Word on the Street: The Art of the Protest

A Banner by Anne Carson and Amy Khoshbin at the Women's March in Washington DC in 2017.

From the massive Women’s Marches held this year and last, to the rise of the “Me Too” movement, vocal demonstrations by DACA recipients, and reactions to police shootings of people of color, across the nation people are angry and getting organized. Just this past weekend, thousands of demonstrators (including a fair number right here in Sag Harbor) took to the streets for the March for Our Lives, an anti-gun movement organized by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in the wake of a mass shooting there on February 14.

No doubt about it people are pissed and motivated for change. Protest is in the air, and so are words that speak volumes. Words like these: “Action Comes From the Backbone, Not the Wishbone.”

Performance artists Amy Khoshbin.

While this sentiment may be a sign of the times, it is also a work of art. Specifically, it’s a collaboration between Brooklyn-based Iranian American performance artist Amy Khoshbin and poet/writer Anne Carson. These eight simple words form just one of many eye-opening and thought-provoking phrases featured in “Word on the Street,” a timely text-based exhibition currently on view at The Watermill Center.

“Word on the Street” fights the powers that be, not with weapons, but slogans. It consists of original political and poetic phrases created by a collection of renowned female international artists and writers that were then constructed on felt banners in collaboration with a group of female refugee fabricators based in Texas.

Commissioned by Times Square Arts and on view at The Watermill Center through April 17, in addition to Carson and Khoshbin, the banners on view feature messages by artists and writers Carrie Mae Weems, Tania Bruguera, Laurie Anderson, A.M. Homes, Wangechi Mutu, Jenny Holzer, Naomi Shihab Nye and members of The House of Trees collective.

Anne Carson

Though they are museum-worthy, as Khoshbin explained in a recent phone interview, the first banners were created for the Women’s March which took place in Washington DC on January 21, 2017 — the day after President Trump took office.

“Leading up to that march, there was a lot of feeling of what can we do as artists and people to get more politically active?” recalls Khoshbin. “My siblings and I talked about it, and we created the House of Trees art collective and thought it would be amazing to respond to the political landscape with language.”

“So I reached out to Anne Carson, the writer, poet and my friend, to help give us some language to use on large-scale protest banners.”

Several phrases were created for a dozen or so large horizontal and vertical felt banners that were carried by marchers in both Washington DC and New York City. Since that time, the project has grown and attracted the participation of other well-known artists, with the pieces displayed in art galleries such as Leila Heller Gallery, Kimmel Galleries, and at the Whitney Houston Biennial.

Naomi Shihab Nye’s “House of Trees Noise.”

“The real power is to have these objects in the street as protest objects and demarcations of time,” explains Khoshbin. “They’re archival objects, they also are put into arts institutions to create fluidity between the street and institutions.”

Khoshbin notes that the work caught the attention of a Times Square Arts curator who proposed photographing the banners and printing them on vinyl for display on trash cans and light poles in the middle of Times Square.

“It’s the heart of commercialism and consumerism, I thought this language of resistance subverting these spaces of advertising was interesting,” says Khoshbin who also offered a banner making workshop for the public in the middle of Times Square

“It was close to the time of the marches around DACA,” she adds. “This idea of creating community through art-making and having a catharsis about what’s going on in the world or personal life, getting off screens, talking, making art, juxtaposed with being in this heart of screen-based consumer advertising.”

Wangechi Mutu’s “Imagination.”

In a subsequent round of banner making, other artists and writers like Laurie Anderson and A.M. Homes were added to the line up and a new season of work has just gone up in Times Square, where Khoshbin expects to lead another banner-making workshop.

Another important aspect of the show revolves around those who fabricate the felt banners — a group of female refugees who live in San Antonio, Texas.

“For us, it’s important to share the commission we’ve received with this organization and these women to say they’re part of the conversation and the project, and support them as important members of our society,” explains Khoshbin. “All that is in jeopardy now.”

“It’s funny. Since they’re in San Antonio, you might expect them to be Latin American, but a lot of them are from the Middle East and Afghanistan,” she says. “For me personally, it’s a beautiful thing since I’m Iranian American.”

Though banners from the “Word on the Street” project have been seen in many public spaces and institutions, Khoshbin notes that The Watermill Center show represents the first large scale exhibition of all the fabric banners in one place at one time.

“It’s like a first solo show of these works — it’s a major exhibition of the fabric pieces and for us, it’s really exciting,” says Khoshbin. “The timing is on point. We’re just over a year into the current administration and to us, it reflects the helpfulness of pushing and resistance. Even though momentum may be waning, we’re trying to keep people motivated.”

Given the subtle, yet powerful phrases represented in the banners, Khoshbin feels the messages they convey go beyond a single topic and have serious staying power in these changing times.

“These issues keep unfolding. The language we use is open, it’s more general and poetic rather than words attached to specific causes,” she explains. “Because of that, there’s a timeliness that can exist even beyond the next four years. The sentences and phrases that come out of this time were created by women … time eternal.”

“Word on the Street” will be view at The Watermill Center, 39 Water Mill Towd Road, through April 17. For more information, visit watermillcenter.org.

An “Antigone” banner in Times Square from Anne Carson and Amy Khoshbin.