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‘This is not America’. Alfredo Jaar interrupts the adverts in Times Square

20 August 2014

New York’s Times Square, awash with images and flooded with tourists, is a spectacular display of the consumerism, entertainment and lowbrow kitsch that passes for a national identity in the USA. Alfredo Jaar, the Chilean artist, architect, and filmmaker, could have chosen no better place to install A Logo for America – a single LED screen above 42nd street – in 1987. Over 25 years later, the Times Square Advertising Coalition and Times Square Arts (in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum) have helped produce an updated version of Jaar’s intervention.

Every night in August at 11:57pm A Logo For America plays on loop across various screens. For three minutes Times Square is slightly dimmer. Jaar reformatted the original work to fit today’s screen technology, though its appearance echoes the low-quality Spectacolor lights of 1987, and while the original version played on one central screen, today the animation interrupts 15 signs and 45 screens among the crowded barrage of brand advertising. Jaar has spoken about his desire to capture the essence of a given environment. Here he makes subversive use of Times Square’s eye-catching vernacular imagery. But while Jaar’s work blends in through form, his content upends the corporate messages surrounding it.

Jaar assigns corporate logo status to what are arguably two of the most recognisable signs of ‘Americanness’: the flag and a map of (mainland) USA. Two declarative sentences dance around the symbols: ‘THIS IS NOT AMERICA’ and ‘THIS IS NOT AMERICA’S FLAG’. After a while ‘America’ morphs into a borderless outline of the entire Western hemisphere, with the notable inclusion the South American continent. By contrasting a natural landmass with its arbitrary social borders, he forces a reconsideration of fraught geo-political histories and the construct of nationhood.

In addition to confronting the vexed and violent history of European colonialism and Manifest Destiny, today Jaar’s installation acquires a new referent. Infiltrating Times Square in 2014 means addressing the way in which images export imperialism of a more insidious kind, supporting corporations and institutions which already wield – and in some cases abuse – great wealth and power.

Last week, Jaar’s message took on a more inward-looking significance, as thousands of protesters flooded Times Square on 14 August to commemorate the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen who was shot to death by law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri. The message on the screen seemed to summarise public anguish at the events that had recently unfolded.

A Logo for America challenges the injustices that have plagued the USA’s history: from its colonial past to the inequalities that persist today. With each subsequent act of violence made in the name of national exceptionalism or to satisfy the voracious appetite of global capitalism, the problem of culturally constructed divisions takes new form. Decades after its original conception, in the August heat, Jaar’s work has once again found an audience.

A Logo For America will play in Times Square, New York City, at 11.57pm throughout the month of August, as part of the ongoing ‘Midnight Moment’ series.

Documentation of Jaar’s 1987 version of this work can be seen at ‘Under the Same Sun: Art from Latin America Today’, at the Guggenheim, New York, until 1 October.