Scattered Light: Ephemeral Action, Protest, and Circulating Imagery

“They all regret that the law of the Kingdom sentences me to death. […] A swift stroke of the sword will cut off my head, like a spring flower the Lord of the garden cuts for His pleasure. We are all flowers planted on this earth, which God plucks in His own good time, some a little sooner, some later. […] I, a small, ephemeral thing, go first. Adieu.”

– Jean-Théophane Vénard in a letter to Phung Vo, dated February 2, 1861 [1]

Allan Kaprow,  Fluids , as recreated at the Neue Nationalgalerie on September 16, 2015 with support from the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo copyright of Thomas Bruns.

Allan Kaprow, Fluids, as recreated at the Neue Nationalgalerie on September 16, 2015 with support from the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo copyright of Thomas Bruns.

The hologram was projected for no more than twenty minutes on a floating cloud of ash in the early morning. The left side of the subject’s face disappeared into the shadows of the dark blue sky. Columns of hazy smoke billowed up nearby, supporting the image on a luminous, fluctuating cloud. While the image was held together by particulates drifting in the slight wind, light filtered through where the haze broke, tossing the image between bare branches, and the triangular absences between them, to form a fragmented head and shoulders.

Cast askance by a whirring projector bulb, the image seemed to sit off-kilter and slightly behind the empty cavity of a stone pillar which, until recently, had been occupied by a physical statue. The authoritative light projection at the pillar’s base revealed its inscription: “SNOWDEN.” A ghost who dissipated immediately after its appearance—only the image’s producers and a few early morning joggers paused long enough to witness the action.

The Illuminator Art Collective—the activists behind the hologram—packed up their projection equipment and electrical generators and headed home from Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park.The hovering hologram had been placed alongside the other statues and pillars in the park’s Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, a memorial dedicated to the US soldiers killed after being held in maritime detention aboard British ships during the Revolutionary War. The site provides a politically-laden context for the work. After leaking top-secret US surveillance documents, Edward Snowden was pursued and threatened with detention should he travel beyond his asylum in Moscow—tying his experience and legacy to the 18th century detained revolutionaries, to which the monument is dedicated.

The hologram’s installation was not the first attempt to memorialize Snowden. A physical bust of Snowden along with a label had been installed on the same pillar the day before, only to be promptly removed by the New York Police Department.

Left: light projection of the Snowden monument by the Illuminator Art Collective, April 7, 2015. ; Right: original sculptural intervention  Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0  by Jeff Greenspan, Andrew Tider, and Doyle Trankina, as seen the previous day. . Both images accessed publicly on the artists' websites.

Left: light projection of the Snowden monument by the Illuminator Art Collective, April 7, 2015.; Right: original sculptural intervention Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0 by Jeff Greenspan, Andrew Tider, and Doyle Trankina, as seen the previous day. Both images accessed publicly on the artists' websites.

The previous intervention, also short-lived but far more material than the the Illuminators’ hologram, was the result of a small group of artists—New York City-based Jeff Greenspan and Andrew Tider, as well as West Coast sculptor Doyle Trankina—aiming to memorialize the whistleblower and call attention to the US government’s harsh reaction. [2] Titled the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0 and camouflaged among other city park public memorials, their Snowden memorial towers above an eagle with wings outspread. Four-foot tall and made from one hundred pounds of hydrocal plaster, the appearance of the statue is weighty, as though made of bronze. Its effect is both imposing and reverent. [3]

Monument 2.0 aimed to upend the public conversation on Snowden, who had been portrayed throughout the mainstream media as a traitor on the lam, and to recognize him as deserving of public, national honor by placing the bust alongside the park’s monumentalized soldiers. Snowden’s expression matches the staid mien of a typical monument. He seems unfazed by accusations of malfeasance.

Upon discovery of the monument, two New York City Park officers covered the statue with a tarpaulin until it could be taken into police custody, submitted as evidence of vandalism, and catalogued. When the officers arrived to fasten the tarp across the statue’s face, clambering up the memorial, they hoist themselves up, treading on the bronzed head and wings of the bald eagle, unfettered by allegory. Immortalized in the recurring loops of the short-form, video hosting service Vine, the moment mutates into a parody of justice: the officers’ act as a covering and binding of state secrets; the quotidian denial of transparency; and a continued effort to keep democracy under foot, nearly two years after Snowden’s actual leaks.

Tagged and transported in NYPD vans, the statue was impounded and held in police custody Exactly one month later, the artists negotiated its return with the help of civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who represented the artists against the City of New York and arranged for the statue’s reclamation in exchange for each artist’s acceptance of the summons and fifty dollar fine for after-hours trespassing.

Unlike this physical intervention, the Illuminator Art Collective’s hologram was treated as neither a legal violation nor a threat by authorities. The activists did not conceal their identities, publicly claiming the temporary artwork as their own. While they have, on occasion, run into legal and police trouble during their political actions, it has rarely inhibited their work. After they staged their holographic intervention, recording as they went, they left the park without conflict. The two interventions envisioned near-identical images, but the prompt response of authorities was radically different when the Snowden statue was installed than when the hologram was projected.

Moreover, since the physical sculpture and projected light were both interpreted in online arenas, the in-person experience became a footnote in the political and artistic experience.

"To me it’s about, if someone removes the statue, that the idea and the conversation can still take place, even though that material structure is gone,” said Grayson Earle, one member of the Illuminator Art Collective. “We just want people to know the spirit of Edward Snowden is alive and well if we want it to be.”

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0  being covered with a tarp by New York City Park officers on April 6, 2015. 

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2.0 being covered with a tarp by New York City Park officers on April 6, 2015. 

In some ways, Earle’s phrasing around conversation after the disappearance of a material structure draws from, and upon, many avant garde theories in art history. Whether a Dada-like inflection of art into life, Conceptualism’s erasure of the commercialized art object, or the Duchampian forsaking of craft for readymade objects, his remarks recall a familiar thread of artists pushing up against established definitions of filigreed-objects and physical limitations.

This reliance on the continuation of a conversation sans materiality (and in spite of it) is one with historical precedence in modern art practices of the 1950s and 60s, exemplified in many of the events and exhibitions organized by American performance artist, instructor, and theoretician Allan Kaprow. In the late 1950s, Kaprow developed a form of social and ephemeral performance known as happenings—events, which reimagined gestural abstraction as participatory action in dynamic, three-dimensional space. One happening in particular, titled Fluids (1967), combined the short-lived nature of performed action with the slow transition from material to immaterial artwork. Fluids developed from a basic premise: a crew of participants built architectural enclosures using ice blocks. The imposing structures shed their authority as the blocks slowly melted, collapsing finally into a tepid puddle on the floor. At eight feet tall and eighty feet around their perimeter, the blueprint of Fluids was constructed around twenty times, meaning many ice enclosures were built and left in public spaces throughout Pasadena and Los Angeles. The Southern California heat acted quickly. The happening was at once a sculptural intervention, a social event, and a conversation for members of the public who came across the disappearing structures, and those who built it. Happenings like Fluids provide a useful reference point for the history of social actions and performance in public space and their infinite echos.

Image from the collection of the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo copyright of Julian Wasser.

Image from the collection of the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo copyright of Julian Wasser.

"It follows that audiences should be eliminated entirely." 
Allan Kaprow, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings,” 1965

As readers googling and scrolling our way through current events, we cannot know precisely what occurred on that morning in Fort Greene Park. We cannot visit the projection, now housed online as a series of images, while the ash has floated off and the projectors are packed away. Instead, we must rely on translations produced by the artists and an unknown (and likely insignificant) number of viewers.

The Snowden hologram and sculpture exist within the realm of art, as they reimagine the public monument by referencing the classical style of a bust. In this way, it is unlike many contemporary protests publicized in the media, which are relegated to sphere of political action. Nevertheless, once converted into a series of images circulating in the media, it conforms to the same standards as many other political actions and acts of protest. It becomes a digitally-broadcast action.

The performance of the event—the placement of the statue, projection of the hologram, or even the construction of ice-block buildings—goes unwitnessed and unattended by the majority of its audience. In addition, the event itself is ephemeral. The statue is removed, the projection switched off, and the frozen structures melt away.

As with many of the increasingly frequent digitally-broadcast protest images circulating through media and online sites, one must consider these ephemeral events as a performance of closely-choreographed moments. They are in part prepared for the experience in situ, but critically, their choreography extends to their transmission through digital media as images.

The audience, therefore, is transformed—not as Kaprow envisioned his audience becoming present and active participants or part of the very makeup of the happening. Rather than taking on the role of participant, the audience in these temporary interventions acts as a vast panoply of passengers, observers, and adjudicators, permitting or prohibiting the flow of reported information, imbuing their own biases on the success, relevance, and perceived stance of politicized moments of expression.

Many of us have taken on these roles, of observing and opining as passengers on political activity. Others are more active participants, joining in during marches and organized political events. And strangely, with today’s swollen social media industry, we are given increasing opportunities as both audience and participant in political forces, both democratizing and reactionary. This increased participation and awareness, however, comes with its own conflicts.

Spread from the publication  Allan Kaprow: Fluids  (Cologne: Walter König, 2007). Book design by P. Hermann and FLAG, Zurich.

Spread from the publication Allan Kaprow: Fluids (Cologne: Walter König, 2007). Book design by P. Hermann and FLAG, Zurich.

Happenings should be performed once only.
 Kaprow, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings”

Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker article collected new literature and scholarship on the act of protest in the digital era, addressing the skeptic’s perspective: “Is protest a productive use of our political attention? Or is it just a bit of social theatre we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right?” [6]

Heller frequently quotes Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish ‘techno-sociologist’ who has taught at the School of Information and Library Science (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) as well as the Berkman Center for Internet and Society (Harvard University). Her recently published Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest simultaneously expresses enthusiasm for and frustration with large-scale, digitally-networked protests, noting their successful and rapid assembly of crowds in contrast with their less-effective production of political change. Tufekci employs a cynical portmanteau, adhocracy, to describe her anxiety around the adhoc nature of digitally-networked populist movements and their potential for failure. As Heller quips, “Digital-age movements tend to be organizationally toothless, good at barking at power but bad at forcing ultimatums or chewing through complex negotiations.” [7]

Within the context of globalized, digitized culture, tactical shifts and cohesive decisions are often harder to arrange. Tufekci is familiar with the unease induced by digitally-organized protests, many of which seem to fall apart at exactly the wrong moments. Although it may have become simpler today to assemble a crowd, what has been gained in mass has somehow lost traction through organizational failures. Many movements cannot change direction when the moment comes to bargain.

Heller reiterates these frustrations by revisiting Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ tome Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work [8]. Following in Marxist tradition, the writers arrive at a similar pessimism in their book, dismissing marches and protest as “folk politics,” based more on habitual familiarity and emotional return than on structural success. “If we look at the protests today as an exercise in public awareness, they appear to have had mixed success at best,” they write. “Their messages are mangled by an unsympathetic media smitten by images of property destruction.” [9]

Indeed, on-the-ground organizing can often struggle against the swift currents of mass media reporting and the unpredictable distortions presented through appropriated imagery. The agendas of media outlets and online reposts can be difficult to predict and self-serving. While a heavy statue placed in a park in the early morning is censored by the afternoon, the digital images of the statue and hologram, released online, also find themselves in unfamiliar territory. For actions that gather public attention, the creation of these networks of appropriation and refashioned news stories is often an inevitability.

Rather than decry misunderstood intention, modern political actions might instead aim to experiment with and occupy the site of visual consumption—the slurry of images, video, and textual fragments that can create political awareness, cohesion, and momentum. The space of visual consumption is where the visual makes meaning, and the form of the visual presents us with various possibilities, either democratic or otherwise.

Allan Kaprow:  Fluids , 1967, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). from the collection of the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo copyright of Julian Wasser.

Allan Kaprow: Fluids, 1967, Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (980063). from the collection of the Allan Kaprow Estate and Hauser & Wirth. Photo copyright of Julian Wasser.

"Time, which follows closely on space considerations, should be variable and discontinuous."
 Kaprow, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings”

Circulating imagery through digital formats requires treating images as happenings that, like a melting enclosure or a hologram of a statue, do not require endurance, dissipating in a pool of water or a cloud of ash.

Protest actions, in these instances, may appear fragmented, while actually serving strategic political purposes. Whereas traditional political action may be seen as unsuccessful, more ephemeral models of digitally-broadcast images might not necessarily be measured by a predetermined scale of political effectiveness.

Perhaps digitally-circulated political action falters in giving too much onus to authorship and impact, values that do not lend themselves to circulation, rather than emphasizing the processes of cycle and reformation. Rather than allowing our digitally-broadcast actions to become static visions that cannot travel new routes, we can uphold ephemeral actions and images that decay, transform, and reimagine themselves in the feedback loops and transfer processes of dissemination.

Allan Kaprow placing an ice block during the creation of  Fluids  (1967). Image from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo copyright of Dennis Hopper.

Allan Kaprow placing an ice block during the creation of Fluids (1967). Image from the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo copyright of Dennis Hopper.

"The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible."
 Kaprow, “Untitled Guidelines for Happenings”

This format of political, artistic action proposes a new category of oppositional techniques, in which savviness towards media circulation, digital viral spread, and tactics of presentation borrowed from the worlds of marketing, social media, and promotion become central to the performance of the action. These ephemeral and digitally-broadcast actions are composed of images which circulate rapidly, archive themselves through digital means, and disappear physically after a short period of documentation in the form of “capture and release.”

Most of the images are disseminated on the web, in varying sizes and media. Hito Steyerl [12] proposes that the dispersed, freely transmitted, low-resolution image or video—or as she terms it, the poor image—is critically important to attend to, as it remains enduring and ubiquitous while transmitting ideas across non-institutionalized networks and within multifarious and heavily-trafficked routes, in often-unpredictable ways. [13]

As with the artists who created the ghostlike Snowden apparition are no longer in control of the image of their work, the digital images and videos that circulate online overtake the original image. They jump tracks, serving as lively conversation fodder and reaching far wider audiences as a result.

Pixelated, compressed, and often lacking context, these images rely heavily on interpretation, viewership, and viral spread. They are networked into worldwide webs of distribution and often take blackmarket and illegal routes around commerce. Even when legal, they transform freely across the internet in the style of remix and appropriation. In the process, they exchange values like quality, resolution, and accuracy for transferability, often defining themselves with new values like velocity, intensity, and spread.

As with the poor image, the afterlife of ephemeral actions also find themselves travelling virally, at high velocity, and spreading through both determined (media-influenced) and organic (social media shares and word-of-mouth) processes. They represent a shift in action and authenticity from the actual event—a la performance art—to its image and representation online—as with theater. The original is abandoned in lieu of the action in representation, as an often oppositional practice caught between strategic actors and commercial interests, media moguls, or an earnest attempt to capture a defiance feeling or moment.

Placing these digitally-broadcast protest images in relation to Steyerl’s notion of the poor image, I propose their flexibility. These images do not solely cater to velocity and transferability, swarm circulation, and networked dispersion—but also stutter, stall, and fall apart, the products of internet fads ebbing and decaying. They exist within fleeting socialities in that the networks that contain them are the product of interactions, both human and robotic, which last only as long as the interaction.

Christopher Squier is an artist, writer, and curator living in San Francisco. He is an editor for Dissolve, exhibits with R/SF Projects, and currently works on the Exhibitions team at the San Francisco Art Institute. His research-based practice uses interdisciplinary media to investigate the artifacts of optics, the materiality of light, and the overlapping spaces of design, culture, and violence.

  1. Excerpted from Magalí Arriola essay “Moir petit éphémère (Or How to Narrate One’s Historical Present)”, Danh Vo, [Wād al-hayara] (Cologne: Walther König, 2017), 185  ↩

  2. The artists acted anonymously at the time, later revealing their identities in a legal plea for the return of the bust from the New York Police Department.  ↩

  3. The statue was attached with temporary adhesives to limit any potential damage to the park memorial.  ↩

  4. Nathan Heller, “Out of Action,” New Yorker, 24 August issue (2017): 70  ↩

  5. Heller, “Out of Action,” 75  ↩

  6. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, (London: Verso, 2015/2017)  ↩

  7. Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” e-flux 10 (2009), accessed February 13, 2018,  ↩

  8. “The poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in the class society of appearances, ranked and valued according to its resolution,” writes Steyerl. “The poor image has been uploaded, downloaded, shared, reformatted, and re-edited. It transforms quality into accessibility, exhibition value into cult value, films into clips, contemplation into distraction.”  ↩