Ahead of this year’s Independence Day, 80 artists will send messages over hidden detention facilities, immigration courts, borders, former internment camps and other sites of historic relevance. Written with water vapor, the messages can be seen and read for miles. Founded by artists Cassils and rafa esparza, this groundbreaking national intervention called In Plain Sight is dedicated to the abolition of immigrant detention and the U.S. culture of incarceration. Every skytyping plane in the nation has been gathered together to spell out these messages amplifying oppressed voices and serving as a pipeline to partner organizations that directly support the immigrant community on the ground.
Each artist’s message will end in #XMAP, a hashtag that leads viewers to In Plain Sight’s website — which will include all of the locations the skytyping planes will cover — as well as an interactive map that locates the ICE detention facilities within their immediate vicinity. “This is not an artwork about immigrant detention,” Cassils told HYPEBEAST. “It’s an artwork that is an amplification device to raise awareness for the voices on the ground of all our partner organizations who have been doing this work so well and know the problem intimately. We have included artists who have themselves been detained and incarcerated. It’s not about artists speaking for, but piercing through the noise, so that you, too, can make a difference.”
In Plain Sight has partnered with organizations like The Haitian Bridge Alliance, the ACLU of Southern California, Detention Watch Network, MIJENTE, and others that aim to abolish ICE and the police in order for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and all people to be free. Among the artists and activists participating in the large-scale project include Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, gender non-conforming writer and performance artist ALOK, Chicago-based artist Brian Herrera, trans visual artist Paolo Riveros, among many others.
One of IPS’ community partners, Make The Road New Jersey, will skytype the message “FREE THEM ALL” over Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark. “The day before Americans watch fireworks light up the sky in celebration of freedom and liberty, we will look to the skies across New Jersey to be reminded that liberty and justice are not available to everyone here,” said Sara Cullinane, Director of the community-based organization. “In New Jersey, every year thousands of individuals are taken from their families and detained in four ICE detention centers, some housed in county jails that bring lucrative contracts to our counties. Detention is cruel and inhumane — even before COVID, dozens of detainees died in ICE and CBP custody. Now is the moment for our government to release all detainees.”
We spoke to Cassils and rafa esparza about organizing In Plain Sight, as well as artists and activists Zackary Drucker, Narcissister, Karen L. Ishizuka and Jackie Sumell on participating in such a large-scale project and the importance of their messages today.
“This project is about visibilizing what’s rendered invisible.” — Cassils
When did the idea for In Plain Sight form? Why did you decide on an aerial demonstration?
Cassils: I think the idea for the skytyping was conceived on the Fourth of July of last year. It was inspired by watching skytyping, which is such a patriotic sort of display of nationalism, and thinking about how amazing it would be to retool that methodology towards a different message. This project is about visibilizing what’s rendered invisible, which is this incredible problem and stain and horror of for profit immigrant detention in this country. People don’t know how many of these camps exist. They’re in every single state in this country — there are over 55,000 people, right now today, being held in cages.
We live in a country that is putting profit and greed over human lives. Skytyping inverts the sort of formality of this language of patriotism to make us question what it means to be in this country and stand for what you believe in. It also visibilizes the invisible and creates this incredible awareness such that people can, once educated, choose to do something different about this issue.
rafa: One skytyping message over Los Angeles or New York City could reach up to 3 million people. So, multiply that by the 80 sites that we’re flying over. And that’s before the images and documentation get circulated online. This way of indexing these sites has been important for us to create a context around this work so that when people look up into the sky they can connect it with work that has been done on the ground.
People feel distant from the issue because they imagine it’s something that’s based very specifically along the border region of Mexico and the U.S., when in fact there are immigrant detention centers in every state. We want to be able to have our website be a tool for people to educate themselves and allow them to get involved. We’ll be featuring local bond funds we want people to donate to as well.
“This is something new in terms of the platform we are using and how to create context for something as vast as the sky.” — rafa esparza
You couldn’t have predicted that COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement would be happening right now.
Cassils: Artists have an antenna. We’re picking up on stuff that happens way before it happens. That’s because a lot of the artists who are involved speak to these cyclical abuses of power from different vantage points. This is nothing new. The only thing COVID-19 has done is hyper-exaggerate the inequities, racism and xenophobia that is already present in the country. We get to see who has to go to work and who gets to stay at home; who gets sick and can afford health insurance and who can’t. This was a project that was addressing those inequities, because they have always existed. It’s just on fire right now.
What challenges did you face in organizing such a large-scale project?
Cassils: It’s been difficult in many ways. We haven’t been able to be in the room with our colleagues other than our early days. All our conversations have taken place online. Fundraising has been tremendously challenging. Everybody on this team is doing this because they need to, not for compensation.
rafa: It’s been challenging managing the various moving parts of something as vast and large-scale as this. This is something new in terms of the platform we are using and how to create context for something as vast as the sky. And it’s not just collaborating with the 80 artists, activists and organizations, but working with the impact team, web team and designers. It’s been a challenge to think about this skytyping action as an ephemeral moment that will exist for minutes in the sky and trying to harness this moment and give it a life that can be of a greater service to the work that our movement partners have been doing for decades.
What message did you choose for the In Plain Sight project?
Zackary Drucker: Nosotras te vemos.
Narcissister: NOW OR NEVER!
Karen Ishizuka: NO MORE CAMPS!
Jackie Sumell: ICE WILL MELT.
Why do you think it needs to be shared with the American public?
Drucker: It means “we see you” in the feminine version of the phrase, a subtle way of recognizing one femme to another. I want to convey a message of unity to the transgender women and to all the people living in forced detention at South Texas ICE Processing Center. It’s a public service to draw attention to the location of detention centers, which are close to many communities across America. In today’s maelstrom of fear and hate, it’s easy to forget they exist right next door.
Narcissister: These words — part battle cry to action, part bell of mindfulness — demand that attention be paid to the present moment. The Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh taught that “The Kingdom is Now or Never,” words passed to me by my mother, a Sephardic Jewish immigrant from Morocco, who over her years in the US came to embrace Buddhism and Nhat Hanh’s teachings. Freedom in and from the literal and metaphorical prisons we build for ourselves and others must happen now, in the now.
Ishizuka: It implies that there have been detention centers in the past — specifically the 10 concentration camps in which the U.S. government held 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII without charge or any due process of law for up to 5 years.
Sumell: Right now our place in history stands at the collision point of a global pandemic, social uprising and white supremacy. The American public, much like its institutions, are rapidly shifting. As we dissolve our imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchy, we contend with the physicality of its mechanisms. Like solid to liquid we are transforming our identity from the rigidity of white supremacy and ignorance, through the fluidity of possibility, into racial and social equity.
“Right now our place in history stands at the collision point of a global pandemic, social uprising and white supremacy.” — Jackie Sumell
Describe your own artistic practice and/or activism. How does it translate to this skytyping performance?
Drucker: Bringing activism by sky writing over detention centers is a brilliant gesture. We just entered the Age of Aquarius, an air sign, and I think that is manifesting in so many ways. Being physically isolated but still existing in the virtual space is an indication of our shift towards Aquarius. Creating art in the air is another. I’m a photographer; that’s my background. Alfred Stieglitz, one of the pictorialists who established photography as an art form, said, “Clouds (are) there for everyone — no tax as yet on them — free.” The sky cannot be consumed, cannot be quantified, cannot be owned.
Narcissister: Narcissister’s strong feminine presence and confrontation of sexual and racial stereotypes is grounded in my own feminism and background as a African American/Sephardic Jewish woman. My work translates effectively in this skywriting performance in that, as with all my work as Narcissister, I aim to distill a complex, political, challenging, and even poignant idea into a clearly and broadly understood statement. Also as with much of my work, I start with a personal reference (in this case the Buddhist teachings passed onto me from my mother) and then broaden its scope and relevance.
Ishizuka: I am a non-fiction writer who explores Asian Pacific Island and Japanese American history and culture with an overall message of social justice and anti-racism. Words Matter.
Sumell: I have spent the last 19 years moving in and out of prisons, jails and detention centers as an artist, abolitionist and advocate. I do this because my elders, Herman Wallace, Robert King and Albert Woodfox invested lifetimes of tutelage, love and patience in my possibility. I do this because it is where I discover my own humanity.
“There’s incredible momentum in this moment and I feel our IPS interventions will make a critical contribution to keeping it moving forward.” — Narcissister
Why is it important to raise awareness on these issues now? How do you think the public will react to the interventions?
Drucker: It is crucial for us to exercise our freedom of speech and to participate in our democracy. I hope that this sense of civic duty becomes more prioritized, more central in people’s lives in order for our integrity as a nation to survive.
Narcissister: In my lifetime, the stakes for art activism have never been higher than they are now, perhaps only paralleled by the stakes during the AIDS epidemic in the late 80s to early 90s. There’s incredible momentum in this moment and I feel our IPS interventions will make a critical contribution to keeping it moving forward.
Ishizuka: Everyone needs to know what crimes against humanity that the U.S. is perpetrating. And to understand that an injury to one is an injury to all, whether we realize it or not.
Sumell: Writing in the sky is a poetic vehicle that engages a large swath of an unexpecting public. It forces the public to contend with what we can’t see, or choose not to see. IPS inspires us to look up, look out, and contend with the culture of punishment in the United States in juxtaposition to the character of freedom (4th of July). IPS is gifting us with messages not only what is wrong, but also what is possible.
“Artists are uniquely qualified to challenge systematic oppression and to enable social change in creative and innovative ways.” — Zackary Drucker
What motivated you to participate in this project?
Drucker: I came to this project by way of Cassils and Rafa Esparza who are both visionary artists. I’m thrilled to participate. So often people feel powerless in the machines of systemic racism and xenophobia, and this era has been so ghastly, to see hate propagated by the highest office in the nation. Artists are uniquely qualified to challenge systematic oppression and to enable social change in creative and innovative ways. Being part of the trans community connects me to a huge network of people from different backgrounds, especially people of color and immigrants. An injustice to one is an injustice to all.
Narcissister: My activist hero Larry Kramer died the day I was asked to participate. In reading his obituary and revisiting his work and the incredible contribution he made on so many levels creatively and politically, I felt inspired and honored to have an opportunity through this IPS project to contribute even in a small way to the potential for positive change that exists in this present moment.
Ishizuka: Because my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and entire Japanese American community were also incarcerated by the U.S. government for no other crime than being who they were, I have the moral authority and responsibility to stand up and be the ally we didn’t have.
Sumell: One of my beloved elders, Mwalimu Johnson, often said, “It takes all the tiny grains of sand to hold back to oceans of oppression.” We are asking the status quo to commit to a unity of purpose and dismantle the harmful architecture of white supremacy. This requires us to dissolve the false rigidity of our conflated identity (as it relates to liberty, power, equality) and become a unified force. In many ways, this project offers the lyrics to the song we have been longing for, inviting us into a chorus of possibility, of change and action.
Are you working on any other human rights projects? What resources do you recommend to those who are interested in helping shed light on these issues?
Narcissister: My recent short activist art film Narcissister Breast Work premiered at Sundance 2020. Focusing on the exercise by women of their right to bare their breasts in public, this film is an investigation into how prohibitions on female toplessness are grounded in fear of, and desire to control, the female body. It will screen next at Frameline festival in SF. Resources I suggest related to my replies here are the wisdom and activism of Thich Nhat Hanh and of Larry Kramer/ACT UP.
Sumell: My life’s work has been centered around establishing the relationship between prisons and slavery; the status quo and complicity; prison abolition and spiritual practices. My most urgent project is called The Prisoner’s Apothecary. The Prisoner’s Apothecary produces plant medicine in partnership with incarcerated folks, existing as an abolitionist garden and mobile apothecary. An outgrowth of The Solitary Gardens, which cultivates conversations around alternatives to incarceration by growing gardens in collaboration with incarcerated individuals, the Prisoner’s Apothecary allows us to reconcile our violent past with the implications on the present, and collectively construct a very different future.