Revving an Art Machine for Social Change

It’s Thursday, Jan. 19—the day before Inauguration Day—and among the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to Washington, D.C. for a weekend of marches and protests are 15 artist-commandos on a mission of cunning benevolence. Led by Aaron Huey, a Seattle-based photojournalist and activist, they’re rallying at the nation’s capitol to carry out the first phase of a project that earlier in the week was declared the most popular art-based crowdfunding campaign ever. It’s called We the People and so far it’s the most significant effort of the Amplifier Foundation, a nonprofit “art machine for social change” that Huey launched last year. The project’s goal: Distribute thousands of screenprinted posters bearing the images of women of color and the words “We the People” to anyone and everyone protesting the incoming president’s impending tactics of intimidation and division.

That’s only part of the plan.

On Inauguraton Day, the same images—photos by three different female artists given a graphic treatment by renowned street artist Shepard Fairey—are appearing in millions of copies of The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today distributed across the country. Those full-page ads, Huey says, were purchased at a total cost of some $267,000. The intent was to leverage the newspapers’ built-in distribution networks to get the art into the hands of as many people as possible. (“We got someone else to do the work we didn’t have the manpower to do,” Huey says.) The Presidential Inauguration Committee banned signs bigger than 20 inches by 3 inches by 1/4 inches as well as “supports for signs and placards” at any official inauguration events—but a newspaper can be folded or rolled as necessary—a loophole through potential censorship.

On Saturday, Jan. 21 Huey’s group is reconvening for the Women’s March on Washington, which is expected to draw some 200,000 people in D.C. With laxer security and signage rules and more points of distribution, Huey expects they’ll have an easier time distributing the 30,000 double-sided, hard-stock posters and 100 much bigger, corrugated-plastic signs.

“We’re gonna drive the van around and hand out posters until we can’t anymore,” Huey tells me, on the phone from D.C.  “Then we’re gonna put boxes on our shoulders and start marching.”

The money for the ads and posters is just a fraction of the total raised on Kickstarter: $1.3 million in just eight days, far outstripping the original goal of $60,000. With 22,840 backers, We the People was funded by more people than any other art-related campaign in Kickstarter history.

“I knew we could harness that energy if we kept the message positive and looked for hope not in the government or political figures, but in the people,” Huey says. “That’s what we need—to believe the answers are within us.”

The campaign went viral at least in part due to Fairey, who’s developed a huge international following over the course of his career in street-art agitprop, including the ubiquitous Hope posters he created in the run-up to President Obama’s first election. Huey first worked with Fairey in 2010 as part of their collaborative Honor the Treaties campaign, which used Huey’s photos and Fairey’s graphics to draw attention to centuries of the Federal government’s dishonest dealings with Native American tribes.

Huey describes Amplifier as “a new container” for his brand of hybrid art-activism that combines photography (Huey is a staff photographer for National Geographic) with the work of artists, mostly of color, to raise awareness of social and environmental injustices around the world. While continuing work on Native rights, Amplifier is also focused on criminal justice reform via a partnership with Van Jones’ Cut50 foundation and now, most prominently, We the People.

Amplifier counts Fairey as an advisor and Seattle-based filmmaker Erick Becker and journalist Mackenzie Funk, among others, as board members. Before the Kickstarter campaign, Huey initially funded the organization with grants from Stanford University’s experimental media school and Explore, the multimedia arm of the Annenberg Foundation.

“The check from Explore arrived on Nov. 8,” Huey says. “I put it in the bank account and the next day everything went into circus world. Seattle is a progressive community and a lot of people were feeling vulnerable and scared and uncertain. I wallowed in that for a day or two but realized that I can actually work on this. I decided to take that gamble with money we’d just gotten for a whole year and go big with it in the first few months. If this isn’t the time to go big, then I don’t deserve the money.”

Fairey joined early on to develop the initial series of images. Huey then recruited artists and photographers from communities threatened by the incoming administration, including images by Ernesto Ernesto Yerena and Jessica Sabogal. All of these images—and two dozen more created for the Women’s March on Washington—are available as free hi-res downloads on the Amplifier website. As of press time, hundreds of thousands have already been downloaded and distributed.

Huey says this is just the beginning.

“We have a lot of plans for after the inauguration, and we have $1.3 million to keep the pressure on.”

He describes a free postcard program, a free art-supply-to-schools program and an open call for artist grants coming later this year, all of which are available to the public via the Amplifier Foundation website. And beginning Feb. 2, COCA hosts an exhibit of the artwork of the Women’s March on Washington.

“There are a lot of ways to use storytelling as activism,” Huey says. “In the new world order, journalism is activism. Telling the truth is activism.”