Don't look away. Artists use sky-typing to expose ICE detention facilities across the U.S.
Messages from 80 artists will appear in the sky this Independence Day weekend
Americans should be watching the skies this Independence Day weekend, and not just for the fireworks.
The morning of July 3, two fleets of sky-writing planes are scheduled to take flight, soaring over California and Texas. And through July 5, they'll cover various locations across the U.S., leaving messages written by 80 international artists.
The effect could be startling or poetic — or some other combination that's at least more scintillating than a sky-typer's typical summer gig, spelling "Geico," for instance, over the beaches of Rhode Island. And the endeavour is, in fact, an activist art project. Called In Plain Sight, the flyovers are just one phase in a larger campaign to dismantle the immigrant detention system — a cause that's acquired some extra urgency in the face of COVID-19.
When the pandemic hit, roughly 38,000 people, including children, were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities. As of writing, the agency says 752 individuals in custody currently have the virus, though an outside study estimates the actual number is as much as 15 times higher.
Wherever a message appears this weekend, a significant landmark will be somewhere on the ground nearby: an ICE detention facility, for example, or a border crossing or an immigration court. Historical sites, like the former locations of Japanese internment camps, are on the flight path too, connecting the present to a legacy of mass imprisonment. And by entering a zipcode, the project's website reveals even more ICE detention facilities — places that are, per the title, hidden In Plain Sight.
"It's not just an artwork," says Cassils, who co-conceived the project with fellow artist rafa esparza. "It's very much about using art to amplify the grassroots organizations that have been doing the work around immigrant detention for years."
17 of these organizations are partnered with In Plain Sight, including the ACLU of Southern California and Freedom for Immigrants. Through a corresponding social media push, In Plain Sight provides information on how to get involved with the groups' various campaigns, while also introducing the artists involved.
The concept got rolling last summer, Cassils explains. Researching the detention centres, the artist was shocked, and motivated to take action. Then, catching sight of a sky-typed advertisement, an idea took flight.
"It's not like the information isn't out there, but it just gets so quickly buried," they say. "We thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be amazing if you could use sky-typing to actually index the site of these detention centres?'"
In most circumstances, Cassils's work is significantly more earthbound. As the trans artist put it in this past CBC Arts interview, they approach their body as "raw material." And their body is often at the centre of the stories they tell, even as it's being pushed to the most excruciating limits. (Just before the pandemic hit, they performed Up To and Including Their Limits at Toronto's Gardiner Museum. For the piece, Cassils was hung inside a plexiglas box coated with raw clay. Flinging themselves at the walls, they slashed at the wet earth, gradually revealing a glimpse inside.)
We thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be amazing if you could use sky-typing to actually index the site of these detention centres?'- Cassils, artist
For the last two decades, the Canadian artist has mostly lived and worked in Los Angeles, but they only recently became a dual citizen. "The U.S. immigration system was difficult, devastating, paralyzing and stunting," says Cassils. "And that's for someone who has resources. So thinking about the folks who are running for their lives seeking asylum in the United States, only to be locked in a cage and be profited off of? It's something I find appalling."
esparza's connection to the project's subject matter is also personal. A first-generation American, his parents came to the States from Mexico in the '70s. "And so migration and immigration has been a constant presence in my life," he says. He says that watching his mother and father support other newcomers, even while they were struggling to build their own life, has informed his art, including this project. "I strive to build community with not only artists that I work with on collaborations, but just as a human, a way of being." In many of his recent projects — like his contribution to the 2017 Whitney Biennial — esparza builds large-scale installations out of pueblo bricks, labouring alongside Queer and Brown artists who've been invited to participate.
For In Plain Sight, esparza's message is "la frontera nos cruzo," or "the border crossed us." It's expected to appear at the U.S./Mexico Beach Border. Cassils's phrase, "Shame #defundhate," will waft over the west coast headquarters of Geo Group. The No. 2 for-profit prison company in the world, it was specifically selected for its Canadian resonance. In late 2018, a Guardian report revealed the Canadian Pension Plan Investment board held stock in two private prison contractors, including Geo Group. Both have stakes in ICE detention facilities. "To me, that is shameful," says Cassils. The investments were later sold off, following some public outcry. Still, says the artist, it reveals the country's complicity. "This isn't just an American problem. It's also a Canadian problem."
In curating the project, Cassils and esparza have assembled an international roster. There are contributors from Australia, Mexico, the U.K; Toronto-based artist Kent Monkman will write a message in Cree above the Texas-Mexico border. It's one of several languages that will appear in the sky, along with Farsi, French, Haitian Creole, Spanish and Urdu. "We've been really intentional about including a real variety of folks," says Cassils.
The COVID crisis is addressed in the content of several messages. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, an immigrant who came to the States in the '70s, was the first ICE detainee to die of COVID-19. Artist Dread Scott will float his name above the Statue of Liberty. "There are [messages] that are very, very direct," says Cassils. "And then there are those that are poetic and hopeful and generous. So it really does run the gamut."
To get any of those words in the air, of course, takes money. (For perspective, in 2019, one U.S. sky-typing company told Vox that their usual rate is $15,000, a fee that would cover 10 messages.) Private donations paid for the planes, a publicist for In Plain Sight tells CBC Arts. Cassils says that some funding was provided through cultural partners, as well. Occidental College in L.A., for example, is a contributor; Cassils says the liberal-arts school will be incorporating In Plain Sight into some of their future curricula. Beyond the sky-typing companies, everyone involved with the project is volunteering their labour, from artists to web designers.
Thinking about the folks who are running for their lives seeking asylum in the United States, only to be locked in a cage and be profited off of? It's something I find appalling.- Cassils, artist
The details of the sky-typing spectacle have been kept secret for months. "We're not breaking any laws," says esparza, "but certainly with a project that's this massive, with the messages behind it, I think there's just a fear of having the planes be grounded. That's been a main concern."
But when the planes come in for their final landing, the project won't be complete. esparza says they're continuing to build partnerships with cultural organizations, for example. An augmented reality experience, designed by Nancy Baker Cahill, will make the artist messages visible for however long people use smartphones. (They're viewable, for free, through the 4th Wall app.) A docuseries is also in development.
But speaking to Cassils and esparza in the days before launch, their minds seem focused on the skies. "I'm feeling just like, pre-performance anxiety," says esparza. "I think it helps me to think of the anxiety as pre-performance nerves. We've worked so hard for this project; we care so much about the intentions behind it. There's a lot at stake."