With some 50 days until the presidential election in November, one artist group has announced its latest project—an open call to artists and everyday citizens alike to get involved, not just in the upcoming vote but beyond. The organization For Freedoms, cofounded by artists Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Gottesman, and Michelle Woo, as super PAC in 2016, has released “Infinite Playbook,” a digital publication intended to spur its readers to action using arts and culture.
In this handsome online publication, For Freedoms writes, “Now, we invite you to awaken with us. This fall presents us with imminent possibility, a chance to commit to a world of healing, listening, and justice. The first step is to participate in political processes now, to count yourself in the census, and to vote or to help someone to vote.”
In an interview with ARTnews, Willis Thomas elaborated, “This is a time, where the United States is searching for its soul and the idea historically of a spiritual awakening, I think, is a pretty good metaphor for what we are experiencing, after first being hit with the pandemic and the recognizing the epidemics of police violence, gun violence, and health inequity.”
Woo added, “Oftentimes, we’re so focused on what we want to make, on the end product, that we often miss the journey. We often don’t take the time to think about how small actions, small steps can lead to bigger, greater things. And that starts with us as individuals and creates a ripple effect to how we partner with folks, how we collaborate, and how we start to build on these ideas together.”
The new 2020 Awakening initiative isn’t For Freedom’s first time that the group has participated in an election cycle. The group launched in 2016 just ahead of that year’s presidential election with a billboard that showed protesters, including the late John Lewis, facing state troopers in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. The words superimposed on the image were provocative: “Make America Great Again.” Since then it has hosted numerous town halls and placed billboards across the country, including as part of its “50 Billboards, 50 States” initiative.
Part of this new 2020 project will see For Freedoms take over the billboard spaces that they have traditionally used, as well as, for the first time, branching out into the digital sphere with advertising spaces—including ones on Facebook, which were harnessed for more insidious means by Russian operatives during the 2016 Presidential election—that various political campaigns use. Among the artists who will participate in the 2020 Awakening advertising campaign are Christine Sun Kim, the Guerrilla Girls, Alfredo Jaar, Edgar Heap of Birds, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Marilyn Minter, and Carlos Motta, as well as curators Jasmine Wahi and Rujeko Hockley.
For the artists involved, the 2020 Awakening initiative builds on an under-studied aspect of U.S. history. On October 3, For Freedoms will stage a series of coordinated, nationwide protests to mark the 160th anniversary of the Wide Awakes of 1860 movement, which helped to elect Abraham Lincoln as president. Willis Thomas explained, “Essentially the Wide Awakes of 1860 were a pop-up intervention in the election of 1860, where the country was really divided and there was a very uncertain future. The Republican Party was founded as the pro-abolition party and a pro-women’s Suffrage party, and by 1860 they were also pro-immigration. What’s not often talked about is how Lincoln became president was largely because ordinary, everyday people believed in a radical future, where abolition and the full enfranchisement of all citizens was possible.”
The goal now is for For Freedoms, the artists and curators it’s working with, and others to translate those ideals for a new era—one where people likely can’t organize in person because of the pandemic. Gottesman said he is aiming to build “a cultural and educational agenda” that looks beyond the election, however.
Willis Thomas concurred, saying, “It’s an ongoing, infinite pursuit and so the election is just a mile marker. It’s not where the work ends. If anything, it’s where the work begins anew.”
Correction, September 10, 2020: An earlier version of this article misstated that For Freedoms was a Super PAC. It launched in 2016 as a Super PAC, but it is now an artist-run organization.
Watch Hank Willis Thomas discuss his “All Things Being Equal” exhibition on ARTnews Live below.