Seeing Is Believing: Protest Art That Makes a Mark, Then Disappears

Here are a few times when political activists were able to be seen by an unsuspecting herd.

(Photo: Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Aug 4, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

Crowds in New York saw massive images of more than 160 species of endangered wildlife projected on the sides of the Empire State Building this past weekend, capping off a week when the Internet voiced outrage over the death of Cecil the Lion.

In what turned into a perfect storm of timing and zeitgeist, the projections used dozens of large projectors to illuminate layers of color for the brilliant 40-story images of animals—including Cecil—on the skyscraper’s facade, an event created by creative firm Obscura Digital to promote the upcoming Discovery Channel documentary Racing Extinction. It brought home the point of what we lose when animals are driven from the face of the planet.

It also cost more than $1 million.

The price tag and prowess of the Obscura project sparked some professional envy in activists and artists who have long relied on guerrilla projections to make these ephemeral but effective jumbo statements. That’s how New York University professor Mark Read felt as an innovator in the field who contributes to political art group Beautiful Trouble, and who has notably worked with The Illuminator, a political art collective, on guerrilla projections. His work with Occupy Wall Street is a hallmark of that movement and of public projection.

“The scale is sort of mind-blowing,” said Read of the Empire State projections. “Obscura Digital has done some pretty remarkable feats—they do beautiful work. We can’t do anything even approximate to that, but what we are able to do is utilize the architecture and geography of the city itself to find a really good frame.”

Read is careful to avoid sounding like he has a mouth full of sour grapes, and he seems genuinely impressed by the scale of Obscura’s landmark project on a landmark building. But the punk ethos of his work with the gaggle of political activists at The Illuminator is about finding something that’s not just gorgeous—like beautiful animals on a beautiful building—but also meaningful, and that drives home the activists’ message.

Using transparent illuminations to make a statement is popular for its impressive size and scale, but it also gives political activists a fresh canvas, as the medium provides the ability to mark up buildings that are heavily protected or impossible to access. Projecting pictures doesn’t carry all the repercussions that can come with defacing property to make a point—this isn’t graffiti scrawled while hanging from a dangerous ledge. It’s a well-planned, sometimes momentary visual statement that can travel via social media.

A good example of that may lie in the projections Read developed for Occupy, which were in many ways the opposite of what the Obscura projections were—he had to borrow a cinema projector from some buddies, and he found himself in a hard scramble to find a place to project from in time for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in 2011. The nearby Verizon building—“the monolith,” as Read calls it—with its tall, windowless exterior wall, presented the perfect canvas; he distributed fliers around a nearby tenement asking for access. After some crazy calls, a sympathizer reached out and provided a way in. Read created a script for the “mic check” text—an echo of the call-and-response style of protest chant popular in Zuccotti Park—and worked with VJs from the rave scene to project the words onto the building.

“In that instance...there were plenty of people who were going to be risking arrest. We were just trying to do something spectacular and beautiful,” Read said.

The effect was a moving moment for the crowd (more of The Illuminator’s work can be seen here). Next, the group is planning to hit the United Nations’ climate conference in Paris, as well as New York Fashion Week.

Here are some other projection protests that have made headlines and pushed people on the street to think.

Innovating Artist

With his large-scale public projections on public monuments all over the world, Harvard University professor Krzysztof Wodiczko has shared powerful political commentary for decades, from projecting a swastika on the South African Embassy in London to protest apartheid in 1985, to the 1999 projection of remembrances of Hiroshima survivors—telling their stories through hand gestures—on a wall at the foot of a building that wasn’t destroyed in the 1945 blast.

Seeing the Unseen: Sex Assault

Young women on campuses across the country have spoken out in recent years about feeling like prey on their own turf—in their dorms and at campus events. Going public hasn’t been easy for survivors of sex assault, and getting administrations and officials to respond to allegations has been even tougher.

(Photo: Jezebel/Facebook)

This powerful projection, from anti-rape activist group No Red Tape, went up in April at Columbia University with the help of The Illuminator. With phrases including “Rape Happens Here” and “Columbia Has a Rape Problem,” the defiant display illustrated that even at our country’s finest schools, the complaints of female students aren’t being heard or addressed.

Art-on-Art Action

Countless artists struggle in obscurity for their entire lives, hoping for their work to be featured in world-famous museums such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum or the Whitney Museum of American Art. Then there are those who demand to be heard on the walls of such institutions—albeit on the outside.


(Photo: Facebook)

After reports of human rights abuses during construction of the Guggenheim’s Abu Dhabi outpost, activists teamed with The Illustrator to illuminate the problem on the museum’s famously spiraling facade on New York’s Upper East Side. Dubbing the museum a “1 percent museum,” protesters decried the Guggenheim’s relationship with investors in the United Arab Emirates. Museum leadership wrote a letter to The New York Times in June saying its role is broadly misunderstood, and the construction in Abu Dhabi hasn’t even begun yet.

Downtown, in the meatpacking district, the new branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art hadn’t officially opened before, as the Times put it, its exterior “unwittingly played host to its first radical art exhibition.”

(Photo: Gothamist/Facebook)

Activists affiliated with the Occupy movement projected questions about climate change and fossil fuel abuse on the museum, which is situated over a natural gas pipeline.

Nuclear Option

Back in 1989, Greenpeace protesters used a simple projection on a British aircraft carrier to reveal it was allegedly carrying nuclear weapons with 80 times the explosive power of Hiroshima. Read says it’s one of the earliest examples of such projection that he can remember, and it inspired countless others.

(Photo: Courtesy Greenpeace.org)

Now You See Them

In a more high-tech iteration of these illuminations, Spanish protesters sent thousands of holograms marching past government buildings earlier this year to protest restrictive digital laws.

(Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)