DAZZLED BY DOCUMENTARIES

DocNYC, a nine-day documentary festival of films, panel discussions, special guests, in its second year brought a cornucopia of visual pleasures and provocative ideas to the IFC Center and NYU’s Kimmel Center.   

When confronted with the global reach of outdoor advertising in the compelling documentary This Space Available: The Grassroots Movement Against Visual Pollution, I was stunned to hear advertisers and designers question the value of their actions and to learn that conservative businessmen in Houston and a conservative Mayor in Sao Paulo, Brazil had limited or banned billboards because they degraded their cities’ quality of life.  It was unsettling to see temporary gigantic ads affixed to construction sites in Venice, Italy, and astonishing to see a young generation of artists and activists acting to remove illegal advertising by painting over it or replacing it with non-commercial art.  Amazingly, in India, billboards are called “hoardings” – somehow the word sounds appropriate – they are hoarding the public space. 

This Space Available also shows historical footage of Lady Bird Johnson’s efforts to control billboards on Interstate Highways and the outdoor advertising industry’s efforts to sidestep regulation.   As President Lyndon Johnson says about the billboard industry: “I have never seen such a god damn group of selfish, eager hogs.”   After seeing this documentary, I find it hard to think that excess made America great or that regulation is the devil.