We hate bullies and we hate bigots so when OLB was asked to convene to help a young group of LBGTQ+ students and citizens in Madison, WI, we didn’t hesitate. The Light Brigades have been around for a while now, almost twelve years, and the lighted panels needed some TLC to spark ‘em up, but the work was worth it, and the trek to Madison reminded us of so many previous trips as we headed west from Milwaukee, past the conservative suburbs full of our doomed excesses of consumptive strip malls and fast food franchises, driving in a tense dense pack of traffic; semi-trucks, SUVs with little black, white and blue flag decals, passing plastic laminate signs for conservative supreme court judges in the farm fields, avoiding aggressive drivers angry at something that speed might fix but never does.
We drove into the setting sun similar to so many times during the last decade and reached Madison at sunset, the magic hour of diminishing silvery light before velvet night drops around the state capitol. We were shocked at the amount of new development in strange little hybrid city Madison, growing from a government and university town into some unholy mix of strip malls, fast food franchises and dense-packed condominiums. There were countless new condominiums creating a wall down East Washington Street, townhouses with trendy names that sounded like aspirational spiritual investment poetry.
It was cold out and the state capitol stood as beautiful as ever. We found our ragtag group of Holders of the Light congregating near “Lady Forward,” the statue that has watched over OLB actions so many times before. Action organizers had asked us to not announce the event because they get so many bigots, bullies, TERFs, who show up, dox them, mock them, threaten them, protest their existence, wound them, kill them. Three individuals in Milwaukee in the last few months, murdered. Colorado Springs shooting at Club Q 2022, Orlando nightclub shooting 2022, drag shows everywhere, 2023. Hate spreads like emerald ash borers on amphetamine, moving across the landscape devouring target hosts, leaving deadwood in the wake destroying, moving on, tree to tree, yard to yard, blighting the countryside, a region, a nation.
“STOP TRANS GENOCIDE” was the message. Yes, we understand that “genocide” is a loaded word, a serious word to use, and has a specific meaning related to ethnicity, nationality, religion. Genocide: the intentional destruction of a people in whole or in part.
Stop Trans Genocide. Are we clear?
There is a frightening evil spreading through fear and hate and intolerance amplified by the affordances of social media and the cynical corruption of the powerful. It feeds on the deadwood brains of bullies and bigots and opportunistic seekers of power, politicians of position intent upon the dehumanization of people that are family, friends, students, neighbors. It spreads and gets normalized, as decent people wring their hands and say, “What can we do? What can we do?” while bullies and bigots laugh and troll and stockpile and peel and stick decals of not-so-Christian crosses in a mix with AR-15 silhouettes and blue-lined flags onto the back windows of cars noted on the drive back. Not all cars, of course, but some cars.
This is our postcard to Ron DeSantis and those that think his platform is a desirable and legitimate political option. From Wisconsin, with rage.
In 2014, the Milwaukee Water Commons began what was to become their annual celebration of water, “We Are Water” – an event that takes place in August on the shore of Lake Michigan. On the evening of Sunday, August 14, OLB joined the celebration of water set at the South Shore Park Beach. “Somos Agua,” “Mni Wiconi,” “We Are Water” were equally highlighted on the posters and t-shirts for this“beachfront celebration of Milwaukee’s waters” andgave a good indication of the multicultural focus of both the event and its grassroots organizing agency.
Past celebrations have featured Native American speakers, drumming, poetry from local poets and youth collectives, collaborative performances and informational displays about environmental issues confronting our waterways in general, the Great Lakes, and Milwaukee specifically. OLB has participated in the past to do what light brigades do best, which is to create an organic collaboration of individual letter holders who make meaning through collective performance in the lovely deepening darkness of twilight. Past messages have also featured messages in Ojibwe, Spanish, Korean, Arabic in addition to English, with accompanying narration and activities giving context.
Sunday night was no different. Back again after a two-year COVID hiatus, people were eager to see each other and catch up. The Water Commons gave space to other groups for activities such as making rainsticks or testing ph and turbidity in water, along with conversation and information about issues like micro-plastics in the lake and lead in our urban infrastructure. These groups included Milwaukee Riverkeeper, True Skool, Plastic Free Milwaukee, Beach Ambassador, MKE County Parks, Water Restoration Partnership and Wisconsin Conservation Voices, among others. This list is an important indicator of the “bringing together” work that is an often overlooked achievement of an event like this. These relationships make all groups stronger, and the work centered around water is truly inspiring.
We chose the message “Water Unites Us” to highlight this often invisible work, this flowing together of people in flux, a coming together, and apart, and together again over time. As citizens in a troubled nation living through troubling times we are all aware these days of what divides us and we desire restorative actions, not divisive ones. The entire ceremony seemed to be a confluence of such positive vibes with drumming, poetry, some short addresses about the Water Common’s mission, and a brief talk by the newly appointed director of the Electa Quinney Institute, Mark Freeland, who spoke of the very land upon which we stood and its deep past as a place of coming together for indigenous nations, and the current present need for visibility of indigenous living languages embedded throughout the region as place names, lake names, river names, city names. He spoke of “coming together for good purpose” which resonated with our chosen message.
The night was a bit chilly for mid August and violet grey clouds were welling up in the north. As daylight diminished, participants took small reusable cups to the lake to fill with water, drop in a small battery-powered light and place the illuminated water into a design on the beach sand. It is a slow unfolding, both private in thoughtful reflection and very public in a sense of gathering with our water.
This parallel of private/public was even more apparent when towards the end of the ceremony a news crew showed up to “go live” about the event, and asked that the message remain. Our volunteers, some known to us from many past events, some absolute strangers to us, are always amazing and waited patiently on the shoreline, letters rested against the sand, while the news went live and broadcast the message acknowledging this amazing body of water in our lives.
Perhaps sometimes soon you can think about the water around you, the water that is life, and your life as an expression of water. Take a walk to a nearby lake, river, pond or puddle and center yourself between earth, air, water. Turn off your Twitter feed. Slow down for a few moments and observe human and nonhuman life. Be united, through water, in good purpose.
It is an odd sense of deja vu. Hundreds of people pack the hearing room in the Wisconsin State Capitol throughout the day. Mostly, the GOP legislators look bored, play Candy Crush on their laptops, smirk from time to time at the heartfelt testimonials pouring forth from citizen after citizen. Their indifference always makes us want to weep or start a revolution. Robin Vos, progenitor of the whole scam, didn’t even show up to advocate for his new laws that are specifically designed to leech power from the newly elected Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Angry people crowd the hall outside, registering stacks of preprinted cards in opposition to the whole set of acts, chanting the careworn Shame chant, and intersperse it with the more applicable “Respect Our Vote! Respect Our Vote! Respect Our Vote!” We understand the whole charade to be performance, but it is great to hear the rumble and roar, reminiscent of when we took over this beautiful building at the beginning of Walker’s reign of stupidity.
We arrived at 5:00 pm, making the long drive from Milwaukee in record time, and parked near the iconic bronze statue, “Lady Forward,” wondering why, whenever we seem to respond to the need for a Light Brigade action, it is so cold and windy in Madison. In spite of the frigid winter wind, hundreds of people showed up to help, eager to hold letters, stand in solidarity, take pictures, chat with old friends. Our messages greeted everyone as a steady stream of folks climbed the stairs to attend the larger planned protest nearby.
RESPECT MY VOTE
RESPECT OUR VOTE
RESPECT THE VOTE
We brought out our Pixel Stick, which is a programmable light wand that, when walked across the stage, displays an image. It is pretty cool. The wand plays the “Y” axis of the image, and a person walks the “X” axis. The camera on a slow speed, coordinated with the stick, captures the image as if it is magically wiped into space, kind of like a reversed scanner. In this case, the image was of our three criminal miscreant Republicans: the soon to disappear dull-boy face of Governor Walker, the thuggish human-iguana face of Scott Fitzgerald, and the eminently punchable face of Robin Vos. These air-wipes were choreographed over the message STOP LAME DUCK. The rally speakers boomed behind our messages. There was anger in the cold December air.
After a couple of hours, we packed up the lights and gear, and listened to the last of the speakers railing about the injustices of New Republican Rule. We went inside to the 4th floor of the capitol, way up in the dome, to get a sense of the energy of the public hearing. One man was just being forcibly ejected from the proceeding. The cops had hands on him, one on each side, one in front, two in back, and they escorted him out of the building. Later, I saw him standing around and asked him what happened. He said that during his testimonial, he kept going on after his allocated two minutes. He was told that his time was up, but he continued. They interrupted him again, and still he persisted. They stopped him more emphatically, and he loudly replied to them: “You aren’t legitimate. This hearing is a sham. So why should I follow the rules if you don’t?!!”It strikes us that this is one of the long term damages of our current state of affairs. We don’t always get our way in any democratic process, but when we see systems being abused with such bare naked power grabs, and witness the corruption and indifference of those responsible, we lose faith in systems of governance and underlying operating principles. This longterm erosion is a cancer that is rendering consensus and majority procedures meaningless. It is not necessarily easy to fix broken things.
And that’s how it is. The bills, except for the stupidest most expensive one that changed election dates in order to assure a rightwing judge his seat on the bench, all passed from committee. They will be voted on today. Call your legislators! Some lowly intern will lodge your call; they have to by law. Is it fruitless? Yes, honestly… yes. But we struggle against this assault on the foundations of our representative democracy because we have no other option, and history is never over. So call your representative. Call Vos and Fitzgerald’s offices! Send emails: the addresses are all over the internet. Go to the capitol if you can. Talk to your neighbors and friends about decency in losing and fairness in the peaceful transition of power. Post and share things on social media. All that you do matters, if not in the short run of this cynical sham, in the long run of our beleaguered electoral democracy!
The Republicans exist as a majority due to their radical gerrymandering of the electoral maps. They are doing all that they can to remain in power; a minority’s desperate aggression to maintain absolute control. It won’t last forever. Soon, all those faces wiped into the sky will disappear, as their entire apparatus will crumble, leaving nothing but taint. As a friend said in his testimony yesterday:
“It takes a long time to build good stuff. It’s not hard to knock it down. You are all a bunch of vandals.”
The following reflection is from Graeme Chesters, a Senior Lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the UK. Graeme is a writer and activist who researches social movements and collective action, and has kept a keen eye on Wisconsin and our relationship with broader political developments in the United States.
Watching CNN’s coverage of the midterm elections was like watching a slow moving car crash, a constant and apparently deliberate attempt to raise my blood pressure, as the voting percentages eased slowly towards individual results, every percentage change dissected by a demographic lens.
The House elections are effectively a national poll and the numbers look familiar given the partisan divide. The Democrats lead the popular vote 51%-47% in the House and this shouldn’t be confused with the 57% to 42% vote split in favor of the Democrats in Senate races, which merely reflects the fact that more traditional Democrat seats were up for election: 42 of the 51 seats held by Republicans did not feature in these mid-terms. Still the Republicans made gains in the Senate in areas where support for Trump had been high two years ago and where he campaigned hard this cycle. He energizes his base and gets them out to vote, at the same time as he energizes those resisting his agenda. However, what is described as a high turnout is unlikely to top 47% nationally. Mobilizing support for the party of the incumbent has been a tricky thing to do for a sitting President in previous mid-term elections, particularly in the rural areas Trump relies upon. His rallies work and unsurprisingly we will see more of them, for electoral and narcissistic reasons.
Otherwise, things appear familiar; a 30 seat loss in the House of Representatives by Republicans would be broadly equivalent to losses suffered by George W Bush in 2006. The rural/urban divide appears set in stone, but Democrats are beginning to win back some of the outlying suburbs, mainly due to the votes of women who came out for Democrats over Republicans by as much as 21 points according to exit polls. The Democratic ‘Blue Wall’ in the Mid-West is being slowly rebuilt and the raft of Governorships that fell to the Democrats in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin will be important in this process, especially during the process of redistricting, but also because these changes will make a real difference in maintaining and expanding access to affordable health care, which was the Democratic campaign theme and the number one issue reported in exit polls. Similarly decisions to allow former felons to vote in Florida (1.4 million people) could be decisive in that state in the future, particularly given the perennial narrow margins that determine winning or losing there.
In the long term, changing demographics are likely to mire the Republican Party with reliance upon an increasingly older and whiter rural base, which in part explains the rise of Trump. But if, as yesterday, women, young people, Black, Latino and other minority ethnic voters turn increasingly towards the Democrats, and importantly this is matched by increased participation, there may be many more deep Red States that are turned a shade of purple, Texas being the prime example from last night. In the interim, it’s also encouraging to see more women than ever win seats in the House, the first Muslim and Native American Congresswomen, an openly gay Governor in Colorado and first time voters who overwhelmingly came out for progressive candidates.
The change to the composition of the House will also indicate how the the tensions over strategy amongst Democrats will play out. Now we will see whether or not the usual suspects amongst the House Democrats have the stomach for a fight, and if not, what the implications will be for the wider party given the popularity and mobilizing potential of those new to Congress, those who are emerging from amidst a democratic socialist tendency. If the situation were reversed, as of course it was under Obama’s administration, the Republicans would use every available means at their disposal to thwart a Democratic Presidency. However, there remains an espoused and centrist belief in the power of civility, the myth of the radical centre, which is rooted perhaps, in the fear of mounting a genuine challenge to common corporate interests, or perhaps simply an aversion to sustained conflict amongst longtime House Democrats. This has repeatedly been exploited by the Republicans, even before the brutalist strategies of the Trump Administration.
Tonight as Nancy Pelosi preached civility, Trump again labelled reporters ‘the enemy of the people’, castigated members of his own party for losing due to their lack of allegiance to his leadership, and fired the Attorney General. This form of power politics, rooted in the sociopathic inclinations of Trump, continues to surprise liberal strategists, who find their own belief in institutional order, protocols and practices is poor preparation for the bludgeon of a true bully in the bully-pulpit, one who is now moving to limit or dismantle the Special Council investigations.
If yesterday is to mark a turning point from the road to authoritarianism that Trump seems determined to take, and if the ‘resistance’ is to consolidate these gains in Congress, then House democrats will have to have the determination to fight hard, without fearing a backlash, or without using the fear of a backlash to cover their unwillingness to fight. It will also need continuing and sustained efforts outside of Congress, and an ongoing determination to stay in the streets, building on the examples of those who led the uprising in Wisconsin in 2011, but had to undertake a long and difficult eight year struggle to eventually oust Scott Walker, or the incredible organizing capacity of unions such as the Culinary Union 226 in Nevada which is 60,000 members strong and which played a decisive part in the one senate gain for the Democrats last night.
Even with snow predicted, we knew that we would get Holders of the Light to come out last night in order to display a message against the stranglehold regarding access to high-power military-grade weaponry that the NRA has on this country. We don’t need here to outline the absolute lunacy of a society devouring itself, eating its young. We don’t have any magic answers, but understand that it will be a long struggle to reduce violence, fear, and the anger of our unhappy people as we also work towards more sane legislation regarding lethal technologies. So we choose to go out to at least shine some light on the issue, to be a visible part of the push and pull between freedom and responsibility. In that regard, we were pleased to be joined by a number of young volunteers, including a sophomore from Milwaukee’s Obama School of Career and Technical Education, Marvell Reed, who has become a spokesperson among high school students regarding sensible gun legislation.
The letter panels were passed out to Holders as we had a few quick words about the evening’s action and introduced Marvell to the group. He spoke briefly about the upcoming National School Walkout on March 14, where, at 10:00 a.m, students, teachers and allies will walk out for 17 minutes in memory of the 17 student killed in Florida, and in protest of our leaders’ collective inability to do anything about it beyond their impotent “thoughts and prayers.”He went on to explain the larger national event on March 24, the “March for our Lives,” organized by students from Marjory Stonemason Douglas High School in Florida, with the intention of protestors amassing in cities across the country, as well as a march in D.C. This is big. When do you last remember high school students getting so engaged, so organized, so impressive in their call to responsibility? We need to do all that we can to support them in this growing movement.
A representative from Wisconsin’s Anti-Violence Effort, WAVE, also spoke briefly, mentioning their continued advocacy regarding gun legislation at the state level. Here are some of the things she said that we can do to help:
1) Send letter of support to Stonemason Douglas students c/o Teacher Diane Wolk-Rogers, MSD High School, 5901 Pine Island Rd, Parkland FL 33707
2) Send Checks of Thoughts and Prayers to Rep Paul Ryan, 1233 Longworth House Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20515 (and of course, your own senators and representatives!)
We took to the bridge a little after 6:00. It was cold out, a brisk wind blowing off the lake, but it never did snow. A filmmaker friend joined us on his motorized skateboard which he used for DIY trolley shots, and he put together a video from time lapse footage he took via a bridge a half mile down the highway. It was fun being a part of this, and feeling that we are a tiny voice in a grand discussion about basic elements of life itself. Bearing witness with these light panels is something we can do here in Milwaukee, and across the country through the Light Brigade Network. Our filmmaker friend brought his tools and skills to offer something that he can do to help. Every volunteer offered up their time and comfort and solidarity as a gift to the greater good. Marvell demonstrated with great poise and clarity what young people can do and are doing. His classmates are organizing, talking with other high school students and college students, connecting with other issues and advocacy groups. This is something that they can do, and is exciting to see! What can you do? How can you help?
Marvell gave us a tour of his neighborhood on the way home. We talked of the new Milwaukee police chief, the outrages over the local water-plunder enabled by our state in its mad rush to seduce FoxConn, about violence in schools. It was apparent that this high school sophomore is more informed than most of our adult community members. As we arrived at his home, he was getting ready to leave the van. We expressed that we would do anything that we could to help him and the other students. “Thanks!” he said. “That was quite an experience!” He paused for a moment and added, “but cold!”
The kids are alright, even if they don’t wear dorky winter hats.
It is Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Janesville, WI, and it is very cold outside. Buses holding over one hundred students from the advocacy group, Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) arrive in quick succession at Jefferson Park, just a few short blocks away from Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) home. The students gather, talk among themselves, move to keep warm, grab banners and signs. A group of twelve also hold OLB letters spelling out “DREAM ACT NOW!” The staging is done quickly in order to avoid notice from local law enforcement, since no permits have been pulled. The group masses, makes its way towards Ryan’s house, chanting “Here to Stay!” and “Ryan! Escuche! Estamos en la Luche!” The students are here to stay, and are engaged in the struggle to be treated fairly and humanely.
“Where’s our sanctuary, Rep. Ryan?” That is the question these young people, who have come from around the state to arrive unannounced on this cold night, are asking. They have exhausted every effort to meet with Rep. Ryan, and he has consistently dodged every attempt. They want him to cosponsor a Clean Dream Act that would provide protections for students, similar to many of them, who are registered under the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival program, or “DACA.” President Trump has thrown the program’s future in limbo, and students are petitioning Ryan to use his influential position as Speaker of the House to pass new legislation that protects previous promises. Public opinion rests firmly with the students, as highlighted by a September Washington Post Poll that found 86 percent of respondents in favor of allowing Dreamers the focus of their dreams: to stay in the country which has been the only home they know. But why isn’t Paul Ryan listening? If he doesn’t respect their need for sanctuary, perhaps they should disrupt his, even for a short time!
Four Secret Service agents are parked outside the house. The light panels spelling “DREAM ACT NOW!” are planted in front, and the students gather to rally. A bullhorn is passed around, and several speakers begin to give testimony about the uncertainty, insecurity and brutality of the current situation, how losing DACA status would have such a detrimental effect on them and their families. A 15 year old Racine Park High School Student, Wendy Cruz, takes the bullhorn. She spoke of a meeting that she had with Representation Ryan five years ago in DC, after the trauma of watching her uncle get arrested and deported. She saw it firsthand. She was hiding with her brother in the closet. At the time of the DC meeting, Ryan seemed to be visibly moved by her personal story. According to Wendy, he made a promise to her and her family that he would “support the Dream Act.” That was five years ago. The promise has been broken, and Wendy and these young YES activists are bringing their struggle directly to Ryan’s doorstep.
Can you hear us now, Paul Ryan?
“Ryan! Escuche! Estamos in la Luche!” echoes through the Janesville streets, through the cold Wisconsin night, a darkness lit by DIY signs and the dreams of the Dreamers, hoping for the promise of a secure place in the heart of their only home.
Light Brigade actions take on their meaning from the context of people and places. The Overpass Light Brigade – San Diego continues to create vivid and powerful visual messages at the nation’s southern border, on local overpasses, and recently by adding to a famous Bruce Nauman piece of public art on the UCSD campus, which illuminates one of seven virtues or vices, alternating through words like “Justice” or “Anger” every few seconds. OLB-SD tried to capture one virtue or vice at a time, in order to project their own additional phrases by using a theatrical spotlight and “gobos,” which are stencils that fit on the light unit in order to form the image. Though more limited than a high-lumen digital projector, this piece of gear is affordable and powerful, albeit a bit unwieldy. It is a favorite tool of Seattle’s Backbone Campaign, and is often used in conjunction with other nighttime actions, such as light panels and other forms of projection. As a field unit, it requires a power inverter and a marine battery, but once set up it can throw a crisp stencil at an impressive scale.
We love to see creative protests taking messages into the streets. This one seems particularly striking in its parasitic relationship to a pre-existing piece. The Nauman neon temporarily takes on a specificity that was not originally intended. That specificity, in light of our current horror at the upsurge of neo-nazi sentiments and rightwing duplicity in the absolute corruption of our governing forces, is an important reminder of our resistance. After the action, the public art piece returns to its more ambient, humanist intention, though it is changed forever for those who saw it in place, or its resonant replication through photography and social media.
From San Diego to New York to Aukland, The Light Brigade Network continues to do great work in the world. Be creative, be bold, be smart but be safe as you continue to #FightWithLight!
We at OLB discussed the writing of a small reaction piece to the dreadful massacre in Las Vegas. We balked, feeling numb to the anger, fear and violence of our times in the USA. “What is there to say,” we asked, “that hasn’t been said over and over hundreds of times?” But it has been eating at us all week, this numbness that we feel about the frequency of such violent acts, their interconnection with access to military style weaponry, and the intractable nature of our legislature regarding even common sense gun control measures. Background checks? Be real! Semi-automatic retrofits readily available on the web so you can jack your lethal weapon with caffeinated trigger twitch? DIY culture, baby! Bans on assault-style weapons? Not in my America! Armor piercing bullets? Of course, what is a gun without unlimited ammunition! This fear and hysteria is fostered by the armament industry’s lobby megaphone, the NRA. They suggest that even a slight curb on unlimited weaponry is a slippery slope to a dystopic future where only some ill defined power will have the use of force, and our well-armed militias, living locally, will be powerless and impotent against such dark forces of chaos and tyranny.
But the fact is, there is a relationship between gun ownership and gun violence. This is well established. The NRA is a Death Cult, and we are all being held hostage. More guns in a community leads to more homicide. Period. In the USA, there are more than 11,200 gun homicides a year. Since Sandy Hook alone, there have been more than 1,300 mass shootings. Do we have the will to fight the NRA, and push against the duplicity of the totally purchased GOP, in order to demand responsible legislation regarding assault style weapons?
The NRA wants us to believe that somehow saturating the world with guns makes it a more peaceful and safe place. There is no data to suggest this, only the wild fantasies of a scared, angry and violent people. We at OLB aren’t against gun ownership. Hunting and marksmanship are honorable activities when done with care and respect. We are against the easily available antipersonnel weaponry that saturates America. Semi-automatic retrofits and “legal” hacks essentially give military capability to the kook next door. This isn’t sane!
So we cycle through yet another round of sanctimony, impotent prayers for the victims, vigils such as the many that we have conducted for Slaughters of the Innocents nearby and faraway. We are confronted by smug patriarchs who tell us that “now is not the time to talk about legislation,” and by deeply cynical politicians who somehow try to convince us that “it is inappropriate to politicize such tragedy.” We are corrected on our loose understanding of jargon (is that really a semi-automatic?) or our sloppy understanding of complex law (background checks in gun stores, but not gun shows? Would you like your open carry with or without license, sir?) and mostly we are told, directly or implicitly, to just shut up and move along. Nothing to see here folks, other than bullets raining down like Kansas hail on a peaceful and joyful crowd at a country music concert, while another “lone wolf” redefines animal behavior.
And that brings us back to silence. Another week, another mass shooting. 1,300 since murdered children at Sandy Hook. Death Cult NRA. Death Cult GOP. Death Cult America. Duck and cover. The next attack is coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
Overpass Light Brigade invited artist and activist Brian Carlson to tell us about his project to repatriate the memory of Argentina’s “Los Desaparecidos” through his skillful portrait painting. What follows is his account of this stunning project that merges memory, archive and social justice…
Since the seventies, US administrations have supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments, have assisted, at times, with the installation of dictators, and have aided these repressive regimes as the dictators or juntas conducted institutionalized terrorism against their own citizens. The history is sordid and sustained to the present day. Support for repressors has been consistent on both sides of the short political fence, Republican and Democrat alike, and this history is well documented in declassified state department files that are readily available.
In 2007 I was invited to participate in a large international human rights art exhibition and convention held in Buenos Aires. The work selected was a large interactive installation called “Handwriting on the Wall” which was a fourteen foot long by ten foot tall free standing monolith, covered with blackboard paint, constructed in a sala of the Centro de Artes de Recoleta. On one side of the wall, statistics I had collected for years on world-wide violence against women were transcribed by the visitors. On the other side of the wall, women only were invited to write testimonies of violence they had suffered or violence against women they had witnessed. The wall filled quickly and was over written, layered in stories as women took the opportunity to speak about physical abuse.
In preparation for that trip to Argentina I researched violence against women in Argentina and was quickly buried in reports and articles about the years of state terrorism, often erroneously referred to as the “Dirty War.” A huge number of the 30,000 disappeared were females. I admit that prior to that time I had scant knowledge about the concerted ideological genocide during the seventies and eighties. News coverage in the States in all media was slight or slanted. Movies like “Missing,” created momentary stirs but in general, we in the USA had little idea what our government was doing.
While in Buenos Aires for the exhibition a group of artists and academics were invited to tour ESMA, an acronym that stands for the School of Naval Mechanics, the Armada, a college of war. During this time period, a large part of ESMA had been used as a detention and torture facility for “processing” victims. It is one of the 340 detention and torture facilities that were in operation across Argentina, infamous for its size, the scale of repression, and for the fact it is situated right in Buenos Aires in the middle of an otherwise normal looking area, nestled among high rises and businesses. Five thousand people had passed through this gate of hell and almost all had disappeared.After weeks or months of torture they were drugged, driven to transport planes, shackled together and dropped into the vast nearby Rio de Plata, which leads to the ocean. These were the “Vuelos de Muerte,” the Flights of Death.
Touring ESMA, which was not open to the public at that time, had a profound effect on me. The historian explained what had happened in each space we visited, we stood in rooms in which the tortures occurred, rooms in which the perpetually hooded victims lay side by side on concrete floors in chains and in silence, rooms in which pregnant women, who had been regularly tortured, delivered infants that were given away to the families of perpetrators to be raised with the correct political views. The pain, despair, and horror that permeated the walls was palpable.
It was in ESMA that I decided I would make a memorial to the desaparecidos and that, somehow, I would one day return to Argentina to exhibit the results. I promised the disappeared that I would do so and that, if possible, I would exhibit this memorial at ESMA itself. That promise would change my life.
A portrait of Ricardo Omar Sapag Romero
I did not begin the physical memorial for five years. I was teaching, raising kids, and working on other projects but I did begin research on the state terrorism. I learned about Operation Condor, the concerted six nation campaign of repression authored by Chile’s Pinochet, and I learned about CIA assistance to Condor. I learned about the infamous School of the Americas, a US institution that would educate tens of thousands of Latin Americans in subversion, coercion and torture, including many who populated the death squads, ran the torture programs or even led these regimes. Henry Kissinger was instrumental in retaining US support through three administrations while Nixon, Ford, and Reagan all actively supported these perpetrators. The story is far to long to tell. The support did not die in the eighties, it moved on to other fields, other continents. The crops of war and terrorism are freely rotated.
In January of 2012, many aspects of my life aligned in such a way that I decided to begin this work and take it as far as it could go. I had no funding, I had only part time jobs teaching at a university andworking as a cook. I knew no one in Argentina and I did not speak Spanish. But the commitment was real and I had an idea for a form. I decided I would hand paint portraits of every desaparecido I could access through photographs. These would be tiled together when installed so that the faces could be seen in public. The design would allow the memorial to be configured in many ways, be sized eventually to fill large or small venues, be exhibited indoors or outside, be set up relatively easily without extensive equipment or supplies, and be easily transportable. Rather than a site specific largelocation and large superstructure, “Aparecidos”, as I would come to call the memorial, is adaptable and mobile.
Online I found desaparecidos.org, an archive with hundreds of photos of desaparecidos, and I began to paint, starting with the first one, Juan Carlos Abachian. After I had painted about eighty portraits, I opened a Facebook page, summoned Google Translate and made an awkward but apparently intelligible explanation of what I was trying to do, inviting families or friends of the disappeared to send me photos of their lost ones, promising to return them images of the finished portraits they could print or use in anyway they liked. It took time to get an answer. Many would later tell me that they read my request and looked at the portraits and wondered what was a Yankee going to do with the images of their dear ones? Finally one woman sent me an image of her brother, Gustavo, who had been abducted and murdered. Her act of trust led to more and soon I regularly had images arriving in my email and on Facebook requesting inclusion in a growing memorial.
Five years after the first paintings on the floor of my studio that began with some Bristol board, acrylic paint, a laptop and a photo archive, there have been 21 exhibitions of “Aparecidos,” in Argentina, Uruguay, the USA and Spain. I have now painted more than 2000 portraits and continue. In 2013, I exhibited 450 portraits at ESMA, fulfilling my promise to the disappeared. Since that time, I have exhibited at many of the most notorious detention and torture centers, Olimpo, La Perla, El Infierno, D2, and as well at numerous museums, cultural centers, universities and even high schools. There has been media coverage in the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, the Oslo Times and many major Latin American publications including Pagina 12, TeleSur and TELAM. I feel that this has brought visibility back to the families who lost so much. The public display of this deplorable history is significant for collective memory, for grappling with our insidious inhumanity and for the healing of those who survived the brutality of their own government.
I say all of this to make a simple point. Visual art has an enormous potential to convey critical messages to la gente. There are many kinds of art as we all know and many kinds of audiences. On one end of the spectrum, artists shoot for “contributing to the art conversation,” attempting to make some mark in a large national or international esthetic game. Success would be in the form of museum shows, exposure in the art press, placement in significant collections, gallery representation and monetary reward.But after a modicum of early success in that direction I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who is benefitting by what I am doing? Who sees this? What use is it? What is its function?” I saw my early paintings on the walls of corporations or hanging in some wealthy person’s home, where they had become a type of furniture…. the furniture of success, signifiers of good taste. This was a hollow success for me, with the world in flames of conflict, aggression and violence.
I had to do something different, to address issues that I felt mattered. I encourage all artists to get to the core of what you care about. Who are you? How can you use your amazing abilities to help take action? Speak with your gift, your skills, your passion! Do not quit speaking. You WILL make a difference.
A little girl views a portrait of a lost grandparent
Driving up highway 13 the other night, just north of Washburn, WI, you might have seen a strange sight if you looked through the willow and dogwood and cattails and reeds towards the beach. Weird lighted letters were dancing down the coast, lining up on the sand bar where the Sioux River cuts into the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Even in late March, a cold bitter wind was whipping from the north, past the Apostles, through the gap that makes Madeline Island an island, through the fine gaps in our clothes, cold and crazy to be out for the final shot in a video poem dedicated to water. Intrepid Northland College students, game for adventure and undaunted by the weather, had donned rubber and neoprene waders, and were standing off the shore holding the message; WE ARE WATER. Those of us on shore laughed as small ice chunks floated by, between the shore and the standing students, driven by the icy wind. Away from the camera lights the velvet night was so dark that the sword of Orion poked down from the sky, low over the northern hills, so bright you could feel its edge. It was a beautiful way to end the filming of this three day project. We thanked everyone and drove back to Ashland, to check on our all night camera gear set up way out on the crusty ice of Chequamegon Bay, picking up the green flows of northern lights as the stars traced their linear journeys through the camera and over time.
It was a good three days in the north country. We had been invited by faculty at Northland College to give some lectures and workshops about “art and social change,” which we were more than happy to do, though we also proposed to make a short movie with students and community members. It seemed much more exciting to generate new work with students than to talk at them about our previous projects. The college is small, with only about 600 students, but very centered on social justice and environmental science. There is a purposeful feel to it, and on our first day our noontime discussion of the project went really well. We talked about tactics and generated a messaging list for our night shots, and got some voice-over readings and recordings of the phrases in the nearby radio station sound booth. Our filmmaker friend from the Twin Cities had joined us, and he wanted to begin shooting out on the ice well before sundown for some drone shots and video portraits. The lovely 55 degree sunny day didn’t help firm up the footing on the crusty ice, though it still seemed safe to walk on, especially in the shallows of the massive bay. People, mostly older community members, began to arrive at 6:30 and we got video head shots in pink and orange light of the setting sun.
We then pulled out the message NO ENBRIDGE LINE 5 and took it out onto the ice. The drone buzzed like a giant robotic mosquito, getting some powerful aerial shots on the massive expanse of ice. As the sun rapidly set,the emerging darkness brought out the beauty and brightness of the light panels. We choreographed a lot of messages relevant to water, and were packing it up around 10:00 pm when another shift arrived, a group of students. They continued holding more messages and action words such as RESIST, MARCH, PICKET, BLOCKADE, and phrases like WE ARE ONE, and WATER PEOPEL RISE, well into the late night hours.
The next day broke much colder. Springtime winds swept down from the Canadian shield, but everyone was still game to continue the video shoot. The students we drank beer with the night before in a brew pub in Ashland came out to the ice flats, we built a big bonfire, and continued the fun, running around on the ice with the letters like a bunch of frigid fools, ice dancers, people who care about the world, water people. At one point, seventy or so letter panels lay on the ice, face up, illuminating the night, reflected as a blue glow on the ice, while the bonfire glowed orange in a puddle of its own making, and people ran around with illuminated words, following a dancing man with a camera shooting and shouting and everyone laughing… We saved the “wader shot standing in icy water” for last, since we weren’t sure we could pull it off in the harsh conditions. But we did. They did. The students. The community. All of us.
Sometimes words fail to adequately describe the beauty of a location, even when they are lit up on a frozen lake and held by a wonderful array of people. Compelling pictures and videos of trenchant messages in physical space will be generated by our days “up north,” but the real message is in the power of people coming together, to stand in solidarity – even on the ice – and be present in the poetry of the moment with such hopeful representations as WATER PEOPLE UNITE, and (with the earth, the night sky, the fish lazily swimming beneath the blue ice, the crows black in their skeletal trees, Orion’s belted sword pointing down to sacred hills, the people together in spite of the weather) WE ARE WATER… WE ARE ONE.