I applied to the Guggenheim last year with a pandemic-specific project but it was rejected.

Against the Signifiers

I am proposing to undertake a project that aims to subvert the traditional use of the billboard, turning it into a platform of public art. The project will bring the voice of an immigrant woman into rural Wisconsin, to unsuspected patrons who do not encounter public art as commonly as people living in larger cities. This will also function as a sign of solidarity to the surrounding underrepresented communities where the billboards are placed.

It feels like 2020 hasn’t hit inland woods of Wisconsin. I have not been up here since August of 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic began, and the research trip is leaving me feeling more isolated than expected. There are no people wearing masks in sight, no Black Lives Matter (BLM) signs while I drive through the small town of Kewaskum. I have the odd feeling of being the only person of color for miles around. This feeling, although familiar while living in Wisconsin as an immigrant, is of course not true. This section of the Wisconsin state park along Long Lake, one-hour north outside of Milwaukee, is where I frequented to camp and take hikes before the pandemic hit. The area traditionally belongs to the peoples of Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Myaamia, Menominee and Bodéwadmiakiwen (Potawatomi.) These are now marginalized communities around Long Lake, over the majority presence of privileged upper middle class families that maintain a weekend home.

There are 15 recognized active hate groups in Wisconsin, according to the 2019 data of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Mostly categorized as “White Nationalist” or “Neo Nazi” or “Anti-Muslim”, all of these groups have a deep history and presence throughout the state. On June 12th, 2020 in the midst of mass protests in support of the BLM movement, CBS 58 reported: “a man wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood, was seen walking along a highway in Conover, Wisconsin. The man was spotted with his dog on County Highway K at Monheim Road. Authorities noted he was drinking a beer and waving at traffic. The Vilas County Sheriff’s Office said multiple callers reported seeing the man.”

Billboards in the rural Midwest seem to largely consist of hospital, hospice and restaurant advertisements and anti-abortion ads. According to Lamar advertisement in Madison, a company with a large amount of billboards in rural Wisconsin, it is also not uncommon to run into advertisements of adult entertainment stores on the side of the road and religious banners calling to salvation.

“Signs of Times” is a 21-minute video from 1993, made by artist Portia Cobb who was also one of the few black female faculty members at UW-Milwaukee in 1993. Shot with the help of youth from the Midtown neighborhood association ages ranging from 7 to 14, Signs of the Times addresses widespread alcohol and tobacco advertising in the inner city billboards in Milwaukee. We watch as the kids interview people from affluent neighborhoods where no billboards exist. They continue interviews with habitants of the inner city in their own neighborhoods, where alcohol and tobacco use among children are statistically the highest. Mario who is 8 years old claims that it’s easy for him to buy cigarettes, if he just tells the clerk that it’s for his father. We watch Mario go into the store and shortly returning with a pack of cigarettes. “It was easy”, he says. It is evident that this is still the case almost 30 years later while driving through Capitol Street in Milwaukee, which runs throughout the entire city West to East. I see the countless smoke shops and liquor stores and associated advertisements as I enter back into the city and see their decline and eventual stop right before entering the affluent neighborhood.

Against the Signifiers aims to subvert these traditional uses of the billboard, turning it into a platform of public art where it could be a sign of solidarity to its surrounding underrepresented communities. The idea of turning the billboard into an exhibition space is not new. This project is not necessarily about turning commerce into art, or revolutionizing an exhibition space. And although I imagine this will be one of the safest places to view art for at least another year with the pandemic still unfolding, my concerns with this project have nothing more in common with the mission of previous billboard art initiatives (The Billboard Creative in LA and Save Art Space in Brooklyn, NY) as in exposing underrepresented artists in high traffic commercial spaces.

Against the Signifiers aims to bring the voice of an immigrant woman into the middle of Wisconsin, to unsuspected patrons who do not encounter public art as commonly as people living in larger cities. The project will take place in the summer of 2021 over 10 billboards in mid-Wisconsin for over a month. The locations will vary from interstate highways to more rural country roads. I’ve located a billboard between Eagle River and Conover where the man wearing the Ku Klux Klan robe was spotted back in June. I am planning to use this billboard for the project and other locations are to be decided.

The design of the billboards will feature original work created for the occasion, some including texts and some with only graphics. I imagine them to be mostly featuring text, and conveying very subtle signs of solidarity, as in immigrant rights, native peoples rights, pro-choice statistics and solidarity with the BLM movement. I anticipate an uphill battle with billboard companies, but I also believe in my negotiation skills to present these designs as art. If all else fails, the funds will support building a single billboard on a privately owned land (with highway views) that may have a longer-term function after this project ends, similar to the billboard art initiatives mentioned above.

I am planning to travel and document each billboard in order to publish the entire collection of signs as a catalogue, so the project can reach an audience beyond rural Wisconsin.

The Covid-19 pandemic has halted all of my in person visits and other opportunities that cinema brought in indoor enclosed spaces. This presents itself as an ideal opportunity to execute this project and shift into further radical acts. This is why I am not applying for the Guggenheim Fellowship with a film, but with an expanded proposal that engages with similar concerns as my filmmaking practice, outdoors. A Guggenheim Fellowship would help support my career in the arts, and I look forward to contributing to the expansion of diverse voices within the art community.

Nazlı Dinçel was born in Ankara, Turkey, and immigrated to the United Sates at age 17. Dinçel resides in Milwaukee, WI where they are currently building an artist run film laboratory. They obtained their MFA in filmmaking from UW-Milwaukee. Their works have been exhibited globally including the Museum of Modern art in New York, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Vienna Modern art Museum, Buenos Aires International Film Festival, Walker Art Center and Hong Kong International Film Festival. They were recently a 2019/2020 Radcliffe Institute fellow for advanced study at Harvard University, and a 2019 Emerging Artist recipient of the Mary L. Nohl Fund Fellowship. In addition to exhibiting with institutions, Dinçel avidly self-distributes and tours with their work in micro-cinemas, artist run laboratories and alternative screening spaces in order to support and circulate handmade filmmaking to communities outside of institutions.