Nov 282012
Emily Squires

If you have a message, any message, you’d like to bring to the White House, let Philadelphia-based artist Emily Squires know.

She’ll march on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the executive mansion holding a sign that proclaims just about anything “with the exception of ones that I feel are hate speech,” she says. “Which is very few so far.”

Squires has marched once so far — on Nov. 1, just before Election Day — holding dozens of placards, each with messages like “POLITICS SUCK,” “NOBODY WILL EVER READ THIS,” “equality for all. That is why I am supporting OBAMA!” and “FREE HUGS.”

“No one stopped me for a hug,” says Squires. “Some people are definitely speaking to the government. And I think some people are broadly interpreting the prompt and using the piece as a platform for their own messages.”

Squires has a background in labor organizing and devised “Personal Service Announcement” as as way “to use art as a tool to push thinking on how we feel we have access to the government. Or don’t have access,” she says.

The project isn’t itself political, Squires says, but is, rather, an art piece designed to make viewers question their assumptions about what makes something political.

“I feel like this piece uses a visual language that we understand to be read as political. A protest sign, a marcher, the site of the White House,” she says. “But as an artist, I’m more interested in my work being a tool for reflecting back on culture. Challenging ideas, making meaning through the work, helping us think through what is a political act rather than actually being one itself.”

This is a fine distinction that has been lost on some viewers, like the police officer who, Squires told the Artwrit blog, thought that her art project looked a whole lot like a protest and told her “you can’t protest on the sidewalk in front of the White House” — which led to this exchange:

Me: “Well, what counts as protest language?”

Police: “They don’t tell us that.”

Me: “So because these look like protest signs, regardless of what they say, I won’t get harassed by the Secret Service if I walk in the street right next to the sidewalk?”

Police: “Correct.”

I decided, in the moment, to march in the street, right next to the sidewalk. But I’m definitely thinking about all the questions this conversation brings to light and potentially making a different choice at the next two marches.

Messages can be submitted anonymously through the project’s website until Jan. 1. The next two marches are scheduled for Dec. 8 and Jan. 12.

“I wanted the timeline of the whole project to run from pre-election to pre-inauguration,” Squires says. “There is so much sex appeal around presidential elections, even though really, being engaged is ideally an everyday thing, not a once-every-four-years thing.”

Arin Greenwood