“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
To mourn the death of a public hero; to link a natural disaster or public tragedy to a political message; to protest the launch of a war.
The word vigil comes from the Latin word for wakefulness, and refers to a practice of keeping watch through the night over the dead or dying. Compared to the blustery pronouncements of a rally, a candlelight vigil offers a more soulful and symbolically potent expression of dissent.
Unfortunately, routine and self-righteousness can strip vigils of their power. In the American peace movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the “candlelight vigil” — all too often a handful of dour people silently holding candles — became a standard, and fatally predictable, form of protest.
An artistic vigil, on the other hand, brings a more artful touch. This doesn’t necessarily mean costumes and face paint and puppets (though it could). It means thoughtful symbolism, the right tone and a distinct look and feel that clearly convey the meaning of the vigil. An artistic vigil often draws upon ritual elements see PRINCIPLE: Use the power of ritual to both deepen the experience of participants and demonstrate that experience to observers.
A good example is the series of “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War” vigils organized by the Artists’ Network of Refuse & Resist in New York City in the wake of 9/11. People were asked to wear a dust mask (common in NYC after 9/11), dress all in black (common in NYC all the time), show up at Times Square at exactly 5 pm, and remain absolutely silent. Each participant held a sign that read “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” These vigils were silent and solemn, but there was a precision to the message that gave them a visceral potency in that emotionally raw time, for participants and observers alike.
The most famous vigils of the late twentieth century were probably those organized by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentinian women whose children were disappeared by Argentina’s 70s-era military dictatorship. By gathering every Thursday for more than a decade in the plaza in front of the Presidential Palace, they not only kept vigil for their lost loved ones, but also kept pressure on the government to answer for its crimes.
The “artistry” of a vigil can be exceedingly complex, or as simple as a few basic rituals. The simple fact of women wearing black and gathering in silence on Fridays gives shape and presence to the Women in Black worldwide network of vigils. Begun by Israeli women during the First Intifada to protest the occupation of Palestine, it has since expanded across the globe and embraced broader anti-war and pro-justice themes, but nonetheless maintains its distinctive character. At the other end of the spectrum, artist Suzanne Lacy has created complex works of art in which victims of sexual violence stand vigil amidst the art installations that tell their stories.
Compared to the average political event, a ritual is expected to have a certain gravitas, a higher level of emotional integrity, even a transcendent quality for participants. Like all rituals, a vigil should work at both the personal and political levels. It should offer a sacred experience for participants while effectively reaching out to nonparticipants. The more these two goals align, the more powerful the experience is for the participants and the more powerful the impact on the broader public.