Art meets activism in outdoor living room art installation

By Jacqueline Briddell

The 1960’s themed outdoor living room included literature related to politics and activism and antique props from the 60’s and 70s. (Photo by Jacqueline Briddell)

AUSTIN — For the first two weekends in November, a 1960’s themed outdoor living room was set up in the backyard of Justine’s Brasserie, a French cuisine inspired restaurant in East Austin. The goal of the pop-up art installation was to bring the community together to talk about political activism in an unconventional way: through an outdoor pop-up photo booth.

“It’s kind of the antithesis of someone sitting at home, lonely, on their computer and posting things on Facebook,” said Justine Gilcrease, owner of the restaurant. “The main objective is postcard mailing to our Texas representatives. We’re inviting any guests that come, to grab as many as they would like and write to their representatives, really anything that they would like to say.”

The outdoor, interactive art installation, titled “Pop-up Activists’ Living Room Photo Booth,” which was inside of a gazebo-like structure, resembled a typical 1960s and 70s common area with an antique plaid sofa and plants resting in almost every corner of the room. Bright posters of civil rights activist Angela Davis and another one that read “Come together in Peace,” hung on the walls, adding pops of color to the almost entirely green room.

The “resist” postcards were designed by New York based artist Marilyn Minter and were used by attendees to write to their state representatives.

A group of local friends use the outdoor living room space to read, write postards and engage in political conversation. (Photo by Jacqueline Bridell)

The installation was a collaboration between the restaurant owner, New York based artist Marilyn Minter who designed the postcards for the event, and an abundance of other writers and artists. According to Gilcrease, the art installation was inspired by grassroots activism, a term that first popped up during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The aesthetic of the living room went hand-in-hand with the postcard-writing theme of the event. Tobin Levy, a writer who was also involved in the project, says new technology can often drown out the importance of putting a pen to paper when writing to a state representative.

“It’s about reminding people to do things like write a postcard,” Levy said. “It’s a lot easier to ignore an email than it is something that shows up in your office.”

Maya Coplin, an attendee on the last day of the pop-up installation, caught word of the event on Facebook when some of her mutual friends indicated they were interesting in attending as well. Coplin says she considers herself politically active in that she “openly discusses politics with friends and family” and says she stays updated on current happenings by following the news, but that she does not typically write to congress members or the governor.

The “resist” postcards were designed by New York based artist Marilyn Minter and were used by attendees to write to their state representatives. (Photo by Jacqueline Bridell)

“While the event obviously leaned left, everyone was welcome and it allowed participants to learn on their own and from what they learned in the art exhibit to make their own conclusions as what to write to their elected officials,” Coplin said.

“I think it is interesting that that the restaurant was able to use [its] space within the community to bring people together and educate them,” Coplin said. “The space was fun and inviting, allowing people to learn about political issues, be exposed to new books and take photos to share with their friends.”

Ashley Callaghan, a photographer hired by the pop-up installation to take photos of the event and guests, says she switched from taking purely digital photos during the first weekend of the event to shooting with a polaroid camera.

“Polaroids fit the time period of it; that’s what people shot with back then,” Callaghan said. “We wanted to have an option that was a little more authentic and also provide a takeaway. A polaroid is something that is immediately physical. You don’t have to wait around for it to be digitally edited and then printed; it’s in your hands the day you take it and it’s something you can take back with you and have it as a memorabilia of what is most important.”

In addition to writing postcards and raise political awareness, Gilcrease and Levy sat a table outside of the living room to register people to vote or update their information in time for the next election.

A group of local friends use the outdoor living room space to read, write postards and engage in political conversation.

“The voting turn out this last election was so embarrassingly poor so I think when you remind people that it is a luxury to be able to [vote] then hopefully, this will change how active they are during midterms and elections to come,” Levy said.

Gilcrease added that they registered groups ranging from 18-year-old first-time voters to new American citizens who are new to the voting process.

Kiana Fernandez places her postcard to her state representative in the outgoing mailbox outside of the living room installation.

“I was able to write to my senators for the first time and meet people who were also genuinely interested in initiating positive change,” said Kiana Fernandez, a student at the University of Texas who stumbled upon the event by accident. “Art installations like this have the power to draw people to these spaces and think about what our current political state is like. It inspired me to try and learn more about what is happening on a greater depth than just ‘bad’.

Callaghan says her favorite part of the event was seeing people invested in the activity of writing their postcards and connecting through their activism.

“I think that is what community art strives to achieve,” she said. “It’s not just bringing together people that are similar in an artistic mindset, but people that are politically on the same page. Because at the end of the day, if we don’t become more active in our local government then what is it all for?”

Jacqui Briddell is a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin studying journalism and she can be found on Twitter @jacbrid.