I’ve spent three years living in Sackville without ever noticing the town’s billboards. I’d never looked twice at the Legion’s marquee promoting Bingo on Tuesday, or thought to check what Sassy’s was advertising that week. I’d certainly never identified these signs as a remarkable aspect of the Sackville landscape.
But when the signs around town began saying nonsensical things like “One Buffs New Poets,” and “Sack Bros,” I started to pay attention.
These small alterations were the handiwork of Struts Gallery’s latest artist-in-residence, Humberto Duque, who immediately noticed the various sign boards when he arrived in town. These are the sorts of thing that Duque is interested in: the subtle, yet prevalent aspects of a landscape that are taken for granted due to their predictability. The marginalized billboards around town became the subject of Duque’s work, “The Marquee Project.” Duque’s project set out to jostle the public’s perception of their surroundings by changing the messages on the town’s marquees from advertisements to disjointed fragments of prose. The messages were displayed around town between Nov. 11 and 15.
The project was a reflection of the artist’s ongoing interest in counter-realities where the bizarre, off-kilter, and uncertain reign supreme. While the usual changes a town or city experiences are predictable and cyclical, Duque aims to alter specific landscapes in unexpected or uncanny ways.
“Lately, my aim has been to pull spectators out of their frame of mind with gestures, most of them subtle, in public places with objects or inexpensive materials,” said Duque. “I want to create a kind of artificial landscape that will give you a glimpse of a different reality for an instant.”
The marquee project did just that. While the changes to the billboards may have gone unseen by many, when someone did stop to notice, the appearance of the signs proved jarring in a vaguely unsettling, but simultaneously amusing way. It made viewers wonder what was going on. Were they seeing things correctly? What did Sassy’s mean by “Moooh we purr on the cow”? Clearly, these aren’t things you see every day. These strange and unexpected sights prompt viewers to question their perception of reality, and wonder what else they aren’t noticing on a daily basis.
Although the project was displayed in the public space, rather than in a traditional gallery setting, Duque still managed to engage with his audience by inviting the community to submit their own phrases for the marquees. After posting photos of the original sign on Facebook, participants were asked to use only the letters that were already on the board to create a new message. The word game yielded an abundance of responses from people both within and outside of the Sackville community. Duque chose one phrase for each billboard, and with permission from business owners, changed the billboards in real life. Some submissions were humorous and light-hearted, while others were profoundly poetic.
Some of my favourite submissions included the shift from “We thank you” to “A wet hunk yo” (by Helen Pridmore) and John’s Murchie’s suggestion to change Vin’s Wok’s “Buffet now open” to “& the upper evergreen forests never found out where bad people erred on 3 numerics” (Murchie added some extra letters, but we can appreciate the poetry). Another favourite was the sign outside of the daycare that read “Hate Yuk Now.” After complaints identifying the word “hate” as inappropriate language to be displayed at a daycare, the message was changed to “Hi Ate Yuk Now.”
A full list of submissions was on display at Duque’s closing reception at Struts Gallery on Nov. 15, along with photos of each marquee, both before and after their alterations.
Duque worked as Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre’s Open Studio artist-in-residence throughout October and November. After spending the winter at home in Mexico City, he will head to Switzerland for another experimental residency.