It’s 9:15 p.m. on a warm August night — five days after an anti-racist protester was run over and killed in Charlottesville, two days after President Trump angrily insisted there was “blame on both sides” of the white-supremacist demonstration there — and, in Washington, a projectionist provocateur named Robin Bell is about to light up the night. Like a hit-and-run editorial writer, Bell, 39, has flashed dozens of messages and images on the architecture of federal power since Election Day. The creation that garnered the widest attention debuted in May, when a series of phrases suddenly appeared in giant lighted capital letters over an entrance to the Trump International Hotel in Washington: “EMOLUMENTS WELCOME,” “OPEN 24 HOURS” and “PAY TRUMP BRIBES HERE,” accompanied by a glowing arrow pointing to the entry arch. Then the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause itself scrolled across the facade, a reference to the controversy over whether Trump is improperly profiting from foreign governments doing business with his properties.
Tonight, Bell and his crew are again parked across the street from Trump’s hotel. He has decided his response to Charlottesville will come as a projection triptych conveying distinct moods, displayed in separate parts of downtown, with videos of the action streamed on Twitter. Betraying a touch of pre-showtime jitters, he told me earlier, “I’m not 100 percent certain this will work.”
Outside the hotel, a practiced mission discipline takes hold of Bell’s group. Each person has a role: a police liaison to sweet-talk security and buy time, a videographer and a photographer to document the scene, and two production assistants. They set up a two-wheel handcart that has been modified with shelves and platforms to hold a truck battery, an inverter to convert DC power to AC power, a projector and Bell’s laptop. A tattoo of Don Quixote peeks from beneath the sleeve of Bell’s T-shirt as they wheel the cart up the block and stop opposite the hotel entrance. He aims the projector, and 8,000 lumens of bright white light smack the darkened stone facade. For a frantic half-minute — the half-minute Bell always pre-apologizes for, because he knows he will get just a little tense and snippy — they adjust the height of the projection while Bell strafes his keyboard to fix the size and shape of the display. “Out of my way, out of my way,” he barks. “Up, up. Shims. Little bit. There you go. That’s it. Just — even, even, even, even!”
An announcement appears above the glittering sign of the hotel, in letters three times the size of the golden “Trump”: “THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES IS A KNOWN RACIST AND A NAZI SYMPATHIZER.” That line disappears and is followed by: “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Then, “WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE TO STAND UP AND END WHITE SUPREMACY,” and “#RESIST.” And repeat.
As visually arresting as this is, to me the projection lacks the ameliorating whimsy of some of his other work. Bell told me this was intentional; he considered it a simple statement of fact, based on Trump’s rhetoric and positions — although among the president’s comments in the days after Charlottesville was a condemnation of “racism” as well as “the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”
A stream of cars passes, but hardly anyone is on the sidewalk. One of the first to notice the display is a hotel security guard, who crosses the street. Samantha Miller, the police liaison, cheerfully greets him. He studies the projection with an inscrutable smile. He asks if this is the same group that’s done this before.
“It’s popular,” Miller says, not exactly acknowledging that, in fact, this is their seventh projection visit to the hotel. “We won’t be long.”
The guard asks that they not shine light into the hotel’s windows.
“No, no, we’re keeping it under the windows,” Miller assures him. “Wouldn’t want to disturb all those nice guests inside.”
“Much appreciated,” says the guard.
Two college students who used to live in Iran marvel at the free expression. An African American couple walking to their car after dinner say they’re glad Bell is using his white privilege to speak out. “If I had done this right now, I’d probably be arrested,” says one of the pair, Brandon Marshall, from Prince George’s County.
“I think it’s awesome, all caps,” says Marshall’s dinner partner, Crystal Scott, who posts a picture to Facebook.
Another couple approaches. “What’s happening?” asks the man.
Bell fills him in. Zach — no last name, please — is a 28-year-old Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and is now a graduate student, trying to protect his ability to get a job in the government. He and his girlfriend just moved to town and were checking out the monuments when they saw this.
“I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” Zach tells me. “The first among those rights is the right to free speech. It’s pretty incredible that probably not a quarter-mile from the house where the president lives, citizens can come out here and project statements that are unequivocally critical directly onto his property. I think it’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful feature of this country. I’ve been to places where this sort of thing would be lethal for the artist. So I love this. And I love that he’s not afraid.”
There are other perspectives, of course, such as one I find later from a viewer on Twitter, where the audience for one of Bell’s projections can number in the tens of thousands: “Cool, your mom taught you how to use an overhead projector and you call it art so people will tolerate your message.”
For weeks I’ve been wrestling with my own thoughts about Bell’s projections. That Bell is a provocative and novel messenger is clear. But what is it about such a simple conceit — putting words temporarily on the building implicated in the message — that we find so mesmerizing? And while Bell’s fleeting jeremiads certainly take us by surprise, what, if anything, do they leave us with when the message goes dark?
The fountainhead of protest projections in Washington was a legendary demonstration in 1989. The arts community was in an uproar over the Corcoran Gallery’s decision to cancel a controversial exhibit by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In response, laser artist Rockne Krebs projected 50-foot enlargements of 10 images of Mapplethorpe’s work on the gallery’s facade. The protest drew more than 900 people and revealed the asymmetrical power of projections as a political weapon. The unauthorized images cast upon the building had the effect of shining a light into what some saw as the corrupted soul of the institution.
Bell — who reveres Krebs — is jovial and diffident in person, more in keeping with the wry twinkle of some of his projections than the strident condemnations of his others. One evening in his Mount Pleasant studio, he tells me how he came to his distinctive art form. He first studied printmaking at Northern Virginia Community College and on an exchange program in Florence, but video stole his passion in 2000 when he joined a generation of young videographers documenting the anti-globalization and antiwar movements sweeping European capitals and Washington. He started mixing video montages behind DJs in clubs and making music videos with politically inclined bands and rappers.
One of his first significant video projections came during the “Sorry State of the Union,” a madcap live event that took place on the Mall during George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address, as the Iraq War loomed. Bell’s multilayered, fast-paced collages of armies, commercials, politicians, surreal beasts and more played on a screen behind bands and speakers.
Mainstream gigs came his way as well. He edited videos for a political consultant, was hired to work on “Foreign Exchange With Fareed Zakaria” on PBS and taught at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. He was the videographer for the local band Thievery Corporation’s record label and also made the independent feature documentary “Positive Force: More Than a Witness” (2014), about the evolution of a storied D.C. punk collective that combined music, art and social action.
Over the past several years — as affordable yet powerful projectors became much more compact than in Krebs’s day — Bell began experimenting with taking projections out of clubs and studios, and going mobile. In 2013, working with the American Civil Liberties Union on a project called “Stop Watching Us,” Bell and a team carried a projector around town and beamed imagery critical of surveillance by the National Security Agency under the Obama administration.
The 2016 presidential campaign coincided with Bell’s mastery of the medium, and the subsequent triumph of Trump only increased demand for his work. He went from doing a handful of projections per year to one or more per week. The high stakes of the new political era made the traditional protest tool kit of banners, spray paint and wheat paste seem old school — and Bell was perfectly placed to provide an attention-grabbing alternative. “Right after the election, a bunch of artists I know, we all felt like ... maybe some of the ways that we’re communicating aren’t clear,” he says. The projections are “a form of retooling a little bit.”
Bell’s projections now come regularly enough that during especially volatile news cycles, it’s like sensing mayhem in Gotham and looking out for a bat signal. Some of them — such as the emoluments piece and the Charlottesville response — are created by him and his team on their own. But other projections — such as the 2013 ACLU project — are paid collaborations with nonprofit groups pushing causes he believes in: Amnesty International, MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club and others. Bell creates videos of the projections that the clients later feature in catchy social media campaigns.
He won’t say how much he charges for projections, in part so he can be flexible depending on the complexity of a project and the client’s means. One of his clients told me a projection costs in the “few thousand dollars” range. Expenses include paying his crew for several hours of night work, participating in planning meetings about messaging and the overhead of a professional artist. His margins, he tells me, are thin. A $100 parking ticket is enough to bust a hole in a budget.
Clients say that in addition to his mastery of the technology and logistics of projection, Bell helps hone their messages to expressions that will blaze memorably on the side of a building. Amnesty International USA, for instance, enlisted Bell to produce three projections around the ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries — one at Dulles International Airport, one on the Customs and Border Protection building and one on the Trump hotel. Eric Ferrero, a deputy executive director with the organization, tells me, “The projections are a way to be frankly more in your face, and to deliver a strong, clear message right to the doorstep of power.”
Rather than simply flash slides or transparencies, as Krebs did on the Corcoran, Bell constructs projections with video-editing and motion graphics software. Other software lets him “map” the imagery, or shape it, so that it fits like custom wallpaper. Words flow up and down columns and across the bases of pediments. Images seem light-painted onto panels of limestone and granite.
But just like Krebs at the Corcoran, Bell’s projections call into question the nature of the work being done inside the buildings. On the facade of the Department of the Interior, he unspooled the names of national open-space monuments being considered for reductions in size. At the Customs and Border Protection headquarters, he shined quotes, supplied by Amnesty, from immigrants or refugees who could be affected by the travel ban. In his collaboration with MoveOn.org, Bell projected the phrases “Investigate Sessions” (referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions) and “Investigate Trump” on the Justice Department. When an oversize animated magnifying glass passed over the words, the letters changed from English to Cyrillic, the alphabet used for Russian.
Now, at 10:20 p.m., it’s on to round two of Bell’s Charlottesville response. He parks across from the Newseum, whose large panel displaying the text of the First Amendment is one of his favorite walls to project on. This time the team places the projector on the roof of Bell’s van, and after the requisite frantic half-minute, a simple set of billboard-size characters appears 30 feet above the avenue: “HEATHER HEYER 1985-2017.” Bell aims his phone at the image to video-record a minute of silence in memory of the woman who was killed in Charlottesville.
The voice of a girl walking with her parents pipes up above the sound of traffic. “Look at that!” 9-year-old Bianca Gorbenko squeals. Her father, Alex, looks up, sees the name, “and all of the sudden I get this chill,” he tells me moments later. “I get this absolute chill in my body.”
The family, from Long Beach, Calif., had been distressed by Charlottesville and Trump’s equivocating comments. Now here, somehow, on a wall in the nation’s capital, was the sum of their anger and dismay simultaneously boiled down and blown up.
“I hope her death isn’t in vain,” says Linda Gorbenko.
Bianca chimes in again: “Dad, look, it keeps on doing different things!” Bell has changed the projection after the minute of silence to show the earlier message. Bianca reads along out loud: “This is not a drill. We are all responsible to stand up.”
Next Bell projects his Swamp Monsters — a series of gargantuan portraits of Trump and his inner circle that he has been projecting around town. They are based on photographs that he has turned creepy with the slightest touch-ups, adding a tiny nod of the head, a slow blink, a dash of eye color, or a glimpse of teeth.
“Fantastic,” says Alex.
But Linda Gorbenko disagrees with Bell’s monstrous take on one of Trump’s generals. “I think this guy actually wants to do the right thing,” she says. “I really want to think he’s a patriot.”
I’ve seen Bell’s projections have this effect before. Passersby are drawn in by the sheer spectacle — as Bell told me, the most important criterion for a successful piece is that, “at the end of the day, it has to look cool” — and suddenly the sidewalk becomes a forum, where some members of the audience clarify their own thinking in relation to Bell’s outspokenness. Witnesses complete the projection, until Bell pulls the plug, and then strangers, temporarily dazzled and united by contemplation, scatter.
Several weeks earlier, at the opening of an exhibit of “resistance” art at the Zenith Gallery, Bell is projecting his Swamp Monsters on the ceiling. He has become a bit of a celebrity. Painters, sculptors and art collectors press in to shake his hand. Japanese public television interviews him.
A painter steps up and asks, “What’s the most common question you get?”
Without a pause, Bell replies, “Is it legal?”
Indeed, the aura of transgression — the suspicion that Bell could be skirting the law — likely explains part of the appeal of his art. But the projections are probably legal. That, at least, was the conclusion of Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA who examined Bell’s projections in light of legal precedents and posted an analysis on his blog, the Volokh Conspiracy, which is published on The Washington Post’s website. Volokh cited an apposite case from Nevada, where a state appeals court held that there was nothing illegal about a union projecting a message onto an employer’s wall. Trespass, the court noted, is usually defined as an invasion by a physical object, or when intangible matter, such as pollution from a factory, causes substantial damage to property. So the projections can’t really be classified as a form of trespass. And they probably aren’t a nuisance either: “It would be hard to show that a projected message is a ‘nuisance’ in the legal sense of the word,” Volokh wrote, “at least unless the message causes some harmful physical effects,” such as “it shines brightly into some guests’ windows and keeps them up at night.”
Justice on the streets, however, ends up being more of a negotiated concept. Some nights Bell projects as long as he likes, undisturbed. Other times, interactions with security officers ensue at varying levels of intensity. I was tagging along when Bell was at the Department of Veterans Affairs, projecting “WHERE IS THE DEBATE ON AFGHANISTAN?” and “STOP THE #WARMACHINE.” (The piece was pegged to “War Machine,” the recent film starring Brad Pitt, a satirical depiction of U.S. futility in Afghanistan.) Within seconds a security guard came striding toward the projector. “Hey, man, shut that s--- down. Shut it down!” Bell introduced himself and stuck out his hand, which the guard did not shake.
“Right now you’re putting something on a government federal building,” the guard said.
“I know that’s what I’m doing.”
“You cannot do that, sir.”
“Actually, I can.”
The guard pulled out his retractable baton but did not raise it. Bell decided it wasn’t the moment to assert what he considered his rights. The projection had been up for about three minutes, which was long enough to make a video and stills for social media.
Later, I asked the D.C. police about Bell’s projections. A spokeswoman wrote in an email: “There is no indication that a crime has been committed.” (A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.)
Over the course of three nights in six projection locations, I never saw a member of the public react with hostility — though Bell says it does happen. “The projections offer a venue for someone to come in and talk,” he says. “But if someone is so ideological they can’t even talk, unfortunately, there’s not much my medium can do with that. ... You might not agree with me, but at least you can acknowledge we’re having this conversation.” Of course, the nature of the medium means that Bell gets the last word.
Judiciary Square is deserted at 10:50 p.m. when Bell pulls up for the third part of his Charlottesville trilogy. He can already tell that the video streams of the night’s work are drawing intense interest. They will ultimately log nearly 370,000 viewers.
He carries a small projector to a wall in front of a statue of Albert Pike, a Confederate general and member of the nativist Know-Nothing Party who rewrote “Dixie” to better inspire Confederate soldiers. (He is honored by Masons for his work building Freemasonry after the Civil War.)
Bell sees an opportunity here to project forward to future actions. A local movement is calling for the removal of the Pike statue, and he wants to join the national wave of dismantling statues in the way a projectionist can. He switches on the projector. A dotted line appears across the base of the statue. A pair of scissors cuts along the line, again and again. Below is the instruction: “REMOVE RACISM ABOVE LINE.”
A few people glimpse it through the windows of passing cars. The only pedestrian is a corrections employee getting off work who says, “Wow, looks pretty good.”
Bell silently tracks the course of the tireless anti-racist scissors. “My job in general is pretty easy,” he says. “The people who are doing the day-to-day work, that’s the hard stuff. Being on the street. The people in Charlottesville. The idea is that this stuff hopefully inspires people, lets them know they’re being heard, and motivates them.” Finally, after about 20 minutes, he switches off the projector. The statue withdraws into the shadows, and it’s as if nothing happened here at all.
David Montgomery is a staff writer for the magazine.
Email us at email@example.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.