If the sky is the limit, as the saying goes, a striking performance this weekend will harness those lofty ambitions quite literally.
“In Plain Sight” is a complex and politically-charged nationwide choreography that involves skytyping powerful phrases, selected by 80 artists and activists, across the United States. With a sense of irony and provocation, the performance is timed to run on Independence Day weekend, from July 3-5.
These dictums and calls-to-action will pointedly hover above American venues loaded with a poisonous history or deeply problematic present: immigrant detention centers, sites of former internment camps, borders, and incarceration facilities.
“In Plain Sight” uses topography to at once unmask and spurn the ugliness embedded within the American social reality. The organizers leaned on Freedom for Immigrants’ detention map, which indexes the detention centers throughout the country; those ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities’ will be flown over by the “In Plain Sight” skywriters.
Using Carbon Footprint Calculators, the skywriting flights will be offset by tree-planting missions in proximity to the chosen facilities and sites of incarceration.
“In Plain Sight” was spearheaded by both Cassils, a transgender artist exploring LGBTQI+ representation and struggles (their phrase, SHAME #DEFUNDHATE, will fly over the nation’s second largest for-profit prison operator) and Rafa Esparza, a multidisciplinary artist who confronts the theme of migration in his work. His phrase LA FRONTERA NOS CRUZO, or THE BORDER CROSSED US, will linger over the Tijuana International Airport at the border between the United States and Mexico.
The two artists have rallied an inspiring network of fellow artists, highlighting a vast set of ages, gender presentations and creative practices. Those involved seek progressive social change around everything from restoring indigenous land to championing queer representation to eliminating oppression of the immigrant communities.
Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party (as well as its art director and main illustrator), will display HEALTH IS WEALTH! over the East Baton Rouge Jail, which holds ICE transfers. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, has designated CARE NOT CAGES for above the L.A. County Jail. Zackary Drucker, a trans activist and producer of the series “Transparent,” will show NOSOTRAS TE VEMOS, or WE SEE YOU, to the South Texas ICE Processing Center, which has a special unit for transgender women.
ALOK, a gender non-conforming writer and performance artist participating in the project, stated: “All art is produced within a political economy. Artists… think intentionally about how to leverage culture as a way to shift imagination, sensation, and possibility.”
They added: “If the normal is a political aesthetic, then it can be rewritten, re-authored, re-imagined. In order for policy change to gain traction… the ambient zone of culture has to be engaged. It's some of the most important work, and some of the least emphasized and understood.”
As a first generation South Asian American who grew up in the middle of the Bible Belt, ALOK chose GOD BROWN AMERICA to linger above the Montgomery Processing Center in Conroe, Texas. “I grew up in Texas constantly being asked ‘Where are you from?’ even though I was born right down the road. There’s this perverse and troublesome way in which racist nationalism makes people of color and indigenous perpetually ‘foreign’… God Brown America is about reframing migration as a blessing, not something that should be feared.”
Each artist’s skytyped message will end in #XMAP, a hashtag leading viewers to In Plain Sight’s website and interactive map. The map uses geolocation technologies to find the ICE detention facilities within the user’s immediate vicinity (and enables bail bonds).
“We are using art, nature, the sky…which has no algorithm,” Cassils said, “to pierce through the white noise of political rhetoric... Following the artist’s phrase with the hashtag moves the viewer from the position of spectator into a place where they too can educate themselves and take action.”
ALOK noted: “In our increasingly virtual world, successful interventions require both the URL and the IRL. If the last decade of political discourse in this country should have taught us anything, it's that the internet is not just a representational apparatus: it is a reality producing system.”
While the project highlights the prejudice, ignorance and hatred directed at minorities, the tone underpinning the work is remarkably hopeful.
“I believe that the way change works is often non-linear, slow, invisible,” ALOK stated. “In the US, it’s not that people relish in freedom, it’s that they drown in the rhetoric of freedom. These rhetorics prevent them from actually naming what’s going on around them and make them doubt…when they are presented with the actual, lived, material reality of suffering.”
Cassils concurred: “The most poignant, emotionally charged aspect of this entire enterprise is… faith that the American people will, if they can concretely view the detention of immigrants in their own neighborhood, rise up and resist.”