Commercial sponsorship dominates public spaces, while wheat-pasted posters and graffiti are almost instantaneously removed; to reclaim the public sphere as a site of graphic political resistance requires reinvention. Enter the Illuminator, a New York-based art activist collective, whose shifting membership has mastered the legal grey zone that regulates projection in public. Projectors usually capture audiences’ attention in movie theaters and classrooms. But the Illuminator takes the normally stationary technology out of the classroom and onto the streets, affixing a high-powered, 12,000-lumens projector atop a van — or, when special nimbleness is required, a trolley — to ignite urban façades with political statements that are as bold as they are temporary.
Beginning with an Occupy-inspired “bat signal” beamed off the Brooklyn Bridge and onto a corporate tower in 2011, the collective has appropriated buildings’ exteriors to reveal the forces at work inside. In 2015, “We’re all sitting ducks” lit up the outside of the UN during a Nuclear Non-Proliferation conference; later that year, “Koch=Climate Chaos” and “The Met is a Museum Not an Oil Lobby” beamed into the dark recesses between the columns of the Metropolitan Museum of Art after climate science obstructionist David H. Koch traded a $65 million donation for his name in gold lettering outside. These interventions turn the grandiosity of iconic facades back on themselves. Recently, the Illuminator’s self-described “big flashy protest sign” has embraced a different form of engagement, developing responsive tools that make the usual spectacle interactive. During a recent collaboration with the Crown Heights Tenant Union, when “The People’s Pad” transposed residents’ handwritten slogans, in real time, into multi-story-tall projections, simmering debates about displacement came literally and metaphorically out into the open. Ever democratic, they make their software and best practices available to would-be imitators online. When manipulating private architecture from a public vantage, any apparently neutral surface can be overwritten in light. In this conversation, republished from UnionDocs’ World Records Journal, The Illuminator Collective talked to digital media scholar Eli Horwatt about what it takes to make public art together, and what recourse they have when the police say “turn it off.”
I’d like to start with the genesis of The Illuminator Collective in relation to the Occupy movement. Could you describe how the initial idea of mobile projection evolved? The logistics of mobile projection are themselves quite complex—had members already conceived of or developed methods to achieve this? What were the collective’s goals when embarking on creating the 99% Bat Signal?
The 99% Bat Signal action was the work of Mark Read, who pulled together an ad-hoc team that included Max Nova, JR Skola, Chris Jordan, Jeanne Angel, Aaron Kuffner, and Brandon Neubauer. Read was working within a coalition of activists organizing a large-scale rally and march on November 17th in New York City. That coalition was comprised of labor organizers, who had initially put out the call for the rally, as well as an array of community-based organizations, and a contingent of Occupy Wall Street activists. The goal of that action was simply to inspire the thousands of people that we knew would be walking across the Brooklyn Bridge on the pedestrian walkway. As fate would have it, this action took place two days after the eviction of Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park), so the messaging became even more powerfully resonant than it might have been otherwise. In addition to the “Bat-Signal” itself, messages such as “Do Not Be Afraid,” “Another World is Possible,” and “We Are a Cry from the Heart of the World” were displayed, to the delight of the crowds and the press.
Subsequent to that action, Read met and began talking to Ben Cohen (co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream), who agreed to fund the creation of a video projection “Bat Mobile” that would later become known as The Illuminator. Read contacted Chris Hackett and Gaylen Hamilton of The Madagascar Institute to lead the complex design and fabrication of the customized van. After troubleshooting numerous problems, the team was able to create a highly effective and durable machine.
At that time the primary goal of the project was to keep the Occupy movement alive and expanding as long as possible. Mobile projection was seen as a tactic that might be useful in this regard. The intention was to draw people in with spectacle – the 99% Bat Signal of course, but also cartoons and short films – and then talk to them about Occupy Wall Street and distribute literature from our mobile library. Obviously such an effort required a great deal of coordination and a substantial number of volunteers. To initiate this process, Read put out a call to various working groups within the OWS movement — the People’s Library, outreach working group, arts and labor working group, etc. — inviting people to join in a collective that would operate The Illuminator horizontally, per the values and practices of OWS itself.
More than five years have passed since the inception of the project, and much has changed. The makeup and mission of the collective has shifted considerably, as the Occupy Wall Street’s moment has passed and new political realities have emerged. We continue to adapt and evolve to meet current conditions, and are always developing new tools that can be utilized to voice dissent and foster dialogue, which is ultimately what the project was initiated to do.
How did the horizontal organizing strategies of the Occupy movement influence the development of The Illuminator Collective? Can you describe the collective’s non-hierarchical model?
Coming out of the Occupy movement, which adhered strictly to non-hierarchical principles, it was a natural choice for The Illuminator to be structured to work this way. Our collective practices a consensus decision-making process similar to that used by the general assembly of Occupy Wall Street; a process which traces its roots back to the feminist movement of the 1960s. We rotate roles and responsibilities that are integral to the functioning of the project (gear maintenance, communications, etc.), while allowing some roles (video editing, etc.) to be optional and voluntary based on interests and skills. Any member can propose a project or collaboration, and all members weigh in on whether we agree as a collective to support a given cause or position on an issue. Like any horizontally organized project, we do our best to deal with the inevitable challenges of listening, trusting and working together. With five years as a collective under our belt, we must be doing some things right.
Outsiders find it easy to assume that our group is led by straight, white, technologically savvy men. To try to counter the skewed perception that there is any one “leader,” less visible members have been taking a larger role in representing the collective at conferences, panels and workshops over the last couple of years. We continue to work on being more democratic, through skill shares and internal initiatives. These changes are largely due to more women joining the collective in the last couple of years, who are more keenly aware of and interested in changing the collective’s inequities. At this point we’d like to state the names of the following members: Emily Allyn Andersen, Zoe Bachman, Rachel Brown, Kyle Depew, Grayson Earle, Anna Ozbek, Mark Read, and Chris Rogy.
The Illuminator has deployed the language and visual culture of the superhero. Could you describe the attraction to these quintessentially American myths for the project?
Superheroes appear in times of trouble, to swoop in and fight large and seemingly indomitable forces. It’s no surprise that the same figures popular in WWII and the Great Depression have reappeared in our movie theaters, seemingly to stay. The present political circumstances often seem bleak, the future bleaker. Global warming is too big for one person to fix; political corruption is too much for one person to take on; and how does a person spit in the eye of a faceless institution? A hero with superpowers is needed.
We like the fact that superheroes are frequently rogue characters who play by their own rules and invent their own tools. Our hometown of NYC has a rich history of playing fictional host to superheroes, or being rescued from disaster.
The thing that sets our superhero persona apart from others is that the script is flipped – we are the ones signalling the populace. We’re here, jumping into action, pushing for change, and letting others know not to give up hope. Our projector-beam is a shining reminder that people are still fighting injustices, and that it hasn’t all settled into status quo and fast food ads just yet.
Site-specific projection (and by this I mean projecting directly onto the institutional facades of the organizations you are protesting against) has become a key component of many of the collective’s collaborations over the last five years. Could you talk about some of the early experiences with this and what kinds of logistical challenges they presented? What is the Illuminator’s strategy for dealing with policing around these organizations during demonstrations?
When we project directly onto the façade of an institution whose policies and actions we stand against, we know that we are working within a set of constraints that require precise planning and rapid adaptability. We know that if they become aware of our actions, institutions will work quickly to remove any type of critical messaging from association with their building. We also know that the police and other security forces will likely be extremely responsive to the requests of these powerful institutions. In practice, we have seen that projections on certain very high profile surfaces, such as the United Nations building, generate an extremely aggressive police response. We have to plan our exact position and our timing very carefully, as we are always aware that we may be shut down in a matter of minutes. Trust and efficient communication between the members of our team is essential in these scenarios. Swift documentation of the action is crucial to extending its lifespan beyond this fleeting time frame, especially when we attempt to leave prior to any security mobilization. As with many direct actions, these projections necessitate the presence of a designated contact person who can speak with the police, ideally delaying the shutdown of our work in the process. We recognize that as a largely white collective, our bodies are not subject to the same immediate police brutality as groups where the majority of members are people of color.
Generally speaking, there is no law against what we do, other than parking restrictions and some municipal violations about permits. However, this usually does not stop the police from intervening in our projections.
Two years ago, during a collaboration with the group Occupy Museums, we interrupted a dinner party thrown in celebration of a $60 million donation from David Koch to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The target of the projection was the Met itself, where the gala was located. Two of our members, along with one member of Occupy Museums, were arrested after projecting “The Met: Brought to you by the Tea Party” and “Koch = Climate Chaos” onto the facade for less than 5 minutes. The cops on the ground spent a good amount of time on the phone with NYPD Legal and ultimately were instructed to charge us with “Unlawfully Posting Advertisements” (New York Penal Law §145.30).
That law specifies commercial intent and affixing something to the building, which were both patently misapplied. With the aid of our lawyer, Sam Cohen, we successfully defended the charge. A few weeks ago we also settled a civil suit with the NYPD over this arrest, for False Arrest, First Amendment Violation, and Prior Restraint.
In April 2015, we collaborated with the Columbia University group No Red Tape, a student organization dedicated to ending sexual and domestic violence on campus. The projection was timed to interrupt a prospective student tour of the Columbia University campus led by school administrators. As the prospective students exited the building, they encountered No Red Tape members unfurling huge banners and the words “Columbia Protects Rapists” projected onto the frieze of the iconic Low Library. Though one school administrator stood in front of the projector for a period of time to block the message, campus security officials seemed reluctant to get involved. In this case, the institution likely made the decision that a loud public confrontation with student protesters would not work to improve its image with the prospective students, or with the media documenting the action. This further highlights the importance of timing, setting, and audience.
This sort of cat-and-mouse game with the authorities comes with the terrain of guerrilla projection. Our strategy for dealing with it is relatively straightforward. Never ask for permission beforehand, and stop when a police officer asks you to stop. There isn’t much to be gained by getting into an argument with an officer over operative legal statutes.
The most important piece of advice we would give to others trying to do this is to make sure to get the most critical content up and on the building as fast as possible, with a photographer in position to get the shot. Even in the diciest of situations you can usually get 30 seconds to a minute. If you’re really prepared and have a plan, that 30 seconds is all that you’ll need to capture the image you want.
The Illuminator often acts as an amplifier for other activist organizations. Additionally, projects like the Snowden Hologram and the People’s Pad channel lost or hidden expressions and offer a medium for those unable to be present. Could you speak to this unique position wherein the collective acts as a conduit for the ideas, beliefs, and expressions of others?
As a project that emerged out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, The Illuminator collective has always understood itself to be, at least in part, stewards of a movement resource. In this sense we are simply the keepers of a kind of illuminated megaphone for the voices of the 99%, which we understand to mean a set of intersecting struggles for social, economic, racial, and environmental justice. We sometimes imagine ourselves as municipal workers providing a vital city service akin to keeping the subways running, taking out the garbage, or putting out fires. This identity is reflected in the motto that is written on our utility work shirts: “To project and serve,” a tongue in cheek reference to the motto of the NYPD.
Quite early on in the life of the project, we began to explore techniques by which we could better – more directly, more vividly — amplify the concerns of those most directly impacted by the intersecting crises that we currently face. The People’s Pad and the Protest Generator are two innovations in this regard. Technology offers a means of circumventing draconian restrictions on political expression.
The People’s Pad consists of a box, a webcam, some paper, a marker, and a non-proprietary software. The sum of its parts allow for a low-tech interaction in which anyone can intervene on the visual environment. This has taken the form of tenants writing their demands directly onto their homes, the muralists of 5-Pointz recreating their art on a white-washed building, students sharing their frustrations with the educational debt crisis, and more. By giving someone the ability to participate in, or to occupy, the urban landscape, they are themselves transformed from spectators into artists and activists.
The Protest Generator was created in response to anti-protest laws in Montreal, which were the state’s response to massive student demonstrations against tuition hikes in 2012. Essentially, the municipal government outlawed protests involving more than 50 people. We recorded students walking on a green screen holding signs, digitally re-composited, so that they could be made visible again, in the streets, despite the law. We projected processions of hundreds of students, holding signs that spoke to the anti-protest laws and the struggle that elicited them. A more recent iteration of the project was created for an exhibition at Colgate University, which allows for signs to be created on-the-spot by gallery participants. Visitors simply create a sign, scan it, and witness a 3d avatar holding their sign join a projected protest.
The case of the Snowden Statue is related to this mission of amplification, but within a unique context that required a unique strategy. Other artists had anonymously installed the statue of Snowden in order to make the point that, far from being a traitor or an enemy of the United States, Edward Snowden ought to be seen as a patriot and a hero of the people. Our collective had done earlier work to address the issue of NSA surveillance and feels strongly about this set of issues. When the statue was (remarkably quickly) removed by the NYPD, we saw an opportunity for a counter-maneuver that would further amplify the original intent of the action. In creating an on-the-fly DIY hologram of the Snowden bust, we were able to keep the story alive for another news cycle and draw more positive attention to the heroic actions of Snowden.
In an effort to equip more people with an opportunity to creatively and directly engage with the visual environment, our website features a tools section which provides compiled applications and source code for the projects mentioned above, and more. We are committed to providing free software for the purposes of counter-hegemonic cultural production, proud to join a legacy of free software for free people.
This article was adapted from an interview published in World Records Journal, which is produced by UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art.
All images courtesy of the Illuminator Collective unless otherwise noted.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.