2020 Vision

Artists stand in solidarity and look toward the next election

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By Brittany Barbato

On Jan. 20President Trump’s inauguration day—commuters and residents all around Philadelphia found signs of resistance dropped from dozens of buildings encouraging them on their way to work: You can’t take away our resilience, our humanity, our strength, our beauty. Aquí me quedo and Sanctuary city for everybody read two of the signs. Though the voices felt personal, they also captured a collective anxiety and hope on that morning. 

The project, “Signs of Solidarity,” started as an effort to speak out and lend support to the community after the divisive 2016 presidential election. Artists and concerned Philadelphia citizens Conrad Benner, Aubrie Costello and Eric Preisendanz hatched a plan to create and hang banners from private homes and buildings that would reinforce messages of love and unity to counteract the hate they felt sweeping the country. Support for the project from fellow artists and building owners was immediate and overwhelming. 

“We received copious amounts of ‘yeses’ from artists and building owners who wanted to be a part of it,” says Costello. “I was overwhelmed by how quickly the scale grew.” If you lined the signs up next to each other, they’d stretch 150 yards, or the length of a football field. Amassing more than 3,600 square feet, they quintupled the size of the Oval Office where the new president would soon find himself in control of decisions impacting the lives of all Americans, including the very people in protest. 

In a matter of weeks, “SOS” evolved into a citywide effort of more than 30 Philly-area artists and dozens of local building and business owners. It also expanded to include 30 creatives in Atlanta, Georgia. The organizing trio, who know each other through the local art scene, quickly combined their strengths to pull off the large exhibit. Benner, streetsdept.com founder and editor, was in charge of external communications; Costello, an artist known for her silk graffiti installations, tackled logistics such as materials, design and artist communications; Preisendanz, a curator, helped develop messaging and handled the physical installations—climbing ladders, mounting hardware and tying lots of knots.

“It was absolutely important and necessary to co-lead and co-organize ‘Signs of Solidarity,’” Costello says. “Logistically, we could not have done it without each other and the 30-plus Philly creatives who helped us realize this project from start to finish.”

Kimberly Connerton, an installation artist who participated in the project, viewed “SOS” as an opportunity to do what art does best: create “a wider, more inclusive space for everyone to live in,” she says. Her sign hung above a window at Paradigm Gallery and Studio in South Philadelphia. She created small, golden lettering to outline her biggest hope: May every living being be safe and free.

Notable Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar also joined the effort. Featuring a sketch of an elongated mouth baring 38 teeth, his sign flapped against the stone arches of Broad Street Ministry’s front door. It included calls to action in every corner: Say it loud and clear. Speak up. Use your voice. You have a voice

Costello also created a banner; her signature torn silk ribbons spelled out a quote inspired by her best friend, whose husband is an undocumented immigrant who has lived and worked in the U.S. for more than 15 years: Kindness does not indicate weakness.

The hurdles were common to any project. Coordinating artwork, funding and time—there was an immovable Inauguration Day drop for the project—but the team also wrestled with wanting to be impactful without pointing fingers or limiting artistic vision. 

“A public project requires great care in its design since you’re really trying to talk to everybody,” says Preisendanz. “Our goals were to awaken and unite, not to offend or polarize.” 

Commitment to the mission and ongoing communication proved to be keys for success. “We worked together and we listened to each other,” Benner says. “We compromised and we kept our goal clear.” 

The approach will become even more critical as the co-organizers push the project into its second phase this fall. They plan to develop a sustainable funding model to integrate resistance messaging beyond urban centers and into suburban and rural areas. When asked why it was important to expand the project and engage more people outside urban centers, Preisendanz called out an uncomfortable statistic, and set his sights on the next election. 

“Creating highly public projects empowers modern resistance to disrupt political enclaves outside of the cities,” he said. “[It’s] a critical way to engage the 42 percent of America so politically disenchanted that they didn’t feel the need to vote to announce their values.”

Blind Justice?

Reckoning with our past and future requires us to open our eyes

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by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

The images are terrifying: white civilian men armed with semi-automatic rifles, staking out ground around Justice Park in Charlottesville in August. It’s terrifying, but not surprising in its entitlement; it’s also not surprising that one woman died and many more were injured when the visual violence quickly evolved, as it does, into bodily carnage. 

The park was once named Jackson Park, after the equestrian statue of Confederate Gen.“Stonewall” Jackson that serves as the focal point of this public space, lined with benches and manicured flower beds underneath mature trees. The land was bequeathed in 1919 by Paul Goodloe McIntire, whose father served as mayor of Charlottesville when the slave trade was still supporting our national economy. 

According to the Charlottesville-based C-Ville Weekly, the statue was donated in 1924, “a time when Ku Klux Klan membership was at its peak,” and the park was one of four donated by McIntire—of note is that one other was designated for whites only, and another specifically for use by blacks. 

The history of Justice Park, colored now with both past atrocity and present tragedy, is a microcosm of our larger national history: Who owned and accessed what places, spaces and land; who owned the housing; and, most importantly, who owned whom. As scholar Carolyn Finney explores in her book “Black Faces, White Spaces,” the places we pass by every day, and those distant reserves we must travel to for scenic vistas and quiet contemplation, are often “public” in name only, cordoned off by the concrete measures of distance and capital, as well as harder to quantify, but no less real, cultural bias and institutional racism. 

It doesn’t seem a question that a towering figure of the Confederate army looking down upon park-goers is a not-so-subtle reminder of who is welcome, and who is not, given that no counter narrative or iconography balances out the power. It is also risible to think that armed black men would be allowed to peaceably assemble—if one can peaceably assemble while toting a semi-automatic weapon—in the same way.

Recognizing and rectifying our racial and cultural divide is in and of itself a massive undertaking, a reconstruction project that will go on for many more generations, and now we have a global crisis laid on top of and intertwined with the changing power structures within our borders: At this particular moment in time, both the cultural and physical temperature are rising. 

These nefarious manmade crises—catastrophic climate change and ongoing racial animosity—should be our top priorities to reckon with as a country. Lives are at stake. 

It is therefore undeniably dangerous that many of our countrymen refuse to recognize either as a problem, willfully ignoring thermometers, history and the sights and sounds around them on a daily basis—including the hateful rhetoric coming directly from the current occupier of the White House, who once said that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue in New York and still win the presidency. (Need he take up actual arms on the lawn of the White House or ask for the nuclear codes for Congress to cut short his dangerous and ignoble presidency?) 

We must confront head on the hard questions of who owned and owns the life-giving—and capital-generating—land and water, and also whether that land, water and air will support us. Any of us.

We, the people, all need clean water to drink, healthy food to eat and an economy not subsidized by fossil fuels. We all breathe the same invisible air, which most of us take for granted. But, just as with making visible our history of slavery and systematic oppression, it is critical to our future to recognize what is right in front of us. We do otherwise at the price of our collective peril.

Heather Shayne Blakeslee
     Editor-in-Chief
heather@gridphilly.com