Washington Postcard

Kriston Capps on art and protest in the capital

Black Lives Matter Plaza.

A VIDEO PROJECTION on the facade of the US Department of Justice building played to an audience of one for its debut last week in Washington, DC.

Moments after the light beam touched the limestone, an agent from the US Department of Homeland Security arrived, demanding to know who the projectionists were with. They weren’t “with” anybody, one of the four of them said. The agent made a call on a radio. He put his face in their faces. He shouted. Military jeeps swept down Pennsylvania Avenue, but they glided past the tense nighttime scene.

The standoff lasted only minutes. The projection squad relented, wheeling their cart away from the DOJ. They were followed by an SUV marked “Federal Protective Services: FPS,” one of the countless abbreviations still patrolling the District of Columbia as part of a federal occupation of the city that has stretched on for two weeks. 

Eventually, the projection team landed, blocks from the Capitol, at what was once the Newseum, where a fifty-ton marble slab bearing an inscription of the First Amendment hangs over the now empty building. In a desultory gesture, the crew projected the visual installation, which illuminates the grotesque excesses of the justice system, over the seven-story text of the First Amendment, this time to an audience of no one in particular—not even an agent on the hunt for Antifa.

The Writing on the Wall, a collaboration between Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger, capped off the second week of conflict in the nation’s capital in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. The projection comprises letters, poems, drawings, and other ephemera produced by incarcerated people, a testament on behalf of the 2.3 million Americans who currently reside in prisons, jails, and other correctional facilities. The text crawls as if it’s being pinged off on a typewriter, revealing singsong verse about solitude and confinement, even an ode to Harriet Tubman. Sometimes the words appear as legible poetry, but more often in overlapping patterns. There is far too much text to read, but enough to register a mass refrain of suffering.

Signs on the fence surrounding the White House.

“We’ve been talking about 2020 being a year of Great Awakening,” Thomas said. “It’s not a coincidence that this global movement comes out of a period of great pause and self-reflection by humans all over the world about what’s valuable—literally the preciousness of each breath.”

The Writing on the Wall drew crowds last year as a physical installation of art and letters on the High Line, New York’s notorious public promenade, where the piece had it both ways as an offering to and commentary on the crowds taking a stroll; the piece has been adapted as a projection for touring in a pandemic landscape in which viewership most likely belongs to Instagram. Its context is doubly changed by the worldwide uprising over police brutality. On Juneteenth, the piece travels to Columbus, Ohio, where it will be projected at three locations around the city just after dark, a display to underscore the direct historical passage from slavery to mass incarceration.

“America exported this system of mass incarceration onto the world in this cut-and-paste fashion,” said Dreisinger, a City University of New York professor who serves as the executive director of the Incarceration Nations Network. “It’s our duty to deal with this in a global context.”

In the District, The Writing on the Wall punctuated a weekslong back-and-forth between citizens and state over the boundaries of speech. The game of one-upmanship started on June 1, when federal law enforcement agents used tear gas to clear out Lafayette Square so that President Donald Trump could walk the breezy block to St. John’s Church unfettered in order to hold up the Bible, the Word of God, as his standard. Then the White House dug in, erecting a nearly two-mile fence around Lafayette Square to wall off federal grounds. District Mayor Muriel Bowser clapped back on June 6 by emblazoning “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the stretch of 16th Street leading up to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave—a mural maneuver that has been replicated by cities all over the nation. Protesters amended the mayor’s stunt the next morning, painting “DEFUND THE POLICE” as an extension of BLM Plaza and a rebuke to the mayor.

Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger’s The Writing on the Wall projected onto the US Department of Justice building. All photos: Liz Gorman.

At every step so far, the lines in this public confrontation have been demarcated by text art. Much of the fence around the public parks of Lafayette Square and the Ellipse has since come down, but not before demonstrators covered its surface with art, signs, ribbon, balloons, and other forms of graphic testimony to spell out the wages of police brutality. The poetry along the perimeter wall surrounding the White House came to resemble the artifacts that make up The Writing on the Wall: psalms of despair, notes of triumph, portraits, and inscriptions of too many names to count.

Once, most viewers may have responded to a piece such as The Writing on the Wall with passive introspection or distracted compassion. All that has changed with the mass protests over police brutality, which have ignited a public fire to abolish every part of the criminal justice system. Matthew Wilson, an artist and curator whose work with the project started while serving time at the Otisville Correctional Facility in New York, hopes that people who walk away from the piece can put themselves in the shoes of the individuals who contributed to the exhibit; that seems much more likely in an environment in which the viewers are breaking down the walls as fast as they come up.

With the federal occupation of the District winding down, shop owners are painting over graffiti on boarded-up storefronts, leaving little abstract blotches of color all over the city. Unidentified out-of-state soldiers have returned to their bases, taking their Humvees with them in long caravans streaming out of the city after dark. The Writing on the Wall, while seen by no one, was felt by many. The hope behind the piece, and the protests, is that the testimony won’t disappear when the text does. “The abolition movement isn’t over,” Thomas told me. “This is part of that continuum.”