In anticipation of the US presidential election, artists unite

A colourful poster on the side of a building in America

Progressive organisation, People For the American Way, prepares to install billboards with artists in swing states to encourage voting and urgency for change

By Osman Can Yerebakan    Above image: artwork by Shepard Fairey (People For the American Way)    Sunday 13 September, 2020   Short read

Pressing down your car’s pedal, billboards outlining the highway rapidly grow from minuscule to dwarfing with the escalating speed: an unabashedly cheerful family tempts for a meal at the diner after Exit-97 or a suave lawyer promises the sweetest alimony settlement. What could be more American than driving between larger-than-life billboards rising through gas stations and strip malls with promises for a fuller, richer, and eventually happier life? 

People For the American Way (PFAW), a Washington D.C.-based organisation committed to advocacy for progressive policies, recognises billboards’ piercing impact at the dawn of November’s presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. PFAW’s expansive involvement with action against right-wing extremism involves first-hand civic engagement, such as lobbying for gender equality or campaigning to defund politics. However, after a four-decade activist effort, it agrees that this time the stakes are too high and art needs to speak up.
A billboard rising above an urban landscape in America
A colourful striped billboard against a blue sky
ENOUGH of Trump’ is its nationwide campaign with more than 10 artists to place vote-encouraging billboard messages across swing states throughout October. The all caps in the title is both an expression of exhaustion from current administration’s failures and a stylistic gesture, which will echo on billboards for civic participation. ‘We believe art is a creative and thought-provoking medium, when typical political messaging is not necessarily,’ says Rio Tazewell, PFAW’s Senior Campaigns Manager, who oversees the initiative launched by pioneering multimedia artist and the organisation’s board member, Carrie Mae Weems. 

‘People are disillusioned and turned off by propaganda,’ adds Tazewell, who hopes a simple but meaningful ‘enough’ will pique public interest to visit their website and eventually vote, which is their ultimate objective. Billboards will primarily appear across areas where Trump narrowly won the 2016 election in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. But the project will span to traditionally blue states through lighter interventions, such as face masks, yard signs, and tote bags.  

Weems conceptualised the project with PFAW’s former president Michael Keegan and founder Norman Lear in late 2019 when the country, negligent towards the impending pandemic, was amid tension with North Korea over missile diplomacy and Trump’s battle with House Democrats over his impeachment. Organising a host of participating artists in a short amount of time was not a challenge for Weems, who won the MacArthur “Genius” Award and the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She also has decades-long practice of illustrating social landscape, particularly through seminal photography series, such as The Kitchen Table Series (1990) and From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried (1995-1996). Weems, in fact, has been among the most active artists as the country’s socio-political chaos continues to unfold.
A black billboard against a blue sky
She currently collaborates with Dallas Contemporary museum for Texas-wide public art initiative, RESIST COVID/TAKE 6!, to raise awareness about COVID-19 among communities of colour, who have been among the most vulnerable. Through informative public interventions and the distribution of face masks, the project blends poetic language of art with immediacy of civic engagement. The museum’s Senior Curator Laurie Ann Farrell and Weems have formed what Farrell describes as ‘a cultural consortium’ to share resources and include more than 50 community partners in the zip codes hardest hit by the virus. Similar to the far-reaching spirit of ‘ENOUGH of Trump’, this project has also pushed state boundaries and occupied the walls and billboards in Detroit with support from the Motor City’s influential art space, Library Street Collective.  

Their goal is objective, but each artist in ‘ENOUGH of Trump’ contributes to the call for ballot in their signature aesthetic lexicon. From Jeffrey Gibson’s vibrant colours and geometric patterns inherent to his large-scale textiles, to Shepard Fairey’s stylised graphics inspired by historical propaganda posters, varying visual traits announce: ‘Enough’, a sentiment of discontent that can only vanish through voting. Mystery of long-stretching Midwestern landscape is embedded into few artists’ oeuvre as Ed Ruscha. His takeover of billboards, however, is unforgivingly direct, leaving no room for doubt. ‘EE-NUF!’ is emblazoned at the centre of a torn American flag, framed by reminders of all-so-familiar realities: fascism, pollution and White supremacy. Christine Sun Kim, who exhibited at 2019’s Whitney Biennial and performed the national anthem in sign language at this year’s Super Bowl, expands the message’s outreach with its translation to American Sign Language.  

How far can a message reach without its agent? PFAW knew a project about future freedoms could only shape in the hands of the public. ‘Artists have been organising for centuries, but having a politically minded organisation behind their backs creates a different type of impact,’ says Patton Hindle, Head of Arts at Kickstarter where ‘ENOUGH of Trump’ has been available for backers’ support since 11 August. Through a snowballing response, the project reached its $40,000 goal in less than 24 hours with a 412% support rate. It has crossed over the US with backers from Europe and Australia, and the organisers eventually stretched the project to other battleground states, North Carolina, Arizona and Florida with an aimed sum of $250,000.
An woman poses in her studio for a portrait sitting down with some art behind her

Carrie Mae Weems (Catherine T MacArthur Foundation)

Jeffrey Gibson (Taylor Dafoe)

The backer rewards resonate with the project’s core sentiment and injects the activist voice into the everyday, with a Weems-designed tote bag that reads ‘Dump Trump’ or a Richard Serra print branding the president ‘Fake’. Kickstarter has previously provided platform-to-politically conscious art projects, such as artist-led organisation For Freedoms’ ‘50 States, 50 Billboards’, which similarly installed an artist billboard in each state via support from 2,221 backers in 2018. In fact, Hindle and Tazewell met in February in Los Angeles at a For Freedoms conference about the overlap of art and politics. ‘For the first time on our platform, however, a project is calling out a specific leader,’ reminds Hindle, pointing out the campaign’s comments section to witness the overall sentiment about the urgent need for change. ‘Kickstarter doesn’t make political statements, but we are interested in witnessing artists align for democracy and provide anyone with access to art beyond regular museum-goers.’ 

It’s unclear whether ‘ENOUGH of Trump’ will exceed Amplifier’s ‘We the People’ campaign, which raised $1,365,105 on Kickstarter to place full-page ads about hope on 20 January 2017’s edition of the Washington Post on the day of Trump’s presidential inauguration. Yet, what is doubtless is that a White middle-class Wisconsin man, still indecisive about his ballot, will encounter an unswerving reminder while driving back home from work. ‘Enough’ will roar its message at him between promises of ‘a better future’ in ads for firearm stores and pawn shops.    

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