“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
To broadcast a message; to frame an action; to rebrand a target; to entertain a crowd.
Guerrilla projection, pioneered by artists and advertisers, has been increasingly embraced by activists in recent years as a new medium for delivering messages. The advantages are obvious: with a single high-powered projector, you can turn the side of a building into a huge advertisement for your cause, plastering your message on a spot that would otherwise be out of reach. It’s legally kosher, relatively cheap and risk free compared to, say, trespassing onto a building’s roof to hang a banner off of it. Most importantly, it’s visually powerful: you can literally shine a light on the opposition.
Projections can be low-fi or hi-fi; mobile or stable. Two jerry-riggers can do one out of the back of their car to capture a quick hit-and-run photo op, or a professional VJ can project from a more stable plug-in location to entertain a crowd of thousands see CASE: 99% bat signal. They’re also a perfect tactic for rebranding your target. Greenpeace projected a huge cartoon “KABLOOM” onto the side of a nuclear reactor to remind people how dangerous nuclear power can be, and a “We have nuclear weapons on board” onto a nuclear equipped aircraft carrier that was refusing to acknowledge it. In 1993, the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Deadly Deception,” was projected directly onto the San Francisco TV station that was refusing to air it, while hundreds watched, eating popcorn. Under pressure, the station relented and aired the film.
Much of the power of projections is in the medium itself. Unlike hanging a banner, a projection can move and change, and even be interactive. With a medium so versatile, why limit yourself to static slogans? On the eve of the Great American Smokeout in 1994, INFACT hit the Philip Morris building in New York with a running count of the number of children addicted to cigarettes. With simple online tools, your projection can become interactive and crowd-sourced. Supporters on the street — or a continent away — can text, tweet or email in their own messages to be projected in real time. With a laser pointer, people on the street can write messages to others inside a building, whether they’re friends and family in jail or a CEO in his corner office.
Projections help us upend the power dynamic. The buildings of the powerful can feel so big and our voices and protest signs so small. But when a huge “99%” bat signal lights up the night sky, or you see your own handwriting scrawled across a corporate HQ in real time, it begins to level the playing field. Small voices are writ large.
When designing your action, let your imagination range far and wide. Consider, in particular, its site-specific nature, and look for ways the medium itself can highlight your message. Consider all the artful elements at work in the 2008 Free Tibet projection on the Chinese consulate in New York: the persecuted Tibetan activist was at that moment literally in hiding a world away, yet was able to speak directly to — and literally on — a massive institution that was complicit in his repression. His handwriting splaying across the marble facade in real time was at once defiant and intimate. His private act of dissent had become not just public but beautiful.
The technology is very powerful, “spectacular” in nature, and often under the control of one person or a small group who could potentially manipulate a large and impressionable crowd. This power needs to be kept accountable to the broader group, and should be wielded with great care.