“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
“99% / MIC CHECK! / LOOK AROUND / YOU ARE A PART / OF A GLOBAL UPRISING / WE ARE A CRY / FROM THE HEART / OF THE WORLD / WE ARE UNSTOPPABLE / ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE / HAPPY BIRTHDAY / #OCCUPY MOVEMENT / OCCUPY WALL STREET / list of cities, states and countries / OCCUPY EARTH / WE ARE WINNING / IT IS THE BEGINNING OF THE BEGINNING / DO NOT BE AFRAID / LOVE.”Projection Text, Mark Read
A coalition of labor unions had called for a national day of action on November 17 to push back against austerity and demand infrastructure improvements and jobs. Actions were planned for seventeen bridges in seventeen cities. In New York City, a permit was obtained for a large rally in the Wall Street area, with a march over the Brooklyn Bridge to follow. November 17 also happened to be the two-month birthday celebration for #Occupy Wall Street. People wanted something spectacular to happen, something beautiful.
The November 17 action coordination working group planned to purchase ten thousand small LED lights to hand out to the crowd as they encircled City Hall and streamed over the pedestrian walkway of the bridge, creating a river of light. The metaphor of light was important, as we were celebrating Occupy Wall Street’s commitment to shining a light on a corrupt and broken political and economic system. But we needed something bigger. We started talking about projections, and Hero (yes, his name is Hero) suggested a “bat signal.” A big circle with “99%” in the middle. It seemed too perfect, so we got to work making that a reality.
Within spitting distance of the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway stands a thirty-two-story gray concrete slab of a building commonly known as “the Verizon building.” A flat windowless expanse approximately seventy-five feet in width extends up the face, with low ambient light. City housing projects fifteen stories tall sit in its shadow. We had our projection screen. We had secured the loan of a powerful projector. We had ideas for content.
What we needed was a projection room.
We needed to project from an apartment in one of those buildings. I put up signs offering $250 for the use of an apartment for an art and film project. There were few calls at first, but eventually a call came in from one Denise Vega — a single mother of two, born and raised in those housing projects and working to keep her family fed. She had the window we needed, and more importantly a supportive and enthusiastic attitude. In the end she refused to take any money for the use of her home, declaring, “I can’t charge you money, this is for the people.”
In the days before the action we began to realize that we would be able to project not just the 99% symbol, but also words large enough and bright enough for people to read from the bridge. This opened up many possibilities. What if we could get the crowd to interact with the projections? We would need to project chants in the proper cadence, to get people started. After that, we imagined that we might be able to get people to use the “human microphone” to “mic check” a brief statement.
Amazingly, all went as planned, and the action was even more successful that we could have hoped for. The 20,000-strong crowd on the bridge went crazy. We could hear them shouting, cheering, and, yes, “mic-checking” from the window of Denise’s bedroom. We were interacting with the crowd, mixing the projections on the fly in response to the crowd’s reactions. It was the galvanizing, unifying moment of joy and celebration that we’d hoped to provide this burgeoning global movement for a more just and democratic world.
The action worked because all the elements fell into place: the technology was powerful, the weather cooperated and the scale suited the occasion. Most vitally, though, the action was embedded within a movement and played on elements from movement culture — both in style and in substance. The “human mic” and “mic check” were tropes that were immediately grasped and appreciated. Most of the language came from chants or well known slogans. The “bat signal” itself required no translation. It’s a part of our cultural commons, part of the “spectacular vernacular” of global pop culture, a symbol we all understand to be a call for aid and an outlaw call to arms — after all, isn’t that precisely what the Occupy movement is?
Of course Batman is actually a quasi-sociopathic millionaire vigilante. A one-percenter, you might say. But by filling that symbol — by occupying it — with our own content — “99%” — we appropriated it for the rest of us. And in this reconfiguration, we were no longer waiting for some superhero, be it a masked vigilante or the first black president, to swoop in and save the day. Rather, we were the response to our own call for aid.
Guerrilla projection is a visually powerful and often very beautiful method for delivering a political message. It can be used as an action in and of itself, or to enhance existing actions; to rebrand an existing structure, or to frame an action. It’s versatile, carries little risk, can be done inexpensively, and only requires surprisingly less technical savvy than you might think. The success or failure of the tactic will always depend on the quality of the content: make sure that you balance the desire to do something artful with the need for clarity.
Superhero mythology is arguably one of the most prefigurative aspects of spectacular culture, and quite ripe for re-appropriation. The heroes in masks and on the screen are not just corporate cash cows; they also frequently represent values subversive to the very corporations that profit from them. Exploit these contradictions.
The messaging that we projected was unflaggingly inspirational and positive (“we are unstoppable,” etc.). We actually had some text in the can (“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out”) that we didn’t end up using because it had the wrong tone. As the evening played out, it was evident that we were creating a moment of pure, celebratory optimism. It was heady and powerful.
The human microphone had become the central ritual of the Occupy movement. It is itself a repeatedly performed act of solidarity and unity. With the right message and setting, it can have a powerful emotional effect on crowds. By working it into our light projection, we hit on a new incarnation of this powerful ritual.