As America's first reality-TV president made his improbable ascent to the White House this January and anti-Trump demonstrations took place around the world, the message of the humble protest sign once again reverberated. Gaining traction through the shareability of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, these simple but effective means of communication were suddenly reaching people who had never even set foot at a demonstration. Our favorites: "Girls just want to have fundamental human rights" or "Not usually a sign guy but geez." But really, there were many that caught our eye. A generation schooled on the short, sharp shock of social media is well equipped at stating its case within a limited character space. There isn't one particular image that springs to mind when you think of these protests — no flowerpower or CND sign — just a pile of meme-friendly slogans that hark back to a more homespun time of DIY creativity. Paints and pens act as a very tangible marker during a time of post-truth and fake news.
To surmise, protest signs are ace and we're not the only ones who think so. Captured in a new film series by director Ivan Cash, writer Mike Reiner, and producer Janice Echevarria, Signs of the Times is an ongoing project that aims to document the diverse collection of placards from all different types of people and cultures. Hearing from the "sign holder" — but never seeing the individual's face — the aim is tell the story behind the sign.
"In these adversarial times, protest signs have become works of art," say the team, over email. "They have come to represent the single idea people want to share with the world. And they're being held up by all types of people: children, men, women, transgendered folks, all connected by having an important message to voice to the world." Find out more about the project below.
Can you explain where the idea for Signs of the Times first came from?
All: We wondered what it'd look like to document a diverse collection of protest signs from all types of people and cultures, interviewing the "sign holders" to learn the story behind them. We specifically sought out signs that felt personal rather than coming from internet memes. We're hoping this San Francisco version is just episode one, and that we'll be able to make (either on our own or with partners) a larger series of films documenting the art of protest both nationally and worldwide.
Why is now an apt time to be making it?
Ivan: I can't remember a more divisive time in America in my lifetime. And more people than ever are taking to the streets and protesting. It feels important as an artist and documentary filmmaker to honor and capture this unique time in our nation's history and culture. I also feel like we communicate in echo chambers and my hope with this film series is that it transcends political/ideological jargon and touches people on a personal, human level, regardless of their political background. I think both sides need empathy for each other and simply demonizing "the other side" is a cop out in my eyes.
What sorts of people make signs? Why do you think they do it?
Mike: We've seen just about every type. I think they do it for solidarity. A lot of people held them as a way to support those being targeted by our administration. We often heard that while the sign holder didn't feel currently feel at risk in America, they couldn't stand by and watch injustice fall on others.
Would you say there's a link between crisis and creativity?
Ivan: I do think that struggle, be it on a personal or global level, can make us more creative. It challenges our sense of self, our sense of stability, and makes us reach deep for answers. Creativity is complex and dynamic. When things are too stable, one might not be as inclined to search for answers in new, innovative ways.
Do you have a favorite?
Mike: My favorite has to be the puffy ball airplane that said, "Welcome immigrants." After hearing the simplicity of this woman's idea — "I imagine it would be very scary to come to a new country. I think the friendlier we can be the better it is for the whole world" — it was just so spot on.
How important was it for you that you never see the sign holders face, only their message?
All: We thought the added twist of never seeing the person's face (only their sign) could be powerful and allow viewers to focus on the message they wanted to get across without inherent bias or judgement based on appearance. Showing faces would divert our attention. By not showing them it also adds to the universality of their stories, because we all know people just like the ones at the protest.
Where are you visiting next?
All: We already went to a protest in Sacramento, and now we're trying to raise funds to do a cross country road trip to visit protests of all kinds (both sides of the political landscape) across the country. While we certainly have strong opinions about the current state of affairs in America, we tried our best to walk a fine line of simply capturing people's stories, rather than serving an underlying agenda. We're currently looking for a pro-Trump rally to do a companion piece, which we'd hope to make in an equally compelling way.
Text Matthew Whitehouse