New billboards rarely disrupt routines. But when one appeared near Interstate 69 in Lansing, Michigan, on October 1, something was different. Local newspapers and the billboard company began receiving calls from frightened passersby concerned about the white Arabic script set against a black backdrop. All it says is “Human Being.” It’s the work Jamila El Sahili, one of over 150 artists who created billboards for the 50 State Initiative, a civic engagement project from For Freedoms, the “collective for creative citizenship” that wants to get people thinking and, most importantly, voting.
This month cryptic billboards like El Sahili’s have appeared in all 50 states bearing messages like “Never Again Is Now” set against a photograph of a Japanese internment camp; “An Expensive Hoax” against a storm-ravaged landscape; and “Be Strong And Do Not Betray Your Soul” layered over an image of a freeway overpass. There was little fanfare for the billboards’ arrival, and zero context other than a “Paid for by For Freedoms” insignia. Billboards are ubiquitous parts of the landscape and are always trying to sell something. For Freedoms wondered how that medium could be used to “sell” civic participation.
“What would happen if we co-opted this form of relatively unavoidable mass advertising in order to encourage civic engagement or political discourse?” Taylor Brock, of the 50 State Initiative’s billboard team, tells Curbed. “The For Freedoms billboards run on the same model as any of these other billboards; we still use visuals as a mechanism to sell you something, only the outcome cannot be quantified in a physical product.”
In 2016, about 58 percent of eligible voters actually voted. Midterm turnout is even worse. At just 36.4% of eligible voters coming to the polls, the 2014 midterms saw the lowest turnout in 70 years. The reasons for not showing up are complicated. There is a rampant voter suppression problem. According to Census data, the two most common reasons why people say they don’t vote is because they’re too busy (there’s no law mandating time off from work to vote) or they just don’t care.
In recent years, boosting civic engagement—including voter participation—has been addressed through a number of strategies. Celebrities have backed public service ad campaigns. Designers and urban planners are reshaping public space to help inspire people to take more active roles in public life. Politicians are pleading with voters to exercise their right to democracy. Still turnout rates remain troublingly low. In order for democracy to work, constituents need to vote.
Enter For Freedoms and its “artistic thinking” approach. Can art help bust complacency and get people to care about voting?
For Freedoms derived its name from a 1943 series of Normal Rockwell paintings that depicted the “four freedoms” Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—in a 1941 speech. Artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman founded the organization in 2016 as “a hub for artists, arts institutions, and citizens who want to be more engaged in public life.” Calling itself “anti-partisan,” For Freedoms advocates for equality, dialogue, and civic participation and believes citizenship is “defined by participation, not by ideology.”
The 50 State Initiative was conceived as a non-partisan decentralized public art project that would flood every state in the days leading up to the midterm elections. It includes billboards, town hall discussions, art exhibitions, public programs, and social media campaigns. The 50 State Initiative is purposefully not about picking sides or favoring one candidate or ideology over another. But it is a provocateur.
“People can tell you a million times how important it is to vote, but at a certain point you are going to decide whether or not you are going to listen to them,” Brock says. “Art works on a deeper level. It can show you its importance by treating these issues not as political problems, but human ones. Artists encourage us to imagine new circumstances outside of our current ones and allow us to experience new worlds outside of our own, which inevitably breaks down preconceived notions and stereotypes. It becomes less about me vs you and more about us. This, to me, is a much more effective mechanism.”
For Freedoms’s billboard project originally began in 2016 when the organization installed them in swing states. It builds on a long history of artists using advertising mediums to convey political messages like Gran Fury, the Guerrilla Girls, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, and Alfredo Jaar. (All of whom also contributed to the 50 State Initiative.) The billboards are intended to cause a moment of pause and reflection and stir a strong emotional response.
With the 2018 midterm elections shaping up to be among the most consequential, the organization decided to scale up to all 50 states and launched a Kickstarter campaign to help make it happen. In addition to the 150 artists who created billboards, an additional 300 artists, 200 museums, universities, and cultural centers are participating in the initiative through events and special projects.
Art world celebrities, emerging practitioners, and artists at all levels between participated in the project: Marilyn Minter, Sanford Biggers, Carrie Mae Weems, and Theaster Gates are just a handful of the people who contributed. It was a fairly easy sell for For Freedoms to rally hundreds of artists to partake.
“We offer a space for artists to collaborate, to reach outside of their usual networks, and to engage with one another; I think that’s a pretty exciting thing,” Brock says. “Also, it goes without saying that it doesn’t suck to see your work on a billboard.”
Artists have always been cultural critics. However, the volatility of global politics, threats to civil and human rights, and civic unrest that have become more prevalent and more visible have ushered in a golden age of activist design and biting political satire. Artistic institutions—The Whitney, The Brooklyn Museum, SFMOMA, The Queens Museum, The Detroit Institute of Arts, LACMA, The National Building Museum, and The Harvard Art Museum, among others—have presented exhibition after exhibition directly focusing on revolution, protest, and politics. Practitioners, too, have focused on voting, like Conrad Benner’s “To The Polls” project in Philadelphia and Barbara Kruger’s mural in Los Angeles.
For Freedoms’s 50 State Initiative builds on this by moving the conversation outside of gallery walls and into the public realm with a coordinated results-driven strategy. The nonpartisan tone of the project and the scale also push the boundaries about what political art can actually achieve and who it can affect. This isn’t just conversation-starting work; it’s designed for action and sets a precedent for political artwork in the future.
“The art world and the political world are often considered entirely separate entities,” Brock says. “Yet, art is inherently political, often confronting political issues head on, and politics relies on art and design to reach a broader audience, so in reality the two worlds could not be more intertwined. This project highlights that pre-existing overlap in order to raise more questions about what these worlds can learn from one another. What would it look like if we encouraged more creativity and imagination within our political system?”
With any luck, artistic thinking and civic engagement will be coupled for years to come.