On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black male, was shot and killed by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Just over a month later, 43 male students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa went missing in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. The students were later pronounced dead. Iguala’s mayor and his wife have been detained, and members of a drug gang have confessed to killing the young men.
Massive protests erupted not only in these communities, but also around the world. Citizens in both communities distrust law enforcement and also the judicial process. In both cases, the protesters have drawn attention to the racial and ethnic dimensions of the killings: in Ferguson, a racially motivated shooting, and in Iguala, an attack against a lower class with indigenous roots.
The anger and frustration surrounding the two incidents has also produced a wave of politically inspired art—and many artists are using social media platforms to deepen the impact of their messages and make their creative causes more universal. At the same time, social media serves as a central hub that connects and bolsters artists and activists, while also enlisting participants in clear, defined actions. This phenomenon is not only a new iteration of public art as we know it, but also the evolution of a new artistic medium, ripe for social practice.
Indeed, these artists are using social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter as modalities of their artwork itself—not a gallery wall or promotional tool, but a creative medium, integral to the formation of the work itself.
Social Media As Spark and Source
Ferguson artists refer to social media as both a spark and a source for their work. They note the inherent democratic nature of a platform that is unregulated except by the collective hands of the people. “Social media has allowed for an unprecedented availability of information and decentralized organizing abilities in this movement,” says St. Louis artist Damon Davis. “It has also inspired much of the work I have done around the movement.” In one cartoon, for instance, he used the image of a gas canister that a protester had snapped and put up on a photo-sharing site.
Some projects, such as #ChalkedUnarmed, initiated in August 2014, use social media to expand the geographic range of the artwork, which in turn brings attention to the pervasive nature of racial and ethnic violence. #ChalkedUnarmed urges everyday people, countrywide, to chalk an outline of a body on a public sidewalk and inscribe it with the name of a man or woman of color who was killed by police, as well as a location and date. Photos are then uploaded to social media feeds like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and tagged with the hashtag so they can be easily searched and viewed. The photos—from all parts of the country—serve as both an inherent call to action and a stark, visual connection between communities suffering injustice.
Built into this project is an “open-source” approach to participation and a disregard for artistic hierarchy in favor of the democratic values of the protest movement. The hashtag, which is also the project’s name, is itself a call to action for viewers to participate and sense their own artistic interconnectedness. Participants around the country have heeded the call. In cases like this, social media becomes a tool that turns individuals into more than just audience members observing a piece of artwork: They become participants, artists, revolutionaries.
Another project, Tributo a Los Desaparecidos/Tribute to the Disappeared, draws a clear connection between the events in Ferguson and in Ayotzinapa. A creation of New York artists Andrea Arroyo and Victoria Roberts, Tribute is a user-generated digital art quilt to “honor people who have disappeared in Mexico and around the world.”
Arroyo views the fusion of social media and art as a means artists can use to increase their effectiveness and find common ground. She also uses social media to encourage the artistic and political involvement of artists and non-artists alike. Contributors to Tribute include “established artists, emerging artists, ‘non-professional’ artists, children, and seniors,” she says.
Similarly, #IlustradoresConAyotzinapa (Illustrators with Ayotzinapa) is a Tumblr page with a collage-like appearance. The page is a homage to #TodosSomosAyotzinapa (All Are Ayotzinapa) and echoes #IAmMikeBrown—both are hashtag feeds to share protest pictures, street art, and other images relating to the two incidents. But in this case, the project invites illustrators to submit their own portraits of the young men. On these illustrations, most artists identify themselves by name and demand to know the whereabouts of the missing individual. This publicly displays an inextricable emotional link formed between artist and deceased. Each submission adds to a collective accusation of the state and perpetrators, and together they compose a visual representation of collective pain, demand for accountability, and resilience. The effect empowers viewer as well as participant.
The #YaMeCanse (I Am Tired) movement in Mexico emerged from a video created by a group of artists, actors, and activists. Like the artists who contribute to #IllustradoresConAyotzinapa, the makers of this video state their names (followed by “I am Mexican”) and give a clear call to action: “This is a new beginning,” the narrator says, “where we demand our government to fulfill their obligations.”
Projects like these demonstrate the ways that artists are using the hyper-public, hyper-accessible space of digital media to build movements and spread ideas. This is a new public space, and from it emerges a new public art. Because the space itself (like all spaces) cannot avoid being political in nature, this highly democratic, people-driven realm is increasingly catalytic for social practice.
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