“Beautiful Trouble is essential reading for the socially engaged artist.”Ken Krafchek, Graduate Director, MFA in Community Arts, Maryland Institute College of Art
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”Alfred Lord Tennyson
To broadcast a message through collective action; to frame nighttime actions with a key message; to make creative use of overlooked public spaces.
Imagine you’re at a nighttime vigil to protest the latest looming war. Candles are lit, speakers share eloquent messages, and suddenly, from a nearby rise overlooking the public square where you’ve gathered, the words WORK FOR PEACE light up the night, each letter several feet tall and swaying independently of the others, because each letter is held up by a different person. This is a Light Brigade in action.
A Light Brigade is a tactic where activists hold illuminated messages consisting of large lighted letters in public spaces at night. Light Brigades are best used in thoroughfare spaces such as highways and overpasses, iconic structures such as seats of government and monuments, or solemn gatherings such as vigils and marches. Light Brigade communications make Twitter look like long-form narrative.
The letters, based on simple DIY technology developed by the Overpass Light Brigade out of Milwaukee (with props to Graffiti Research Lab), are lightweight and portable. They consist of off-the-shelf battery-powered LED strings of holiday lights set into corrugated plastic panels, which are then framed for durability.
Once the message is decided and the letters are constructed, an Overpass Light Brigade action begins with a social media or email call to action to mobilize volunteer “Holders of the Lights.”
Because there are real humans holding the letters, the action is no longer about simply communicating a message, but becomes an act of bearing witness. Distinct from related forms of messaging (see TACTIC: Banner hang and TACTIC: Guerrilla projection), the visibility and accessibility of Light Brigade participants standing together to share a message brings power to the action as well as building a sense of collective empowerment for the participants.
Examples of the Light Brigade tactic in action include holding the message QUESTION AUSTERITY over a busy highway in Milwaukee as part of a coordinated Twitter campaign explaining the failures and falsehood of austerity economic policy. MONEY ≠ SPEECH was displayed in coordination with Move To Amend and other campaigns seeking to undo the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling, which gave corporations the legal status of people. Iconic sites have also lent context to messages such as WE HAVE A DREAM and JOBS NOT WAR at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., and I HAVE A DRONE in front of the White House. In front of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, POLICE STATE was held to protest unlawful arrests of activists.
Light Brigades can add depth and focus to vigils and solemn events, as seen with messages such as PRACTICE PEACE at the vigil for slain Sikhs in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or WE SHALL OVERCOME at the Times Square rally in support of Trayvon Martin. Environmental messages such as WATER = LIFE displayed near lakes, rivers, mountains, and shorelines can also add weight and beauty to protests of extractive industries.
While it takes some effort to build multiple letters, the recombinant potential of a collection of letters is virtually endless. It’s very important to document your action (see PRINCIPLE: Do the media’s work for them), as subsequent social media attention can amplify the reach of the message through pictures, video and blog posts. Therefore, be sure to recruit photographers to your group, or get good at your own night-time photography.
Message discipline is an underlying concept of all Light Brigade actions. Both letters and volunteer holders are limited, as is bridge space. Succinct and precise messages will resonate best both with live audiences and in media distribution. The messages serve as both text and image simultaneously, so there is a tight unity between the action and the photograph. It is also important to connect the message with specific textual possibilities of social media: for instance, hashtag campaigns on Twitter and photographic descriptions on Facebook that can help explicate a terse aphoristic or sloganistic Light Brigade action (see PRINCIPLE: Create online/offline synergy and PRINCIPLE: Publicize by creating a mystery).
Physical bodies in public space are always noticed, Light Brigades are highly visible, and public space is increasingly contested. Therefore, it is important to know the laws governing roadways and bridges: what can be held, fastened, positioned. (See PRINCIPLE: Use the law, don’t be afraid of it, and PRINCIPLE: Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.) Be prepared to respond with calm and civility to the inevitable police presence at your action – you may want to roleplay this ahead of time.