Behind the Billboards: For Freedoms on the 50 State Initiative
For Freedoms co-founders Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman discuss the origins of their political art initiative—the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history.
Last week, artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman launched the 50 State Initiative, a campaign to bring 52 artist-designed billboards bearing thought-provoking messages to all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. It’s the most recent project by For Freedoms, a non-partisan platform devoted to promoting civic engagement, discourse, and direct action through art founded by Thomas and Gottesman in 2016.
Harnessing the scale and ubiquity of the billboard as a vehicle for public art, Thomas and Gottesman—whose individual art practices engage with themes of identity, politics, and popular culture—hope to spark open civic dialogue about freedom and equality nationwide.
They’re funding the billboards through 52 simultaneous Kickstarter campaigns. And that’s just the beginning: from September through December 2018, in the lead-up to the U.S. midterm elections, this country-wide collaboration—executed in partnership with a network of hundreds of artists and institutions—will produce an array of public art installations, exhibitions, and local community dialogues, all with the aim of injecting “nuanced, artistic thinking into public discourse.”
Ahead of launching the 50 State Initiative, Thomas and Gottesman visited Kickstarter’s HQ in Brooklyn to discuss the project with our Director of Arts, Patton Hindle. Read on for an edited transcript of their conversation, which delves into the origins and mission of For Freedoms and the 50 State Initiative. And head here to back a state (or states) of your choosing.
Patton Hindle: Tell us a little bit about why you founded For Freedoms.
Hank Willis Thomas: Around 2015, I started to think a lot about what was happening in our country a hundred years ago and how future generations might relate to us. Along the way, Eric and I started to think about how [our art practices] could come together. For Freedoms was that.
We initially started For Freedoms as a Super PAC. We created it as a Super PAC because Super PACs are really problematic. They’re basically political advertising agencies. They came about as part of the notion of money as a form of political speech: if I give money, that’s my speech, and I as an organization can speak with my money. We realized that the political game is very much about money laundering and about breaking the system to its will. In a way, there’s a lot of creativity in that.
We also wanted to [engage with] these very American ideals: FDR’s Four Freedoms, which are freedom from want, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom of speech. Norman Rockwell, the acclaimed American illustrator, made a series of paintings that represented those four freedoms, which were later appropriated by the U.S. Office of War Information. What we noticed is that in this 1943 representation of the United States, there was a very white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant notion of being an American. Back then, freedom of worship meant that you could be Catholic. One of our propositions was, what do those four freedoms look like in the 21st century?
“The political game is very much about… breaking the system to its will. In a way, there’s a lot of creativity in that.”
Eric Gottesman: We started thinking about what artistic interventions we could appropriate and harness the Super PAC for. We held an exhibition in 2016 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea where we turned the gallery into a political headquarters. We had art on walls, but we also had activities being run out of the space. For example, we had somebody from the Prison-to-College Pipeline who had been released from prison after 24 years, ten of which were spent in solitary confinement, as our scholar-in-residence during the exhibition. He would give tours of the exhibition, and also inform people about solitary confinement.
People were coming to the art gallery and they’d see the art, they’d look at it like, “Is this a gallery? Maybe I should go in.” Then they’d look at all the activities going on and they were like, “Oh no, it’s not,” and they would walk right out. There was this divide between what is art and what is action that we thought shouldn’t exist. The action and the art became part of the same practice.
Hank Willis Thomas: It was also about putting out work that isn’t often seen. Political art is not often embraced within the fine art world, and wanting to make a space for that was part of our proposition. From May to October of 2016, we wound up doing about 130 collaborations with institutions and organizations and artists around the country.
How did the billboard project begin?
Hank Willis Thomas: We started to approach artists who were doing political work. We were going to artists like Carrie Mae Weems, who had made an earlier piece that said, “With democracy in the balance, there is only one choice,” and asked her if we could re-contextualize some of her photographs to make a billboard.
Eric Gottesman: We had this series of exhibitions, but we realized we wanted to work in a more public way. By the way, this whole thing was started and conceived before the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. This was a response to a larger set of questions about politics and speech rather than to a specific person.
We ended up putting up a series of billboards in 14 states in the fall of 2016, some of which were produced by artists that we had curated, some of which we produced ourselves. They were largely in swing states. The Make America Great Again billboard in Pearl, Mississippi, was the one that got the most press.
Hank Willis Thomas: On the billboard is a picture from March 7, 1965, when people who were marching for voting rights and equal rights in Alabama were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. They were confronted by the Alabama State Troopers, ordered to disperse, and then attacked. It became known as Bloody Sunday. As a result of the brutality, it forced Lyndon Johnson’s hand in signing the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
When we put up the Make America Great Again billboard, we thought about how no one asked in the last presidential campaign, “When was America greater for more Americans than it is today?” The obvious answer is never. But another time you could mention was this time when everyday citizens who were disenfranchised and nonviolently fighting for their rights were violently attacked by the police, but through their dignity, pride, and love, they were able to create a level of empathy that changed the direction of our country.
Eric Gottesman: Interestingly, it didn’t get picked up by the national press until right after the election. Then the governor of Mississippi declared that the billboard had to come down. It came down the day our contract ended; that wasn’t affected by the governor. But there was a lot of conversation around it. The ACLU got in touch with us because the governor had publicly threatened the billboard.
But there were also some other reactions that we weren’t really expecting, which came from all sides of the political spectrum. There were progressive activists down there who saw this as a call for white supremacists. People on the right felt that this was political propaganda trying to dredge up a racist past. We realized that that the way you read this image depended on where you stood today. It was indicative of the fact that we could be ambiguous and introduce nuance into these types of conversations, even though the medium of the billboard has so little room for complexity.
“We realized… we could be ambiguous and introduce nuance into [political] conversations, even though the medium of the billboard has so little room for complexity.”
How did this lead to For Freedoms’ new project, the 50 State Initiative?
Hank Willis Thomas: We wanted to do something in the 2018 midterm elections that would change the discourse. One of the questions we often ask is why are artists so often on the sidelines of these conversations? We’re almost always marginalized, when we could be leading the conversation. Creative people are the best storytellers.
Eric Gottesman: We wanted to start connecting more and more artists, more and more institutions across the country to break down this idea that creativity and art is only made in certain places. We know there’s an existing artistic infrastructure throughout the country. We’ve been thinking of it like the road system — it lays latent, but it can be activated. Nobody has really harnessed the entire art infrastructure or art network before. So that’s what we’ve started to do.
Hank Willis Thomas: [Our partner institutions] are going to do exhibitions, town halls, and/or billboards with us from September to November of 2018. And Eric devised these curatorial questions that are going to guide the conversation of the exhibitions and the town halls.
Eric Gottesman: They’re just prompts — every institution is going to do their own version of these installations. In some ways, that approach got us thinking about questions of art’s role in relationship to freedom of speech and political speech, the role of citizenship, how we think about participation.
Hank Willis Thomas: [About seven months ago] I talked to Patton and Stephanie [Pereira, Kickstarter’s former Director of Creator Engagement] at Kickstarter, and I knew we should try to do something quite unique. We wanted to focus on the billboard side of the project because we realized when we did the Pearl billboard that a billboard can get media attention. We realized that we could create a conversation around the billboard project. Then you can direct people to the exhibitions and town halls to have more engaged conversations.
We knew we wanted to do 50 billboards. A billboard costs about $3,000, so we thought that if we did 50 Kickstarter campaigns for $3,000 each, it would be a very new approach, rather than just doing one $150,000 campaign where everyone contributes to that one goal. The idea is that if we can get 300 people in each state to give $10, not only is that a broad network of people who are invested and helping to share the story, it would also create something of a critical mass [for having engaged conversations].
Our goal is to be non-partisan, non-binary, and really complicate the discourse. We want people to ask questions. This is really an attempt in 2018 to try to compete with the powers that be about what the news story is. Instead of focusing on the things that scare us, we have to be thinking about [the future]. We want to be visionary rather than reactionary.
“Our goal is to be non-partisan, non-binary, and really complicate the discourse. We want people to ask questions.”
Are you working with a different artist in each state? Is there a prompt or a set of guidelines that you give to the artists you’re working with?
Eric Gottesman: For the last campaign, we worked with a specific artist in each state to design the billboard. It was a lot of back and forth with us and the artists and the designers. One of them was by Trevor Paglen, who is a MacArthur genius. He did a billboard that said, “Protect us from our metadata.” This was in 2016. He’s in that world [of technology and data], so he knew a little bit more than we did about what we’re finding out now — that we were actually at risk.
Hank W. Thomas: As artists, we’ve all been told, “Do you want to do this project? Well, send us some ideas and we’ll get back to you about them.” Because of our disdain for that process, we said, “Whatever you send us, we will put up.” When Trevor said he wanted to do “Protect us from our metadata,” I was like, “I don’t know what metadata is, but fine.” We put up his billboard in Colorado. I saw him recently and I was like, “Oh, that’s what you were talking about.”
Artists are always working in the future because our work is not just about right now. It’s about the stuff that we want people to be thinking about for generations. How can we bring the conversations that are often happening in these closed-off galleries or museums into the public? That’s why we’ve made a point of shaping the narrative around [these public billboards].
What are you doing differently with the billboards this time around?
Eric Gottesman: Our name, For Freedoms, is based on the Norman Rockwell paintings. One of the things we’re doing [as part of this project] is reshooting those Four Freedoms pictures. The new photographs will be more representative of what freedom means today in contemporary America. Some of those images will be part of the billboard content.
Hank Willis Thomas: There’s no one picture that can define America, because we realize that the road to progress is always under construction. When we see ads and images we know we want to see us, but the “us” keeps growing.
If we were given the chance to do that “Make America Great Again” billboard again, I’m not sure we would be as confident that it was the right decision. [After we put that billboard up] someone called us and was like, “You’re not from here, you don’t understand what it’s like to be on the ground. In your safe New York community this might be a cool thing, but here there are other things that people have to deal with.”
We want to be more targeted and more intentional [this time around]. We also want to support stuff that we may not be as stoked about, because we don’t want to be the arbiters of free expression and what’s an important issue and what’s not.
“There’s no one picture that can define America… the road to progress is always under construction.”
Eric Gottesman: The issues that we’re talking about right now are not the same issues we were talking about three months ago. A lot of what I see as political art right now is very reactive to the current moment. I think what we’re trying to do is [along the lines of] the Trevor Paglen example Hank talked about — two years later we’ll say, “Oh, that’s what you meant.” Artists’ voices are, not prophetic, exactly, but thinking on a longer time frame.
Hank Willis Thomas: We’re thinking about the 50 State Initiative as being like Hands Across America in the ’80s, as many people who are creative, in creative institutions, in other institutions, working on one project that is for freedoms. Which means that we support freedoms that we don’t personally agree with, because that’s part of what democracy is about. It’s about, I might be with you all the way to here but not there, but I’m still with you because I want you to support my freedoms, too. Which is why we’re not interested in supporting this person over that person: when we choose a side, someone’s always going to lose.
The 52 projects comprising the 50 State Initiative are live on Kickstarter until July 4, 2018. Head here to lend your support to the initiative.