Last Wednesday night, less than forty-eight hours before the Senate voted to advance the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, three women who belong to an art-activist collective called the Illuminator parked their battered white van near Union Square and unloaded crates of heavy equipment onto a hand truck. The van was unmarked, and its interior was plastered with stickers: “Oppression Makes Us Sick”; “Revolución Empieza en Casa.” In the back was a homemade platform that could hold a powerful projector and be periscoped through the roof.
The Illuminator—made up of a small group of New Yorkers whose day jobs range from archivist to adjunct professor—casts progressive messages onto the sides of buildings. (The group’s tagline is “Shining a light on the urgent issues of our time.”) Its communiqués are bumper-sticker short and bat-signal large. The first message, “99%,” was broadcast in 2012, the year that the collective was founded, in support of Occupy Wall Street. Subsequent bulletins have announced “Impeach Him,” “Families Belong Together,” and “Housing Is a Human Right,” at locations including Trump SoHo, the Brooklyn Bridge, the U.S. Capitol, and the New York Supreme Court.
Last week’s canvas, 1 Union Square South, the building at the southeast corner of Broadway and East Fourteenth Street, which houses a Best Buy and a Citibank, was chosen because of its bland exterior and the area’s heavy foot traffic. The Illuminators on call were Emily Andersen, Zoe Bachman, and Rachel Brown. They were dressed in dark clothing and comfortable shoes, and they ranged in age from twenty-eight to thirty-seven. The group’s members aren’t anonymous: its Web site lists nine active participants. “We amplify the voices of the unheard,” Bachman said. “We all have social media, but we don’t have millions of dollars to put up our own billboards or have our own TV shows.”
The Illuminators’ tactics may or may not be welcome, depending on the jurisdiction. Usually, they stop the van, raise the periscope, and point the projector at their target, but in Union Square they’d decided to project from ground level. A little after 9 P.M., Andersen, Bachman, and Brown wheeled their gear, which included a small gas generator, to a patch of green adjacent to the park, and set up near a clump of fading hydrangeas. Some passersby were walking home from the gym or from dinner. Others milled around the bronze statue of George Washington in the center of the park.
Andersen connected a laptop to the projector, and began fiddling with photos and text. Suddenly, an arresting image lit up the wall above the Citibank: Anita Hill’s face, during her 1991 testimony against the then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. “Can you get her any higher?” Bachman asked.
“That’s as high as she’ll go,” Andersen said. She fiddled some more, and Hill’s picture was replaced by Christine Blasey Ford swearing to tell the truth at a recent Senate hearing; she has accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teen-agers. Andersen added a caption: “BELIEVE WOMEN.”
A few people stopped to watch. “Is this, like, illegal?” Adam Jacobs, an English-education major at N.Y.U., asked.
“Nope,” Andersen said. The scent of car exhaust and marijuana wafted through the square. An ice-cream truck was playing “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Bachman asked, “Is it possible to get both of them up there at once?”
Andersen pushed a button, and the women appeared side by side on the building, Ford gazing toward George Washington, Hill toward a Panera Bread. “Yeah, that’s better,” Brown said. “It’s warmer.”
A young man approached the Illuminators and asked if they were “open for conversation.” He said, “I don’t mean to sound confrontational, but how do you get the confidence to say, ‘I believe’? I feel like evidence is still coming out.” Bachman said that she found Ford to be credible, and the man agreed. “But, then again, I’m trying to be very logical,” he said. “My heart says believe her, but my brain says I need facts.”
A mother and daughter stopped to talk. “This is amazing!” the mother, Susan Barrie, exclaimed. They’d just left a play about Gloria Steinem, and she said that it had made her think: “We are in such a bubble here in New York. Abortion’s been legal my entire adult life—so we don’t get it.”
At ten-thirty, the generator sputtered to a stop. The façade went dark. “Oh, shit,” Andersen said. “Guess there wasn’t enough gas in there.” The location had been perfect: a relatively smooth, nonreflective surface with minimal light pollution. “A lot of people ask us to do Trump Tower,” Bachman said. “But it’s no good. It’s all glass.” ♦
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