It all started last fall, with the bat signal seen round the world. On the November 17 Day of Action, a group of Occupy Wall Street activists projected a series of phrases and statements onto the Verizon building near the Brooklyn Bridge. “99% … Look around, you are part of a global uprising,” the statement read in part, the words silently imprinting themselves onto a symbol of corporate power and from there onto viewers’ minds. It felt like an exciting, game-changing moment. Plus, this was something OWS-related that the media could easily latch onto, an image! The story went viral.
The success of that event spawned the Illuminator, a van designed to continue the light interventions. The Illuminator is outfitted with video and audio projection tools, as well as a self-described “info shop” and mini-library. It offers an impromptu, mobile community space on the streets of New York City, plus an easy way for OWS to project political light graffiti onto any number of surfaces and buildings. Recent operations included a “Free Pussy Riot” projection on the Russian Consulate in Manhattan and a pro-union message in support of the Hot & Crusty workers who occupied a closing store this past weekend.
Two weeks ago, the team behind the Illuminator launched — what else? — a Kickstarter campaign to build the Illuminator 2.0. The campaign stems in part from a dispute between the group and the van’s funder, a grant-making organization called the Movement Resource Group, which wants to exert more control over the Illuminator’s use and movements. The result is that the OWS crew will lose access to the current van at the end of the month. They’re raising money to build a new one, and in the process, they’re hoping to help fund similar operations in San Francisco and Baltimore. Their ultimate goal, they write on their Kickstarter page, is to “create a small fleet of Illuminators around the country.” That’s a vision that sounds exciting to me.
I emailed Lucky Tran, one of the van’s crew members, to discuss the Illuminator, its Kickstarter campaign, and the power of mobile guerrilla light projections.
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Jillian Steinhauer: Let’s start with the impetus for the Kickstarter campaign. Was it because of the split with the Movement Resource Group? Can you explain a bit more about what caused the break?
Lucky Tran: Well, a Kickstarter campaign has always been in the pipeline due to the long-term operating costs of the vehicle, however it would be correct to say that the split has made the outcome of the campaign critical. The impasse has stemmed primarily from our funder’s disappointing refusal to participate in the collective and democratic decision-making process of our affinity group, an attitude that clashes with the principles of the Occupy movement, which the van is meant to be a resource for. In doing so our funder has tried to limit the places and times in which the vehicle could be used, which we feel impairs our ability to support many of the important struggles that are at the heartbeat of our movement. Rather than seeing this situation as an unfortunate end to a very successful project, we have decided to use this as a wonderful opportunity to replicate the tactic and help amplify marginalized voices in other places outside of New York City.
JS: Do you consider the Illuminator art of some kind? Where does it fall on the spectrum between art and activism?
LT: I think that it is important to state that the Illuminator prioritizes messaging and how it best can support the voices of the movement. However, certainly light projection in public space is something which transforms its immediate surroundings and engages the viewer outside of normal environmental expectations. Like other urban interventions such as graffiti or wheatpastes, I think whether projections might be considered art depends on many factors of specific context including the site, the content, the time … in the end, you decide! I feel it is imperative, too, to avoid considering art and activism as competing terms, and rather we should strongly critique the compartmentalization of these qualities. One of the most inspiring dimensions of Occupy has been how groups such as Occupy Museums have really challenged the popular, self-interested narrative of art emanating only from few individual geniuses, to be curated and sold in exclusive circles. Through this critical lens, the democratic potential of art is revealed as something that can truly be reflective of community and collective hopes, and therefore created and displayed in a great spirit of collaboration and the commons.
JS: What do you see as the benefit/strength of guerrilla light projections, versus something more concrete or tangible, like, say, 3-D objects or even painted graffiti?
LT: Guerilla light projections have two main aspects of form that really stand out for me. The first is that they are transient events. This is particularly evident in the constantly shifting landscape of a city street. Rather than imposing a severe limitation on the medium, this temporal nature can often enhance the urban dialogue that is being provoked by the projection. For instance, the Occupy “bat signal” that was projected on the Verizon building during the large Brooklyn Bridge night march was powerful because it occurred in an unexpected space at an unexpected time, yet synergistically captured the mood of a euphoric crowd. Similarly direct political projections (such as the “Free Pussy Riot” projection on the Russian Consulate) have a great impact due to the timing of their appearance.
Also, like more tangible forms of urban art, light projections are very much site-specific. However, their non-destructive, less invasive nature allows guerilla projections to access sites that even the most daring of street artists might not be able to reach, such as Independence Hall or the facade of a bank. This is extremely important from an activist standpoint, as it means that light projections not only create awareness about an issue, but can also convey a huge sense of personal empowerment to the viewer. Our everyday experiences are polluted by a highly commercialized visual environment, so by successfully attacking these spaces directly, projections can help inspire the feeling that we can effectively challenge the highly corporatized political space invading our lives, too.
JS: How does the group decide what and where to project?
LT: In general the Illuminator performs three types of actions: one is outreach, where the projections and the van itself (which has a mobile library on board) activate a space for dialogue about social and political issues; another involves using the van to support and help add visual language to protests, marches and rallies; and finally the projections can be used as direct actions in themselves through their messaging and site-specificity. Although some actions are planned solely by the affinity group, much of our output is collaborative, working with other groups within Occupy or like-minded activist or community organizations.
This model of partnership is important, as one of the goals for the project is to use the van to highlight the battles of the oppressed and disenfranchised, who don’t have access to a highly corporatized mainstream media to tell their stories. The sweep of issues and campaigns that we’ve helped support — from stop stop-and-frisk, to fossil fuel subsidies with 350.org, to the internet defense league — is significant, as they reflect the breadth of injustices that exist in society and demonstrate well how they are all connected, which has been a core message of Occupy Wall Street.
JS: How did you choose Baltimore and San Francisco as the two other cities to start with?
LT: These began as really organic collaborations, very much typical of how many projects in Occupy begin. The Brooklyn Bridge 99% bat signal action attracted a lot of interest around the world, and groups from these cities reached out to us for advice on how to get started. After rounds of interesting conversations and rides in the van, when the Kickstarter campaign came up it became obvious that it was a great opportunity help get guerilla projection projects off the ground in Baltimore and San Francisco. During this campaign we are also putting together a manual about how to build guerilla light projection vehicles, so hopefully these two places will only be the start, and many other collaborations will begin to form from this vine.
JS: I’m curious about the breakdown of the money. If the amount you’re hoping to raise translates to $6,000–7,000 per crew, which isn’t enough to actually build an illuminator, what’s the goal? Why not just raise $25,000 to get a new New York one up and running?
LT: Through phase one of this project, we’ve been fortunate to observe on the streets how guerilla light projections can engage, activate public space, and create a tent for important conversations. We therefore feel the urgent need to help replicate the tactic and see it spread to cities everywhere. One of the most important aspects of the crowdfunding model is how it is geared towards supporting innovative ideas that people and communities everywhere can share and benefit from rather than just provide a source of money to go off and do something cool in isolation. The minimum Kickstarter amount that we have specified would be enough to purchase high-powered projectors for all three locations.
We are, of course, hoping to inspire additional support over the minimum target to be able acquire another vehicle here, however there are creative solutions such as fitting the projectors to bikes should we fall short. The most important priority for us is to be able to help other places get started. As other inspiring groups such as the Overpass Light Brigade from Wisconsin have shown, light-based interventions have proven to be a hugely empowering tactic in activism recently. As such, we strongly believe that participation in this important medium should not be limited to a few privileged groups, and we view our Kickstarter as a positive step towards helping to grow this exciting network of art activists.