The Thunderbirds and Blue Angels that President Trump plans to send flying over the National Mall this Fourth of July will have some stiff competition from a group of 70 artists looking to spread their own messages across the nation’s skies.
Two fleets of five skytyping planes each are set for takeoff across the country this Independence Day weekend armed with calls for the abolition of the immigrant detention in the United States as part of the project “In Plain Sight.” (Developed from older skywriting technology, skytyping planes inject oil into their exhaust systems to produce a white smoke that is released into the sky by a computer-controlled system to produce precise letter-writing.) Phrases like “Care Not Cages,” “Unseen Mothers” and “Nosotras Te Vemos (We See You)” will momentarily hover above 80 locations — including detention facilities, immigration courts, prisons, borders and historic sites like Ellis Island — before dissipating into the atmosphere. And some of the messages will be skytyped in nearly 20 languages, including Hindi, Kurdish, Lakota and Punjabi.
The project started a year ago when the artists Cassils and rafa esparza teamed up with a goal of forming a coalition of artists and activists determined to address the ills of mass detention. The initiative’s members include the lawyer Chase Strangio; a founder of Black Lives Matter, Patrisse Cullors; and the artist Hank Willis Thomas — alongside 10 partner organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Raices and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
“As a lawyer, I am often constrained by the structural and discursive limits of the law,” said Strangio, who’s using his corner of the sky to memorialize Lorena Borjas, a transgender immigrant activist who died of Covid-19 in March. “I believe that art and artistic disruption are essential components of movements for social transformation.”
For the artist Alok Vaid-Menon — whose message “God Brown America” will be skytyped above the Montgomery Processing Center close to Vaid-Menon’s hometown, College Park, Texas — the project represents a commitment to elevating the stories of migrants and gender-nonconforming people. “As a descendant of refugees, it’s really important for me to help with this cause,” Vaid-Menon said. “I want to make sure people of color and immigrants in Texas feel like they belong.”
But the challenge of putting art into the sky has also required the legwork of a medium-sized production team led by Cristy Michel, who is also Cassils’ life partner. They found one company that does skytyping, she said, referring to Skytypers, which does the vast majority of the business in the United States. “And this is not something the pilots have done before,” she said. “Usually what they write looks like ‘Geico, Geico, Geico.’”
“When I sense the skytypers getting nervous,” Michel added, “we get into a discussion about how art helps the mind expand and think about future possibilities.”
Speaking by phone last week, Cassils and esparza described the artistic impulses behind “In Plain Sight.”
These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
In recent years, artists have spread their political messages on billboards, filled museums with agitprop and even started their own activist groups. How did you decide to bring your project into the clouds?
CASSILS About a year ago, rafa started a conversation with a bunch of artists in Los Angeles about issues surrounding migrant detention. We were trying to counter feelings of hopelessness and wondered what we, as artists, could do to visualize the issue on a massive scale. I’m a performance artist who is often given a pretty modest budget; there are often limitations to what’s possible. But what if artists like us could plan something bigger? What if artists had the same budget as a shoe company does for its brand promotions, but rather than selling objects, we would be promoting a constructive dialogue? Then, we thought about the air shows that typically happen on Independence Day. Was it possible to usurp this traditional display of patriotism and retool it to bring attention to harmful migration policies? There’s no censorship in the sky. It would be a perfect platform for mass engagement.
ESPARZA There were simple questions: How do you let incarcerated people know that you care? From there, our approach broadened by working with a cohort of artists and an advocacy impact team. We also have a film director working on a documentary about the project.
How has the project changed since the coronavirus pandemic? Has the outbreak forced you to alter your approach?
CASSILS The urgency of “In Plain Sight” has become paramount as people began to die from Covid-19 in detention camps. We had initially planned for this project to occur without any press, but when the pandemic hit, we launched our Instagram page that features short interviews with our artists and calls to action. It’s been a great opportunity to take action. In recent months, I’ve had 11 exhibitions canceled or paused. Almost every artist I know has, too.
There is a rich history of artists looking toward the sky for inspiration. Yves Klein used it as inspiration for his conceptual blue paintings. Recently, the artist Jammie Holmes flew George Floyd’s final words above five cities across the country. What other works have inspired your skytyping project?
ESPARZA “Repellent Fence” (2015) by the art collective Postcommodity was particularly important for us. They created a metaphorical suture along the migration path between the United States and Mexico with tethered balloons to speak about land art in relation to permanence and shifting landscapes. In the same way that they used the land to talk about the divisive power of colonial structures, we are hoping to index the sky as a symbol of inspiration and hope. And the sky is able to migrate messages across borders. When our message is skytyped above San Diego, the words will likely drift into Tijuana. And when our words are written above Los Angeles, they will have a shared orbital path, allowing phrases like “Abolition Now” and “Stop Crimigration Now” to coalesce into a circular message.
CASSILS We are also thinking of artists who have used the language of advertisement to get their points across. Artists like Lynda Benglis and Barbara Hammer. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was another important reference because it demonstrates how people can come together through a patchwork of activism.
Many artists involved with the project are also queer, which may or may not be a coincidence. We are thinking about the words of José Esteban Muñoz, who wrote in 2009 that “queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future.” We see a liberation for queer, migrant and Black communities as deeply bound together because they are all rooted in the issues of white supremacy and colonization. Our jobs as queer artists is to imagine the future.
ESPARZA And we are putting the proposal of care, which is central to many queer communities, at the forefront of this project. We want to imagine what care looks like for people who are impacted by migrant detention and Covid-19.
CASSILS Bringing the skytypers into the fold has also been a unique experience. And with some messages being written in Cree, Farsi and Urdu, this will likely be the first time many people will see their own languages in the sky. There has also been a challenge to imagine how to write languages in the sky that don’t use the Roman alphabet. Skytypers usually work in fleets of five planes each, so any image or letter must exist along a five-point matrix. For artists on the project, that means experimenting with the grid and drawing out words like “freedom” in Farsi or Urdu. It’s interesting to note the challenges of what we can put into the sky, and how we might overcome those barriers.
In Plain Sight
Find out how to see the art at: instagram.com/inplainsightmap/