Override, a project undertaken as part of the Expo Chicago art fair in September. Broadcast between ads running on digital billboards city-wide for a month before the fair, the other artworks looked, by comparison, like mere glitches. They were jarring, but that was about it. Muniz’s contribution resonated in an entirely different register. A stark presentation of the mugshot of a 14-year-old boy, the youngest-ever American to suffer the death penalty, the piece was far more serious than the other selections. It was also, for reasons that would become increasingly clear, a genuinely troubling work of art.

I had come to the overpass above I-90/94 on foot with a press release in hand, so I knew the Muniz piece was a cropped and dramatically enlarged version of a small collage by the artist from 2015. I was also able to look up the story of Stinney’s death and learn that he had been convicted after jury deliberations lasting a mere 10 minutes. Just a boy, he weighed 90 pounds when the state of Georgia electrocuted him on June 16, 1944.

The original George Stinney mugshot.WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The original George Stinney mugshot.


Seeing his face flash up huge, I was genuinely moved as the specter of racist state violence hovered momentarily above a city still suffering from that same epidemic. The magnitude of the image and the problem it reflected came together in a way that seemed to stop time. But just as soon as the image disappeared, replaced by yet another banal billboard ad, I wondered what the speeding highway commuters had just seen—or, more importantly, what they thought. This was the audience that Override was addressing, and Muniz’s piece would certainly provoke a reaction. The question was: what kind of reaction?

None of the Override works were presented with any kind of introduction or identification to distinguish them as art. This lack of framing allowed the other works their surprise and titillation. But with the Stinney mugshot, mystery presented a problem: if viewers didn’t know it was art, how were they supposed to know it was a critique? What did it mean to see this image without preparation or context?

Thousands of random people were seeing it all over Chicago, but there was no way to identify these unwitting viewers, much less talk to them. I wanted to acknowledge the whole audience, though, so in a report for ARTnews on Expo Chicago overall, I wrote that I didn’t know what highway viewers might think and that the piece would have benefitted from some contextualizing information. Using an intentionally neutral word, I called the experience “powerful.” But if that word was accurate, it was also inadequate. The image, and the questions it raised, asked for more—but I didn’t know how to get there.

When I posted a link to my report on Facebook, I highlighted the paragraph about the Muniz piece, partly because I thought others might want to share their opinions about it. I got much more than I expected. Lorelei Stewart, a curator at the University of Illinois at Chicago, commented that she had received an email about the same piece from a group called the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which asked about the image and urged others to call the company behind the billboard for explanation.

The email had come from Kathy Cummings, whose daughter, Kristin Coleman, saw the billboard together with her own 13-year-old son while driving. Reached later by phone, Coleman, who describes herself as bi-racial, told me, “When the billboard flashed this picture and when I saw it, I thought, that’s not good, that’s not appropriate. And at the same time Trey said, ‘That’s racist!’ ”

Coleman explained that she has talked a lot with her son about violence and police misconduct, so he was “aware and sensitive to these issues.” Not knowing the image they had seen was an art project, Coleman said she wondered why someone would be “subliminally putting out this message and putting fear into people” in Chicago.

Coleman was so disturbed by the billboard that she called her mother, who did some research to identify the billboard company, JCDecaux, and wrote in to the company’s website: “On the Kennedy/I-94, coming into the city/Chicago, 8/3/16, 6:30-7 PM on your billboard, near McGrath Dealership, saw what looked like a mugshot of a young Black youth, no name, number, or words under his photos. Who or what company bought the time for this display? Who at JCDECAUX decides the appropriateness of the ads? What is your company’s policy of appropriateness for ads? Has your company received other inquiries or complaints about this ad?”

Cummings told me she also called the company’s office in New York and was told the billboard was placed by Expo Chicago, nothing more. She said she then called the office of Tony Karman, Expo Chicago’s president, and was told someone would be willing to speak about the matter after the fair was closed. (She was gladdened, she later said, to hear of Karman’s concern and willingness to speak, but the two never did connect.)

George Stinney Jr., from the series Album, 2015. COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO.

George Stinney Jr., from the series Album, 2015.


Curious to know more, I contacted both Stephanie Cristello, director of programming for Expo and curator of the Override project, and Vik Muniz himself. Muniz’s studio put me in touch with his gallery, and after talking to the various parties involved, I realized that the project’s actual context and impact hadn’t been thought through very thoroughly.

As curator, Cristello had chosen the artists, not the particular works, so she emphasized that she was focused on serving artists’ intentions. She told me she received the image as Muniz’s choice from the San Francisco–based Rena Bransten Gallery, which was representing the artist at Expo. The image came with two options for cropping: one version was a portrait orientation, which showed Stinney in his striped jumpsuit, and the other presented Stinney in frontal view and profile, side-by-side. Override’s curatorial panel—made up of Expo operatives and a representative of the City of Chicago—unanimously decided on the second version, which Cristello described as “more humanizing” and “poetic.”

Cristello said the committee had considered how the image would appear to the African-American community in particular. “We didn’t want to reproduce or give validity to a stereotype,” she said. This influenced their decision not to use the version in which Stinney’s striped jumpsuit was more prominent. When I pointed out that the version they used still looked like a mugshot, Cristello resisted the idea that a depiction of a mugshot could be mistaken for an actual mugshot. “This piece is clearly not a mugshot,” she said. “It’s a collaged, reworked image.” When I told her about Kristin Coleman’s experience and the fact that subtle collage elements could be difficult to perceive at 55 miles per hour, the curator pulled back. “At that point it’s a question of interpretation,” she said. “That’s something that’s uncontrollable in the context of the [Override] program. It’s a strength of the program, and it’s a question of this program.”

When I asked how people could find out what the image was, Cristello said that googling “art on Chicago billboards” would lead to a link to Override. That much was true, but it didn’t address an obvious question: how would someone know the image was art in the first place? “It’s pretty clear it’s not an advertisement,” Cristello said. “Whether people can access that information is outside our control, but what we’re providing is the flash of the image, which piques curiosity.” I wasn’t sure that curiosity would be the primary response to such a charged image. When I pointed out that it’s hard to know the image is a critique unless you know the backstory, she said, “I think that’s a valid criticism of the artwork.”

When I contacted the gallery and asked Trish Bransten about the importance of providing backstory for art of this kind, she stated unequivocally that Expo Chicago “would be answerable for that.” She acknowledged that the historical details of Stinney’s story were “a really important part of the conversation” and “could be lost” in the billboard presentation. But Bransten nevertheless rejected the idea that it was Muniz’s responsibility to provide those details. “That’s not his part of it,” she told me. “His part would be, I would think, activating that conversation.”


Vik Muniz.


It was hard to understand how a billboard image alone would activate the kind of conversation Muniz seemed to intend. Coming to the piece with all the information I had, I struggled to imagine going the other direction: seeing the image flash up on the highway, having the wherewithal to research it later, coming up with effective search terms, arriving at the Override page of the Expo website, and then finally learning the tragic story of George Stinney, Jr. The family I spoke with was very curious and proactive, and when they did get the full story, they were moved to learn about Stinney and relieved that the work didn’t have nefarious intentions. Still, they thought the piece was irresponsible given the context. Coleman put it this way: “You can’t see the little pieces when you’re driving. If it were a painting in a gallery, then you could see the collage and all the little pieces. But just to see it flash was not a good image at all. It’s nothing against the artwork but the displaying of it—especially for my 13-year old son.”

When I spoke to Muniz in early November, he told me he had initially avoided talking to the press about concerns that had been raised. When I asked him why he agreed to speak now, Muniz said he wanted to make his motivations and the origins of the project known. “Find out what I’m trying to do,” he said, “before you judge me.”

On the phone from his New York studio, Muniz traced the development of the billboard piece, from finding the original Stinney mugshot and making the collage version to showing a time-lapse video of that process at an art fair in Rio de Janeiro. Muniz has a long-standing interest in vernacular photography, which he collects and arranges into broad categories that people use to organize their photos: birthdays, weddings, school pictures, etc. For his project Album, a series of black-and-white photo collages, Muniz told me he wanted to include mugshots at the end because they wouldn’t usually be included in a family’s self-presentation.

Encountering Stinney’s mugshot, Muniz was disturbed both because “a child in a mugshot is very strange,” he said, and because he had never known Stinney’s story before. Dividing his time between Brazil and the U.S., Muniz is involved with several activist campaigns and has taken a particular interest in the incarceration of minors. Wanting to do what he could to spread his new knowledge, Muniz decided to include Stinney as the final image in Album.

Still feeling like more people should know the history, Muniz presented a three-minute video of the making of the Stinney collage at Rio Art in 2015. Projected outdoors on a wall, the presentation generated a lot of attention and, according to Muniz, the image of Stinney “became an icon” for activism against jailing minors in Brazil. “I got calls from the newspaper,” Muniz told me. When he was asked by Expo Chicago to participate in their billboard project, the Stinney photo seemed like a good choice. “It’s a small, personal story that affects one child,” the artist said, “but it’s emblematic of what’s going on right now.”

Another of Muniz's works taking children as a subject, Newsboy, After Lewis Hine, from the series Rebus, 2008.COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO.

Another of Muniz’s works taking children as a subject, Newsboy, After Lewis Hine, from the series Rebus, 2008.


Asked about his decision to present the Stinney piece in a billboard format, Muniz talked about his first “real job” working for a Brazilian billboard company, Alvo. As an 18-year-old dyslexic, Muniz had the confidence to tell the company that their images were too complex and that he could help make them more effective for highway viewing. That early experience came in handy when he wanted people to know Stinney’s story. At the same time, he knew the limitations of the format. “When you put things on a billboard, you can’t go that deep,” he said about his ambition to pique viewers’ curiosity. “People would get intrigued and want to find out more about it.”

“If people had the name ‘George Stinney,’ it would be very easy to google it and learn,” Muniz explained. But when we talked about how someone would get that name—or any other search-worthy term—from a fleeting image without a title or any words at all, Muniz admitted that was “a gap.” When I told him about Kristin Coleman’s experience, the artist initially focused on how she had gone through the trouble and discovered the story. When we discussed how many people would actually go through that kind of effort, though, Muniz was more circumspect. “There might be a vacuum” in how the piece would be received, he said. The more we discussed the differences between learning Stinney’s story in detail, as Muniz had, and simply seeing a mugshot on a billboard, the more that vacuum seemed to grow.

Talking about race, Muniz told me, “The fact that it’s a black child is very important, but it’s more important to me that it’s a child.” When I mentioned the likelihood that Stinney’s race would be easier to perceive at highway speed than his status as a minor, Muniz acknowledged the problem. Likewise, when we talked about how the particulars of his original collage, which marked it as “art,” could be hard to recognize from a passing car, Muniz admitted that might be the case—he hadn’t seen the finished billboard work himself.

Confronted with the idea that the piece could be offensive and even damaging, Muniz initially bristled. “I didn’t invent that picture. It’s not a creation of mine; it’s a creation of our society,” he said. “I’m offended by it! I grew up in a favela. I had friends that died from police brutality.”

As we delved further into the context of the image and the details of its presentation, however, Muniz softened his position, talking less about his own experiences and more about the complexities of political art, a form he said he ordinarily tried to avoid. The Stinney story had drawn him in, he explained, and as much as he reiterated his own good intentions, he also acknowledged how the billboard could undermine those intentions. “The dynamics of looking at it very quickly might mean that people find it offensive,” Muniz said. “These people aren’t wrong. I sympathize.” He ended the conversation with a note of contrition but also a sense of wanting to move on: “Good to know for next time.”

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