Public art brings art to people where they are. That’s the purpose of a billboard and bus stop billboard exhibition now installed throughout Miami.
Nonprofit Art at a Time Like This commissioned six artists for “8X5: Artists Against Mass Incarceration, Calling for Judicial Reform,” to create public artwork meant to boost awareness and spark conversation about the United States’ criminal justice system. And not just awareness, however, but a focus on the inequities of mass incarceration.
The more than two dozen billboards have been strategically placed around the city near courthouses and government offices, according to Anne Verhallen, a co-founder of Art at a Time Like This, who curated the exhibition with fellow co-founder Barbara Pollack. The title of the exhibition, “8X5” refers to the size of an average prison cell.
“The billboards can have up to 350,000 viewpoints a week,” said Verhallen. “It’s important to bring politically and socially engaged works to the public and make them easily accessible … to influence one person’s thought, to trigger someone’s mind, to make an impact with an artwork versus an advertisement.”
Art galleries and museums, Verhallen explained, can be intimidating by design and, to many, unavailable because of economic constraints or a feeling of not belonging at a museum or inside an art gallery.
“They might be intimidated in a sense that they don’t know if and how they can interact with an artwork or if they feel they aren’t an ‘expert’ on art. If you bring these works into the streets, you remove that [barrier to] access,” she said.
Art at a Time Like This partnered with SaveArtSpace, another nonprofit whose sole mission is to replace advertising spaces with public art. Both are based in New York.
The works in “8X5” are by Guerrilla Girls, a collective of feminist activist artists that includes Shepard Fairey, Trenton Doyle Hancock and Sam Durant, and two artists who have themselves been incarcerated, Sherrill Roland and Faylita Hicks.
There are no Miami artists included in this iteration of Art at a Time Like This. Verhallen acknowledged that’s something that’s missing in the Miami “8X5” project. Time constraints, she said, prevented that. Moving forward, they will include Miami artists selected through an open call.
There are messages, however, that are Florida-centric. A Guerilla Girls’ billboard cites statistics: “Floridians are sentenced to prison at a higher rate than 37 other states and every nation worldwide. Black Floridians are imprisoned at a rate 4 times higher than others. Florida prosecutes more children as felons than any other state.” Sherill Roland’s Florida facts are displayed by poking fun at the cheeky “Did You Know?” way of presenting information.
Guerilla Girls also has a public art billboard in Spanish at two locations: “¿Por qué ee uu tienne el 5% de la población mundial pero el 20% de sus prisioneros?”
With the project next traveling to Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and ending in New York City, Verhallen said billboards in other cities will have some of the text-based art specific to those areas, such as the ones in Miami that accented Florida’s inequities.
The dates of the display in Miami are dictated by the contract with billboard companies. One, near the FTX Arena by Durant, however, will remain until July 20. Verhallen said that, depending on the billboard company’s schedule – in this case Clear Channel – some of the art may remain longer.
Featured artists Hicks, currently based in Chicago, was born in California and raised in Texas. She identifies as a nonbinary femme person and prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. They spent 45 days in a Texas jail for a $25 check that bounced at a grocery story. It was May of 2010 and Hicks was homeless and living in their car. Because they had no permanent address, a warrant was issued and never received, so when they failed to appear in court, they were found and arrested.
Hicks’ billboard, which, like the others appears in multiple locations throughout Miami, features a photo of a person smiling with an American flag placed over their eyes. The text reads: “Hold these truths to be evidence, all are created equal endowed with rights, among these: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”
“I released an essay entitled ‘The Lineage and Language of a Liberation.’ In that essay, I mention that the conversations that impact us regular (folx) the most are not the ones being held via major television stations and political campaigns – it’s the ones being held at the bus stop or train station, the ones being had while sitting at the kitchen table or in a bar. A billboard is a conversation starter – and it’s one that desperately needs to be happening,” said Hicks.
Hicks is currently a writer in residence for the Texas After Violence Project, a nonprofit curating an oral history archive for people impacted by mass incarceration and people on death row.
“Before my arrest, I was a spoken-word artist and writer whose work often focused on the rights and protections for marginalized communities both in and out of the U.S., including the performance pieces created to highlight human trafficking in Texas,” said Hicks.
In the decade after their arrest, they began to integrate music, photography, digital art and film into their work. Being included in the Art at a Time Like This project is vitally important, Hicks said, especially right now.
“My billboard is the opening of an erasure poem that will reimagine the Declaration of Independence,” said Hicks. “If the U.S. Constitution, the one that has been so mercilessly abused by our Supreme Court justices over the last several months, is based on the principles put forth by the Declaration of Independence, then it feels only natural to evaluate the quality and weight of the language used … and to consider if it is perhaps time to revise or start a new draft … one that prioritizes the inclusion of ideals and values of the historically marginalized.”
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