If, like me, you have traveled from out of town to see Zoe Strauss’s exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you might encounter it well before reaching the museum. Near Thirtieth Street Station stand two billboards side by side. One is a straight-on view of a weathered plywood board nailed to a telephone pole in the middle of anywhere, surrounded by nothing but sky. Spray-painted in red on the makeshift sign is the phrase Don’t Forget Us. The other billboard shows the dilapidated facades of a block of three-story row houses; some of their windows are boarded up, and shreds of a strange white material hang from the window frames. Only after passing the billboards did I realize that I had already stepped into “Ten Years,” on view through April 22 in the streets of Philadelphia as much as within the temple of art on the hill in Fairmount Park. Even the most cosmopolitan of local residents seeking out the fifty-four images Strauss has situated throughout the city will end up roaming across unknown territory.
The billboards are not ads for the show. Uncaptioned, without any indication of their purpose or sponsor, they demand to be experienced on their own terms, visually and semiotically, if they are to be understood at all. They owe their meaning mostly to the response of each viewer. Even the pairing of the two near Thirtieth Street Station, which encourages one to find an implicit connection between them, is unusual, because most of Strauss’s other billboard photographs are isolated, unmoored from their artistic context—seemingly urgent messages crying out to be decoded, but without a key.
Some of the images on the billboards are also among the nearly 150 on view at the museum (along with three slide projection pieces that include still more images), but their meaning is altered by the indoor context, and not only because of the extreme difference in scale. (Strauss is not one of the size queens of contemporary photography; a billboard, a standard photograph, a projected slide, a reproduction in a zine or a jpeg on her blog are all equally valid ways of conveying different aspects of her project.) In the densely hung galleries the photographs are forever forming new constellations of meaning: the museum creates the possibility for the images to coalesce into something like a discourse. As writers like Boris Groys and David Carrier have reminded us, the museum is the context for art; yet artists are often uneasy with this condition, and rightly so. While it may be true that art’s home is the museum, art often looks homeless there, stranded, isolated from its living sources. Like an unhappy adolescent, museum-bound art is in perpetual conflict with itself, and its deep desire may be to run away from home—to find its other contexts, its other homes or homes-away-from-home.
Strauss’s work was a runaway from birth, and by putting her photographs on billboards she is returning them to the streets from which they sprang. Many of the photos were shot on the street, and with an eye mindful of the now-venerable tradition of street photography whose earlier protagonists include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Garry Winogrand, image-makers determined to record the random and unruly essence of modern urban life by catching on the fly those odd, almost unnoticeable moments when reality seems to have let its guard down. But more than that, Strauss’s images are not only about but for the urban rough-and-tumble. The streets of Philadelphia have become her museum: no admission, no coat-check, no guards, and a true public space for all that.
* * *
While the most interesting thing about Zoe Strauss is her pictures, the second most interesting thing is how the end run she’s made around the art world has led her pretty much to its center. The story starts, at least as told by Peter Barberie, the curator of “Ten Years,” on the Sunday after Thanksgiving 2001, when Strauss, who had been eking out a living mostly as a baby sitter and had been involved as a social activist in organizations like ACT UP, “pasted around thirty color photographs onto concrete columns beneath an elevated section of Interstate Highway 95 in Philadelphia.” Some of the images were of places in the immediate vicinity; others were taken farther afield. Strauss has explained that, having little previous experience of photography or formal training in any art, and not even owning a camera, “I decided I wanted to work on a large-scale public art project comprised of photographs that were to be placed outside…. I had cooked up the idea for the big installation first, and the individual photos were going to be made with the intent of being a part of this installation.” Strauss sat with her installation for the day and then went home, leaving the pictures outdoors. She was determined to make the installation an annual event for ten years, but ended up organizing two similar exhibitions the next year and another in 2003 before moving to what Barberie describes as “a similar but much larger space, still under the highway” in a different part of the city, where she exhibited her photographs annually from 2004 through 2010.