A billboard by Esmaa Mohamoud is seen at night, from below, with the Chicago skyline behind it. It shows two Black male subjects connected by a two-headed durag and standing with Lake Ontario in the background.
OVERRIDE | A Billboard Project, EXPO CHICAGO 2023. Esmaa Mohamoud, The Brotherhood (For Us By Us) Credit: Courtesy of Kavi Gupta, Chicago

To see “OVERRIDE,” I had to really look hard for billboards.

 “OVERRIDE” has been a public art program of EXPO Chicago since 2016, extending the reach of the art fair beyond Navy Pier’s Festival Hall to different locales of the city. “Override,” literally, is an industry term that indicates the continuation of an outdoor advertising program beyond the contracted period. If offered, an override has no additional cost. Such is our billboard project. Usually starting before the extravagant EXPO weekend, this collaboration with the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) would override for another week or two after the conclusion of the fair. This year, the public project runs from April 3–23, featuring artworks by ten artists—five local and five represented by EXPO participating exhibitors—on digital billboards and information panels across Chicago. 

“OVERRIDE” has received positive feedback since its conception, according to Kate Sierzputowski, director of programming of EXPO Chicago. As a fan of looking for art outside of its conventional confines, I find it aspiring to imagine artworks up high, against the night sky and the twinkling Chicago skyline. However, what’s less evident about this billboard art project is that the artworks are not the sole temporary residents of those expensive LED screens. They share screen time with other advertisers and city announcements, which, like a slideshow, appear in a predetermined order; within the allocated time slot for  “OVERRIDE,” the artworks shuffle among themselves. To see everything in full requires some luck and patience. 

As contemporary advertising evolves and seeks new blank spaces in our lives to fill with information, billboards, within the city at least, occupy only a small portion of the images that we encounter on a daily basis. This makes me wonder: Who, then, is the beholder of these artworks? When we’re in motion (as passengers in a CTA train car or in a rideshare) and not actively doing anything, we are more than likely looking at our phones. In my head, it only seems logical that these billboards are visible to the absent-minded drivers and those like me who have too much motion sickness to scroll on a phone in a moving vehicle. 

Nevertheless, my public art scavenger hunt was still productive when I traveled via the elevated trains and by foot. Upon standing beneath a designated billboard and looking up, I could only admire the majesty of the artworks when I caught them. The Brotherhood (For Us By Us) (2021) by Toronto-based Esmaa Mohamoud, for instance, is a beautiful visual message that embraces community building by challenging the alienating effect of advertisement. Originally commissioned as a public art project for a photography festival in Toronto, The Brotherhood depicts two Black male subjects connected by a two-headed durag and standing against a background that could be Lake Michigan (it’s actually Lake Ontario). Their relationship is ambiguous: brothers, friends, lovers. The camera angle points upward, rendering the subjects and their bond grand and sublime. 

Similarly, the photo-surrealistic endeavor of If they come for me in the morning (2022), by Ethiopia-born artist Aïda Muluneh, plays hide-and-seek with the viewer. Two female subjects wearing face paint that disguises like a mask peep their heads out of a sea of red foliage. Muluneh’s iconic style is so distinct that the viewer can easily associate the work on the billboard with the artist’s other pieces from the same public art series, This is where I am, which are currently on view on numerous bus shelters across Chicago.  

Not including any text or information on the artist or the artwork was a conscious decision made by the EXPO team, which I completely understood and abided by. Overlaying text onto the artworks would only frame them as posters. This constraint urges the artworks to be more shocking and self-explanatory, highlighting text-based artworks as competitive candidates. In the past, “OVERRIDE” wittily featured text-based images that made good use of the site-specificity of billboards, its artificiality that disrupts the sky. I am the Sky by Chicago artist Paul Heyer for “OVERRIDE” 2018 humorously writes the titular phrase on a lightly watercolored sky. Just Us made by Sanford Biggers for the 2016 iteration stylized its typography as whimsical as the clouds. This year, Infinite Gratitude, by Chicago-based multidisciplinary artist Eddie Santana White, aka Edo, camouflages the word “Gratitude” with dazzling colors. Albeit sweet, a full dosage of whole-hearted positivity might not work for the skeptics and the cynics.

Vertical artworks are displayed on the city information panels in the central business district. They are much more accessible for people like me who rely on public transit to get around.

Successful selections for this kind of public art projects are those that are conscious of their context and are artistically critical of it. My absolute favorite is the 3D-animation GIFs from the Trophies (2020) series by Chicago artist Kristin McWharter. Snarky, deadpan funny, almost pathetically self aware. Effortlessly utilizing the precious ten-second screen time, Really Great (2020) conjures what’s akin to a customizable pageant trophy coming to life. The shiny trophy figure looks nothing like a goddess of beauty. Rather, she’s seen in a swimming suit struggling to find her balance on top of the check ring that sits above a glittering holographic column. The plate on the trophy base reads, “Really Great, Really.” But the lady on top thinks otherwise; whether she’s trying to stand straight or to jump, I think she’s shouting “Not That Great!” It’s a piece of work that stops the passersby with a blow of Millennial nonchalance; it pokes fun, cracks a smile, and disappears before one can see it again.

In comparison, the politically charged work Chromakey Aftermath (Standard Bearers) (2019) by San Francisco-based conceptual artist Stephanie Syjuco, albeit an incredibly uncompromising photography project on its own, has difficulty achieving its full critical potential without adequate contextualization. To those who are familiar with the work, Syjuco fabricates debris of protest props in bright green chroma key color—the color of green screens, implying it’s ready for post-production—as a way to delve into the complexity of the representations of street protests in media; to those who are not, the work looked like an interlude of confetti and birthday flags sandwiched between ads by Verizon and Showtime. 

With the volume of art events that take place during the tenth edition of EXPO, now having been festively extended into EXPO Art Week, missing out on “OVERRIDE” is a high possibility. But one should not also underestimate the power of FOMO. After all, that would be a good advertisement for next year. 

related stories

Jake Troyli contains multitudes

Jake Troyli moved to Chicago in September 2020, the same month “Don’t Forget to Pack a Lunch!,” his first-ever solo exhibition in Chicago, opened at Monique Meloche Gallery.  In the exhibition’s titular work, Troyli puppeteers a small army of cloned characters through siloed loops of never-ending labor—physical, emotional, and otherwise. Small firefighters ascend a burning…

What’s fair about art fairs?

What’s fair about art fairs? That’s the question at the heart of Barely Fair, a show organized by Garfield Park gallery Julius Caesar that’s designed to run in tandem with the international art fair EXPO Chicago. Founded in 2019, this is the second iteration of the Barely Fair, which quietly marks EXPO’s return to in-person…

Mie Kongo, in profile

The tenth edition of EXPO is upon us, and since its reinvention at Navy Pier, I’ve covered nine of them. I love EXPO; it’s the art equivalent of binge-watching the entire first season of Yellowjackets in a single day. It’s funny, scary, disgusting, uplifting, and shamelessly melodramatic. And like ten hours of your life hazily…