Interview | Sherwin Rivera Tibayan

Sherwin Rivera Tibayan ist viel gereist, muss viel gereist sein. Oder er ist einfach nur ziemlich gut im Umgang mit Photoshop. Das zumindest denkt man sich, wenn man sich seine Fotostrecke ‘Horror Vacui’ anschaut. Mehr als zwanzig Billboards hat er fotografiert, alle irgendwo in den Weiten des amerikanischen Westens.

Die Billboards sind nur keine richtigen Billboards mehr. Sie sind leer, da ist nichts von Werbung oder Information aufgedruckt. Das Weiß, das zuvor hintergründig zwischen den werblichen Drucken hervorschimmerte, ist zu einem beschmutzten Cremeton im Vordergrund geworden. Fast ein wenig verloren hinterbleiben die Werbeflächen so in der kahlen Wüste. Da ist keine Schrift, keine Ablenkung, nur der Farbton bleibt, und die Form des Objekts. Es ist schwer, zu sagen, ob man sie nun überflüssig findet, wie sie da stehen, ihrer eigentlich werbenden Funktion beraubt.

Nur einige Jahre zuvor hatte Matt Siber ein ähnliches Projekt gestartet, ‘Untitled‘ nannte er das. Auch er hatte sich darum bemüht, ehemals werbe- und informationsbestückte Schilder fotografisch abzubilden, die in ihrer neugewonnenen Neutralität eher orientierungslos wirkten. Bei Siber bleiben halbnackte Ex-Schilder, man neigt dazu, sich die nicht mehr vorhandene Funktion ergänzend hinzuzudenken, und so hat sie nach wie vor Bestand, zumindest illusionär. Sherwins Billboards funktionieren besser als eigenständige Objekte. Sie können für sich stehen, auch ohne werbliche Funktion. Man vermisst die Information nicht, das Gefühl der notwendigen Ergänzung ist bei Sherwins Billboards nicht wirklich akut. Der Werbeträger gesteht einem unerwartete Freiräume zu, und das nimmt man dankend an.

Sherwin Rivera Tibayan hat also ähnliches gemacht wie Matt Siber, die Objekte präsentieren nur eine unterschiedliche Wirkung. Und ein weiterer Unterschied ist eben noch der, dass Sherwin wirklich viel gereist ist, Matt ist der Photoshop-Experte. Sherwin kann das bestimmt auch, aber das musste er bei diesem Projekt eben nicht beweisen. Er ist tatsächlich herumgefahren, und hat diese Billboards gesucht. Noch dazu ist er ein großer Fan von Matt Siber. Achso, und das nur am Rande bemerkt: Diese ganze Billboard-Reiserei hat fast drei Jahre gedauert. Das Ganze ist also schon ziemlich außergewöhnlich.

When I saw your project, I immediately had to think of a recent project by Matt Siber, ‘The Untitled Project’. Not sure whether you are aware of that though. He took several photographs of places that were almost completely covered by logos, advertisements, etc etc. He then removed all printed words. The difference to your project I think in the first place is that you didn’t remove any of those logos but instead hunted empty billboards throughout America’s West. At first I thought: One must be crazy to invest such an amount of time on finding those billboards. So, tell us: How time consuming was that, actually?
I wasn’t aware of ‘The Untitled Project’, but I am a fan of his photography, especially his project called ‘Floating Logos‘. There is a really interesting section on his website where he shows some of the emails he gets from people who don’t know the images are manipulated and believe that he actually makes and sells signs that float in the air without structural supports.

As far as time goes: something like dozens of short and long road-trips over the course of three years; a combination of both hunting for and happening-upon the billboards either alone or with friends. I think that the open-endedness of being on the road and sometimes not knowing where I might be going motivated me.

And in a very real sense, the empty billboards supported that open structure. The billboard advertisement, especially those along major interstate highways, acts on our sense of space and time. It provides a kind of closed form for our movement because it’s an announcement for something in our future: In less than an hour, 50 miles away, there off exit 241. So when the image or advertisement is stripped, what do such objects have to say to us about our immediate future, about where we might be heading?

Could you imagine having done the same project somewhere else? Why? Why not? If so, how would the outcome differ? Where in specific did you find all those billboards? What did you find so fascinating about them?
The project for me always returned to the formal question of what might constitute a contemporary photograph of the American West. Which subjects? Which sites? Which styles? So in terms of a specific geography, I needed the photographs to take place west of the Mississippi River. My ambitions for the project were entangled with notions of the American West, a space heavily and historically described by photography. From the first survey photographs in the 1860s to many of the color images by Stephen Shore in the 1970s, I was interested in finding a way to participate in that tradition. Empty billboards around the New England States or even in the South would not have been able to engage with that history.

As to why I find them fascinating in the first place, I can credit two specific instances, one from my daily life and the other from being a fan of photography, photographers, and their shared history. For a long time I had a job that required a lengthy commute along a major interstate. After months of daily driving up and down the highway, I began to notice the presence of empty billboards. So they just became something I thought about on my drive, something I searched for, eventually becoming an obsession any time I was driving or in a car. I think what struck me most about their presence was their apparent uselessness, a kind of unemployment from the only thing they were designed to do. In this sense, they acted differently from the other billboards.

By removing the image (which I’m sure we don’t consider as having a kind of physical weight), I was now paying attention to the object. And the object itself was considerable! Here were tons and tons of metal framing to support the apparent levity of a brightly lit image. The material irony became a prompt, an excuse to linger longer with the object.

The object became a subject when I discovered an image by Stephen Shore from his book, ‘Uncommon Places‘. The title of the photograph is: ‘U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973’. It’s a picture of a billboard, of course, but one bearing the image of the American West, explicit in a snow covered mountain rising above a thick forest of trees and foregrounded by a deep blue lake reflecting the light of a low hanging sun.

What’s important about Shore’s photo for me are three things: first the postcard romance of an imagined West, second the painted rectangles that were used to eliminate the text of the advertisement, and finally the physical location of the billboard. If the intention of a billboard is to advertise what’s ahead, then the image feels a little false. In a coastal state like Oregon we encounter the physical end of the West, not the promise of its continued expanse.

All three of these factors combine to create a kind of situational irony and clarity about the myth of the American West that I can’t help but derive pleasure in witnessing. And as much as I love the photograph, it’s in the very intersections that helped create the image that I’m really interested in. Those are the things that I can’t help but want to find for myself in the world. Finding these empty billboards, taking the photographs, and leaving the work untitled with regard to location felt like the completion of the erasure that began in 1973 with Shore’s photograph. Here were contemporary instances where it felt like the images of mountains and lakes were finally painted over.

Do you feel that those billboards are in any way connected to their surroundings? Or do you rather perceive them as isolated subjects that do not really fit into the natural environment?
I think they are all connected to their surroundings, either complementing, contrasting, or conversing with them. Sometimes I get asked why there aren’t any people in the pictures. The answer is because there usually never are. There’s a reason most of these billboards are blank. No one is ever there to consume them. I think that in each case, however, the photograph can suggest the quality of that connectedness, how well the billboard does or doesn’t “fit” into its environment.

For one photograph along a highway in New Mexico, I framed out the road leaving the billboard surrounded by bushes. The billboard was meant to stand out, and it does, but when I printed the image, I noticed the presence of a bird’s nest at the base of the billboard. Nature in this case seemed to adapt to it, with the birds taking advantage of its protective height.

In contrast, I took a picture of a billboard in Las Vegas, very close to downtown. The emptiness of a billboard there felt more out of place since Las Vegas is a city full of animated and bright signage. That kind of blankness in a place so full of images was easy to spot.

The third example is a billboard in Texas situated next to a building that housed two businesses, one that sold signs and the other that did tattoos. In this instance, the billboard provided a visual pause, a space between these two services in the business of making signs.

What makes photography so special? In general and for you in specific?
For me, I think it’s related to two things: the first being what it does for me physically, and second for how it—more than anything else—makes demands on my thinking.

I began taking photographs when I lived in Austria from 2005 to 2007. I was an English teaching assistant in a small town called Feldbach, just an hour outside the Styrian capital of Graz. Photography wasn’t a creative act for me then, it was just the most convenient way for me to show my friends and family back home what I was up to. Taking pictures helped me do that, but it also helped me simplify my interaction with my new home, helped me feel like I had some control over my situation (confirmed every time I heard the shutter release!). I made a decision about the world in front of me and then chose to reduce it, to see what only the viewfinder sees. The action also prevented me from publicly displaying my horrible German language skills (I slowly improved). Physically putting something between the world and myself—a camera to my face—postponed the need to speak, temporarily reducing my linguistic anxieties.

So in these respects, the physical and functional actions of photography created opportunities for me to both engage and remain distant, to feel like I had control over my first encounters with new places and people.

The second ingredient seems to happen most often after I’m done physically making photographs. It’s in trying to recognize the metaphors they contain, a place beyond literalness, and then spending time trying to figure out what I can learn from them. Each photograph is a reduction of the world, a translation of three-dimensional space into two. We break down the constituent parts of the world through pictures, trying to simplify it, rearranging it, but only so we can build it back up. And I think that’s really important for me when I work on projects, when I make my pictures. Here is a chance to build parts of the world back up.

All images © Sherwin Rivera Tibayan | Interview & Text: Anna Nosthoff