As Americans across the U.S. mark the country’s founding, a new public art installation by Josh Kline reminds us that no matter how proudly “American” we are, almost all of us are actually descendants of immigrants.
Kline’s Midtown Manhattan billboard, Illegal Aliens 1776, depicts a man and women in colonial American garb—tricorne hat and buckled shoes—pulling a modern wheeled suitcase through the streets of 21st-century Philadelphia.
Across the bottom of the image, the billboard reads: “But where are you really from?”
“Kline, who is of mixed-race descent, has encountered the question all his life,” Nicholas Weist, founder of Shandaken Projects, the New York nonprofit that commissioned the artwork, told Artnet News in an email.
“He’s also from Philadelphia, which was a critical site of production for American political ideals in the late 18th century, and is now a tourist destination offering simulacra of that time.”
For the photoshoot, Klein hired historical interpreters who made their own period garments.
“I hope that the work prompts viewers to reflect on their own identities—national, ethnic, political—with the American context of settler colonialism in mind,” Weist said.
The work, on view at 7th Avenue and 40th Street through the end of the month, is the first in the organization’s new public art series, Shandaken: 14×48, which will feature emerging and mid-career artists. It is an extension of the work done by 14×48, an organization that brought more than 20 billboard artworks to New York between 2012 and 2020. The name comes from the standard dimension of a commercial billboard, which measures 14 by 48 feet.
“Many socially engaged projects require audiences to acquire background knowledge so they can participate. But billboards are truly public because they’re available to anyone who happens to pass them by, and can be widely legible because Americans are trained to read and understand the language of advertising from childhood,” Weist said.
Shandaken is accepting proposals for the next featured artist in an open call. Applications can be submitted through August 9, and selected artists will receive a $1,000 honorarium and production budget.
“We hope that proposals to Shandaken: 14×48 will intersect with the theoretical and practical nature of advertising, and explore the expansive creative potential of mass media generally,” Weist added. “We’re also looking out for work that responds in a timely way to issues facing New Yorkers and New York City.”
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