Last week, an army of volunteers wearing cut-off shorts and drinking bottled iced coffee were busy transforming a former factory floor at 990 Spring Garden into a 20,000-square-foot art installation.
They hung work by 100 artists — some famous street artists such as Shepard Fairey, Stephen Powers (ESPO), and the mysterious Bansky from London. Others are local yarn-bombers, graffiti and wheat-paste artists. In this “Truth To Power” art installation, the work is opinionated, critical, and political.
“There has never been a movement in history that hasn’t had its artists,” said one of the producers of the show, Yosi Sergant. He used to work for the Obama administration as a public liaison, and, for five months in 2009, was director of communications for the National Endowment for the Arts. Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is the commissioning of the Fairey “Hope” poster for the 2008 Obama campaign.
“This is a movement of a just society,” he said. “That understands the dignity and hope of our communities.”
The movement seen on the floor of “Truth To Power” is a bag of hot-button social issues laid bare: gun control, police brutality, criminal justice reform, capitalism, women’s rights, racism, poverty, even diabetes.
The artwork does not stand alone. An adjacent performance space is programmed daily with hours of back-to-back music, poetry, theater, and one-stage discussions.
25 years of rocking the vote
“Truth to Power” is a production of Rock the Vote and Cut 50, a criminal justice reform organization. This year Rock The Vote marks 25 years of leveraging the power of celebrity to encourage young adults to vote, beginning with MTV ads featuring Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Music television no longer has its youthful allure, and rock celebrity may not have the political cachet it once had. Technology has allowed the popular rise of the otherwise unknown activist artist.
“Social media changed how we see information,” said Rock the Vote vice president of marketing Luis Calderin. “It’s changed how a kid is seeing uncut, raw facts taking place every day in America. The messaging around activist art has never had as much an impact as now.”
Fairey, who became one of the most mainstream street artists when the “Hope” poster appeared, here created a series of posters based on the photography of Jim Marshall from the 1960s, featuring portraits of people affected by gun control, mass incarceration, voting rights, and poverty.
Some images are well-known, like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Cesar Chavez during the farmworkers’ rights march. Others are less so, including an impoverished mother and children in Kentucky. Fairey designed his own wall text cards to explain the back story of each image.
It also features work by Philadelphia street artist Amber Lynn, aka Amberella, who wheat-pastes images on buildings around the city. For “Truth To Power,” she created a new series of Magic 8-Ball images with messages on pink triangles.
“They trigger people’s opinions on women and women’s rights, to raise empowerment,” said Lynn, who dyed her hair pink to match her prints. “I just want people to ask questions within themselves. It’s not my opinion. I never share my opinion.”
Anger, frustration figure in work
For all the show’s critical zeal, there is a certain restraint. Michael D’Antuono shocked the art world in 2009 with “The Truth,” featuring President Obama wearing a crown of thorns in a crucifix position. Here, he painted a domestic scene of a middle-class, African-American couple sitting on a couch, trying to explain televised police brutality to their young son.
While the show has its bravado moments — Michael Murphy’s “Identity Crisis” is a cluster of guns dangling from the ceiling so they take the shape of the United States when viewed from a certain angle. The show’s finale will be a concert reuniting Black Eyed Peas at the Philadelphia Fillmore. It’s not like the old days of Rock the Vote with Madonna wearing a bikini draped in the American flag.
“Look around,” said Sergant. “There are people who are angry and frustrated, and putting it into their work.”
Several thousand people are expected to visit “Truth to Power” before it closes on Thursday. Calderin said many of them will likely be supporters of Bernie Sanders. Calderin, himself, used to work for Sanders’ presidential campaign as its youth vote manager.
Artist Brooks Bell, a local designer of clothing graphics, was asked by “Truth To Power” to round up artists for the show. He, also, had been a Sanders supporter.
“I’m 35, you know, this isn’t my first time voting,” said Bell. “I was a strong Bernie or Bust supporter. I painted a mural for Bernie at Fourth and Bainbridge. I’ve put on art shows for Bernie. I’ve raised money for Bernie. I donated a lot of money to Bernie.
“Am I upset? Pissed off that the whole thing is rigged? Yes. But, to me, the responsible choice is to vote against the Republicans.”
Rock the Vote had a presence in Cleveland last week during the Republican National Convention, albeit a smaller one — a one-night dance party at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.