In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious: if you project 20-foot-tall anti-cop images on the Montreal police headquarters, they will try and mess with your shit.
Which is exactly what happened when the Illuminator Art Collective pulled up in their discreet white cargo van, flicked on their gas generator, turned the manual crank, and popped out their projector. The silhouette of a protester holding a sign reading «Police partout, justice nulle part,» (police everywhere, justice nowhere) appeared on the imposing downtown Montreal building.
It was 11:15 PM on a quiet Sunday night—a few police cars had rolled by earlier, but the street was empty. The group in the van was tense, expecting an immediate reaction from the police, but as none came, they all relaxed. Hugo Genes, one of the Illuminator crew members decked out in their “Project & Serve” shirts, was on the roof, taking his time to adjust the image for the perfect photo op. It didn’t matter that no one was really around to see it. It’s great to get the crowds, the team from New York City told me, but when they can get a good shot on a quiet street, the pictures they take can still reach millions over social media.
The Illuminator project started up during the height of Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2012, when someone suggested the movement needed a sort of Batman-like «bat-signal.» The result: the now ubiquitous image of «99%» in a white circle, projected against the New York Verizon building and other landmarks across the city. Since then, they’ve done hundreds of projections across various cities. Last week they were out with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, an organization for and led by undocumented youth, for an action calling on New York Governor Mario Cuomo to move forward with immigration reform in the state. One of the messages: “Undocumented. Unafraid. Unapologetic.”
This week, they were busy in Montreal. The night we met, they were able to set up and hold a second projection of a cop with a baton menacingly raised in the air, with the words «I just obey orders.» The projection only lasted a few minutes before a police van rolled up. Without much warning, a line of five uniformed police were next to the van. Soon, there were four cop cars, and about a dozen police officers.
The projection was off, but the cops were pissed. «We ask that you circulate,» said one cop to the group of ten or so, including the five members of the collective. «It’s illegal to be more than three people on the sidewalk and not circulate.» A few people moved along. Myself and VICE photographer Keith Race split off from the group to hang out separately, within earshot but at a distance.
Hugo, still at the van and identified as the driver, was put through a barrage of tests. Over the next twenty minutes, police officers shone flashlights through the van’s windows and milled around, gathering in a small group a few yards away, clearly trying to figure out what they could charge the group with.
Grayson Earle, another member of the group, wandered closer. «Does this happen often?» I asked. «No, we haven’t been hassled like this since Occupy Wall Street,» he answered.
In their history, they’ve only seen one arrest. It happened at the height of OWS, when one of their members and their van was targeted three days after a projection onto then-New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s home, with the member and van being held for 24 hours. «They felt we’d crossed a line,» said Grayson. Usually the guerrilla projectionists are just asked to stop, and they comply. The group’s mission isn’t to get arrested or get their vehicle impounded—they just want to get as many of their head-turning images up on walls and out over social media as possible.
Back at police HQ, everyone chuckled when Hugo obliged the police by turning the windshield wipers on and off: it’s clear they were looking for any reason to write them up. Eventually they got away with a $53 parking ticket, and a promise that another ticket for an unspecified amount would be in the mail for «driving with a broken parking brake.» «They asked me to drive with the parking brake on,» said Hugo. «Every car can drive with the parking brake on, whether it works or not.»
The band of New Yorkers are in Montreal this week to participate in the Encuentro festival, a bi-annual artistic and academic conference organized by the New York-based Hemispheric Institute. This year’s theme is «Manifest! Choreographing Social Movements in the Americas.» The Illuminators will be some of the hundreds of people in town for the weeklong event to discuss the intersection of art, social justice, and academia.
When they knew they’d be coming to Montreal, they took the chance to organize actions in homage to the 2012 student strike, an event that more than one of the members told me was an inspiration for them while they were organizing in the US.
«Occupy and the student strike happened concurrently. During Occupy, I was looking to them for inspiration,» said Grayson, who spearheaded organizing the Montreal action. «Every single day, there were thousands of people out in the streets fighting for a specific issue. I think it’s something they did right, as compared to what happened at Occupy Wall Street.»
They also see the importance of making these issues international. While many in New York and in the US heard about the student strike—and the police repression that came with it—there’s still a lot more room for discussion. «We need to make these issues cross borders,» he said. “There’s a lot we can learn from each other.”
They’re particularly interested in the parallels of police repression, talking about the ongoing issues around P-6 and the right to protest, and making sure the issue stays fresh in people’s memories.
Earlier in the night, before the police station, they were able to stir up thoughts about the student strike when they projected on the Université de Québec à Montréal at the busy intersection of St-Denis and de Maisonneuve.
For over half an hour they projected images decrying police brutality onto the big brick building. They also premiered a new animation: silhouettes of marchers with red squares carrying signs saying, «On est plus que 50» (“We are more than 50,” a call-back to Bill 78 which placed restrictions on demonstrations with 50 or more people) and «No P-6″—another reference to the anti-protest powers given to police during the strike. Some of those powers have remained and continue to be used to limit public protest in the streets of Montreal, and are the subject of constitutional challenges and proposed class action lawsuits.
«Bon job,» said one woman, who said she was an anthropologist looking at the differences in how the media presents women athletes’ bodies, as compared to men. She wants to organize a similar public projection during next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup taking place in Canada (with matches in Montreal).
For others, it was a reminder of what protest movements can achieve. «It made me feel like everything is possible,» said Arianne responding to the UQÀM projection, saying that it brought back the rush of ups and downs of the strike. «I think [P-6] is still being used to control certain groups of people,» she added.
Illuminator members filmed people’s reactions and thoughts as they came by the un-publicized projection. Their hope is to get people talking about the power of public art and interventions, and maybe inspire people to think of how they interact with public spaces and what interventions they can bring. They also recognize that they’re not the first to do this, even in Montreal (some might remember the projections on buildings across Montreal during the student strike, which have since disappeared).
But they’re hoping to share some of their know-how while they are here in Montreal, they put together a how-to video about one of their innovations—the People’s Pad, where people can write messages, which are then projected directly onto a wall. “It’s actually not all that complicated,” said Grayson, explaining that you just need a tricked out milk carton with some LED lights, a pen, a webcam, a laptop and a projector. And of course, a big wall to project it onto.
Beyond Montreal, they’ve also been in close contact with guerrilla projectionists in Brazil who have been protesting against FIFA and Brazilian government’s assault on the poor during the World Cup. «It feels good to know that you’re not just projecting in your own city,» said Hugo, who was recently in Brazil.
As they eventually rolled away in the van to the sounds of the Ramones on the speakers, gas fumes slowly dissipating and the equipment rattling, there was a sense of relief in the truck. They got a small fine, no one was arrested, and the Illuminators will roll again to project another day.