IIn 1967, Elektra Records took a risk by purchasing a large hand-painted billboard on West Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard to promote a new album by The Doors, an emerging local band based in Whiskey a Go Go, a nearby nightclub. I would light a golden era of advertising on the 1.5-mile stretch known as the Sunset Strip, where large-format billboards announced the latest releases to passersby. The area has been home to advertising art since the era of speakeasies and silent movies, and in 1991, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that the iconic 70-foot-tall Marlboro Man sign was “an urban landmark more enduring than almost any other building in Los Angeles.”
Seeking to revitalize and update this rich billboard history for the 21st century, the City of West Hollywood approved the Sunset Arts & Advertising program in April 2019, a set of new zoning regulations and innovative public-private partnerships that aim to integrate billboards, architecture, public art and entertainment while honoring the traditions and character of West Hollywood. The program will allow digital billboards, banned by some cities, including nearby Santa Monica, on the Sunset Strip in exchange for a portion of ad revenue, which are more flexible and can be up to six times more lucrative than traditional ad space. In return, the owners will give the city a minimum of 40% of the revenue from signage and spend 17.5% of screen time on arts and public service programming. In addition to supporting the arts, the program is expected to generate $ 3 million in annual revenue for the city’s general budget.
Sunset Spectacular, a 64-foot tall sculptural billboard at 8775 Sunset Boulevard is the pilot project for the show’s mission to go beyond simply placing artwork on a traditional billboard. “We share a vision with the city to reinvent what the billboard could be,” said Pete Scantland, CEO of Orange barrel media (OBM), a Columbus, Ohio-based media company that led the project team. “Sunset Spectacular marks a new path for outdoor advertising and public art that is interactive, livable and programmed.”
Based in Los Angeles Tom Wiscombe architecture (TWA) designed the three-sided full-motion digital media tower. The designers set out to rethink the typical “sign on a stick” format, opting instead for a sculptural volume constructed from 72 precast stainless steel components, some of which weigh up to 35,000 pounds. “We wanted to create a depth to the architecture that contrasted with the flatness of the billboard,” said Tom Wiscombe, TWA director. The building and sign combination clearly demonstrates the arts and advertising program’s mission to reinvent the billboard as an integrated part of the architecture. An iconic car city, Los Angeles has a long legacy of roadside buildings – those that attract attention from the road apparently large objects – from the Brown Derby and the Chili Bowl to Tail ‘o’ the Pup and Randy’s Donuts. The city conducted extensive traffic studies as part of the arts and publicity program to minimize the risk of dangerous and distracted driving.
While the Sunset Spectacular tower is sure to catch the eye of drivers, it is also bound to attract walkers. Wiscombe compares its vertical orientation to civic architecture, such as clock towers or obelisks. “The project is oriented towards the exterior in terms of its faces and screens, but it also creates an interior space for participation and gathering of the public,” he noted. Reflecting changing attitudes about public space in Los Angeles, it is designed to be a pedestrian destination, and the interior of the tower will be programmed with sound by artists. Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who has a studio nearby, is composing a piece for an upcoming installation. Sunset Spectacular will be surrounded by a landscaped public plaza (to be completed later this summer) complete with benches, lighting, and giant succulents. Artists will also be able to customize the plaza lights for events ranging from installations to pop-up live performances or live broadcasts.
OBM, in collaboration with Los Angeles-based independent curator Diana Nawi, has launched the Arts on Sunset series on the tower’s two screens. Currently on view is the inaugural commission, The Propeller Group’s Volatile Landscapes, showing the afterlife of the unexploded bombs of the Vietnam War. Nick Cave, Pippilotti Rist, Catherine Opie and Cauleen Smith will follow this summer and fall. Everyone is known for film, video, and photography, as well as using commercial and advertising aesthetics to think about more important relevant issues. For Los Angeles-based Opie, it was the audience reach and the West Hollywood context that piqued her interest. “Sunset Strip has a long history of iconic images that dot the urban landscape and many artists have had projects there. However, nothing on this scale! “she said.” I am excited that my work interacts so directly and immediately with the urban environment and to be part of that rich history. “
Because OBM owns the tower and is supported by the city, curators will be able to focus on art rather than negotiating new billboards and going through red tape. “This is exciting for artists because we are creating something for a much larger audience; We can really connect with a wider audience, ”Nawi said. “We look forward to collaborating with a variety of artists and institutions that could benefit from the visibility of this platform.” An estimated 500,000 people will see the works of art every day.
In July 2020, the City of West Hollywood approved 21 additional projects in the arts and advertising program that will be curated by the city and funded by money generated from billboards. (Sunset Spectacular’s programming, however, is operated and curated by OBM.) Expected to take nearly a decade to complete, this next wave includes digital and static signage, as well as new buildings, public space improvements, and historic preservation projects. Some of the best architects in Los Angeles are participating, including Eric Owen Moss Architects, Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, Rios Clementi Hale, Office Untitled, and Hodgetts + Fung. Office Untitled’s invisible frame uses cameras and LEDs to project an image of the sky onto the frame of the sign to make it appear transparent. It is scheduled to go into operation in July.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism