On January 21, 2017, more than 3.3 million people shared their feelings about American politics in the largest one-day global protest ever. I might argue it was also the largest collective art assignment in history. As of today, more than 7000 signs tagged #protestsigns and 2000 as #womensmarchsigns. As with the best of education, this assignment was self-directed and self-motivated. The posters were creative, catchy, poignant, and relevant.
In those posters, we saw people using imagery and text to make a point. Sure, this was a moment that the art kids really shined. The sea of signs included painfully comic renderings of political figures. There was some impressive anatomical accuracy to the variety of human, and other animal, genitalia displayed. Printmakers put the history of their craft into action producing signs in large-scale. Cleveland printers at Zygote Press, like many others nationally, handed signs out to protesters in need of a visualization of their motivation.
But, the pro or semi-pro signs were the anomalies in terms of count. Most the signs featured a direct, honest, unstudied hand. There were scores brown cardboard signs, creases belying their previous function, annotated with scrawling marker-made text. Construction paper, sticker letters, pen—the whole arsenal of the children’s art classroom were in full force.
These signs were a way for people to signify their idea(s) to the world. They used these tools as part of the one of the most powerful performative actions in modern democracy–protest. The signs were also a way to gain validation. In marches, protestors remarked upon the creativity and truthfulness of their peer’s signs. As with so much art-making, these signs were an exhibition of personal volition, a display of voice, for those who feel otherwise silenced.
The continued life of the protest sign is far augmented in the digital era than in previous moments of political action. Instagram, as mentioned previously, allows the signs to become part of a global digital collection to be accessed and shared infinitely. Multiple accounts, like @womensmarchsigns2017 that I moderate, aggregate and amplify the voice of the original creator.
But, to go back to the signs themselves, hundreds of thousands of people around the world had something they needed to share. They committed to paper, or board of some sort, their truest feelings and deepest-held beliefs. They went out into the world and hoisted their raw emotions made manifest above their heads. They shared their visual ideas proudly. We, as the world, got to see the largest collective exhibition of art ever. No exhibition has more profound origins or more democratic curation. This was the people’s exhibition—their chance to put their voice on display.