On the evening of February 27, a colossal projection of Woody Guthrie appeared on the north side of the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City. Standing several stories tall, and hovering on a white canvas that covered current construction scaffolding, the late musician’s guitar that famously was emblazoned with “This Machine Kills Fascists” asked instead, “How Did It Come to This.”
The resurrection of the activist in his home state was the work of artist Jack Fowler with the technical collaboration of Stephen Tyler. Fowler had initially hoped to return and feature crowdsourced #WoodysGuitar messages on the capitol’s façade. The day after the action, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services issued a statement, shared by the Oklahoman, that although they “appreciate the creativity and ingenuity displayed by local artists” it’s “important to note that projecting images onto the state Capitol is prohibited without the necessary permits.” On an attempted return, Fowler was met by state troopers and threatened with arrest and the seizure of his equipment. ACLU of Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel told news station KFOR: “They’re communicating to other Oklahomans that may be interested in stepping out and using their voice to communicate a political message, that if you do this, you do so under threat of arrest or having your property seized.”
Now Fowler has released his rights to the original art (shown at the top of this post). “I wanted to project Woody on the capitol every night with a different message pulled from public suggestion, so that’s what I hope keeps happening,” Fowler told Hyperallergic. “I released the blank image so people could write in their own statements. I have no more plans for ‘Woody’s Guitar’ except for encouraging and fanning the flames of the positive, tangible things that have started to result from it.”
For instance, a shirt from Okay See encourages the wearer to “grab a red sharpie to write your message,” its sale proceeds benefitting Oklahoma children’s art programs. As 2017 sees an incredible number of grassroots protests across the country, “Woody’s Guitar” is an example of mobile projections enduring as a powerful form of activist art. In New York, interventions by the Illuminator have recently shed light, so to speak, on everything from the Whitney Museum pipeline, to gentrification in Chinatown. Last year the House of Commons in the UK even issued a statement that “Big Ben is not a billboard” for “guerrilla marketing projections.” As accessible, highly visible, and ephemeral proclamations, projections can give a voice to those who feel like their’s goes unheard, such as in the Republican-controlled Oklahoma Legislature.
While the state’s most high-profile political figure right now is likely Scott Pruitt, who as the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency is questioning the role of CO2 in global warming, the capitol intervention recalls a progressive local history. Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” which even made an appearance in Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show, is sometimes overlooked as a folksy, campfire-ready national anthem. It was written in reaction to the patriotic pomp of “God Bless America,” which Guthrie heard as disengaged from the poverty and struggles of everyday life in the Great Depression. The original lyrics included this verse: “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people; / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
“In today’s world, Woody’s message of diversity, equality, and social justice is more important and relevant than ever,” Deana McCloud, executive director, of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, told Hyperallergic. “The Woody Guthrie Center is proud to share this positive message that uplifts the spirit and creates its own ripples of change in our world. We keep the message alive as we encourage others to ‘Be the Machine’ to fight against injustice, and we appreciate Jack Fowler’s artwork as he joined us in this effort.”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.