by Bryanne Leeming
The text in our lives can be inescapable at times. As soon as children reach literacy, they are swept into a dustpan of billboard ads and popups. Sometimes there can be so many that we drown them all out and treat the words as meaningless images, as if reading an unknown language. Linda Hesh, an emerging artist from Washington D.C. has found a way to use text as a simple tool to challenge our everyday life. One word placed purposefully on a bench can make viewers stop, think, reflect, and question the status quo. Her text is bold, and her art is bolder.
AIOP: How did your artistic career begin?
Linda Hesh: In junior kindergarten I remember overhearing the teacher behind me saying to my mother, “Linda is really good at art,” and it wasn’t a surprise in my family. My father was a men’s fashion illustrator. My mother was a seamstress and made all her own clothes. Then later, my father switched to own a bar, and he built the entire interior himself.
AIOP: Can you tell us more about the “Benches that ask your opinion” project?
Linda Hesh: I had done some commercial products before like mugs, T-shirts, and bags with text on them, and then I did the doorknob hangers, and of course I realized that when I put them on the street people were going to take them. Then I realized if they were going to take them anyway, I should let them photograph the hangers and use them in their own art. I got a little response with that on blogs, but then I realized that maybe not everyone wants to interact with art, or they are not as motivated to do it themselves, so I thought of doing something where I would take the photographs but they will have some response for me, and that is how I came up with the first benches which were “For and Against.” I did those in September before the 2008 election because everyone was talking about the election and what was going on in the world at the time. I had the benches made by a commercial company and the “For” was a turquoise color and “Against” was red. I wanted really bright colors so that when I took them around, people would respond to the color first. And that’s what happens: people see the color, they are attracted to it, and then they notice there’s a word in it. Then, of course, they want to come up and find out, “What is this doing here?” so there are several steps involved in the interaction.
I always start out by saying, “This is an art project,” then I would say “Would you like to tell me something you’re for or against?” So I start out with them just writing something down and then I ask them if they would like to pose on the bench and tell me what they are for or against so that I can capture their portrait.
Then, in 2009, I proposed doing a bench for the city of Baltimore. Obama had just been elected so I decided to do “Trust and Doubt.”
“Trust” is ultramarine blue, and “Doubt” is orange. Because we had just elected the president, which was a momentous occasion, we wanted to trust him, but we had doubts because the economy was so terrible, and we didn’t know what was going to happen. Now they are up in Washington D.C. for 6 months.
I just started taking these benches around Washington D.C. without real permission from anyone (laughing), and they are six feet long and made of steel!
AIOP: How were you transporting them?
Linda Hesh: A Honda Civic! I know, it sounds totally crazy! As artists, we sometimes come up with these ideas, and we don’t necessarily think of the easiest thing to do, that’s not our motivation! Then, afterwards we figure out, “Okay, now how am I going to do this? What will the plan be?” So you first design the piece, then you work out the gory details later.
AIOP: What were people for or against?
Linda Hesh: I had never done this before, so I had no idea if anyone would even say anything to me. I was really amazed because wherever I set up, about half the people who walked by stopped to write something down. That’s a really high percentage!
The other thing that happened is people took this really seriously. Almost like if this were their one wish, what would it be. And this was totally unexpected to me that people would be so into this and spend so much time thinking of what they wanted to write down. And it was anonymous; they didn’t even write their names on it! Nothing was going to happen with this piece of paper, but they spent time thinking about it.
There was a wide variety (over 300 photographs online). People said they were for world peace, poverty, and social issues, and against racism or debt. Then, of course, someone said they were for yogurt or chocolate. People went both ways, from very serious to lighthearted.
AIOP: What is significant about using text in art today?
Linda Hesh: I am influenced by the change in how we communicate i.e. more writing than talking on the phone, even if that writing is not the most intellectual form. And I am influenced by how everybody seems to want to bare their souls, or at least every detail of their lives on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. We seem to have developed a need to constantly announce what we are doing and feeling to this ‘all-attentive’ listener that is the Internet. That is why I use extreme statements and seemingly simplistic opposing words like TRUST and DOUBT. We are constantly talking and though we may not be saying that much most of the time, the fact that we feel we must be constantly reaching out does say something about our society today.
AIOP: Do you put a lot of thought into deciding what text to use?
Linda Hesh: The question with text, at least for me, is always, “Serif or Sans Serif?” It’s more of a feeling; I don’t really have a theory behind why I choose a text for certain things.
AIOP: Would you relate your art to advertising in some way?
Linda Hesh: Advertising is designed to get us to buy something, but is really designed to change our behavior in some way or make us feel good about ourselves. You buy this, or do this, and you’ll be better, more beautiful, more intelligent, or people will like you. It’s pervasive; it’s all around us. That has to do with using text. It has invaded our entire life!
AIOP: What behavior are your benches trying to change? What ideas are they selling?
Linda Hesh: I think just the fact that there is text makes people think in words when they look at the piece. Normally, when you look at a piece of art, you would have more feelings. But the text in my pieces automatically gets a response from people because if you have “TRUST” and “DOUBT” in front of you, you immediately start thinking, ‘What do I trust? What do I doubt? Are those things in opposition? Are the things I trust the opposite of the things I doubt?’ It immediately makes people connect to their own lives, which is something that advertising tries to do as well. Advertising gets people to connect a product to their life, but I’m not trying to improve or change anyone’s life. I am trying to get them to think about something for a moment, even if it’s only a moment.
AIOP: What is the message you want to get across with your art?
Linda Hesh: I’m looking at social issues. I am examining social issues myself, and by presenting them, I’m hoping that other people will also examine them for themselves. There is always a sense of humor in my work as well. I think a sense of humor makes a really good access for the viewer by disarming them because even if it’s not a serious issue, it’s looking at it from a different viewpoint.
AIOP: What is the appeal of public art for you?
Linda Hesh: If you’re doing something about social issues and you put it up in a gallery, you’re probably already preaching to the converted. If you can get it out to the public, people who don’t go to galleries, then you’re presenting the ideas more than challenging it. Public art not only reaches out to those people at that moment, but it tends to lead to more viewers. When someone poses for me on a bench, then they are likely to later look at their picture online and see other portraits to see what other people are “FOR” or “AGAINST,” what they “TRUST” or “DOUBT.” This personal participation means they are more likely to show their friends the picture of the bench, which opens viewership even more. The pictures get used as Facebook portraits too. An interactive public art work affords a larger viewership than a traditional gallery show, which means that more people end up thinking about the issue. It’s a snowball effect.
Public art is the perfect medium for messages that deserve to be heard by many viewers. Linda Hesh uses techniques of advertising to shed light on social issues in this way.
To see more images of the 300+ portraits of people posing on the “Benches that ask your opinion” click HERE.