80 artists wrote messages in the skies above ICE detention centers

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Over Independence Day Weekend, 80 artists asked Americans to look up at the skies. Throughout July 3 and 4, messages related to immigration were written at 10,000 feet by World War II military planes, sky-typed over 80 sites related to the country’s network of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities, immigration courts, and the southern border. The idea was to bring attention to these facilities, which may not be familiar to many Americans.

The project “In Plain Sight” is led by Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artists Rafa Esparza and Cassils.

“(We have) come together to fight the culture of incarceration and focus (our) attention on abolishing ICE,” said Cassils over a video call.

The artists involved included Hank Willis Thomas and Dread Scott; Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors; artist and TV producer Zackary Drucker; and designer and former Black Panther member Emory Douglas. Each artist chose a message to have temporarily written in the sky above a particular site.
"NO MORE CAMPS" by curator Karen Ishizuka over the Santa Anita Assembly Center, California, captured in the "In Plain Sight " 4th Wall AR app.

“NO MORE CAMPS” by curator Karen Ishizuka over the Santa Anita Assembly Center, California, captured in the “In Plain Sight ” 4th Wall AR app. Credit: 4th Wall App / Nancy Baker Cahill / Message “NO MORE CAMPS” by Karen Ishizuka

The phrases — such as “No More Camps,” and “Freedom” — brought attention to the network of upwards of 200 detention centers — which are often privately run — that is webbed throughout the US. Cassils estimates that each skytyped message was visible to about 3 million people in big cities, up to 20 miles away.
The phrases ended with the hashtag #xmap, directing viewers to the project’s Instagram page and site, xmap.us. There, they were able to enter their zip code into an interactive map to see how many ICE facilities are near them.

“Some of (the facilities) are in the middle of nowhere, but some of them are in your city center, interwoven into our urban landscape,” said Cassils.

Artist and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors' message "Care Not Cages" over the Los Angeles County Jail on July 3.

Artist and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors’ message “Care Not Cages” over the Los Angeles County Jail on July 3. Credit: Chris Mastro

The team behind “In Plain Sight” has partnered with grassroots organizations and nonprofits around the US — including the ACLU of Southern California and Detention Watch Network. “We see the work not as artists being activists, but artists amplifying the work that activists already do so well,” said Cassils.

Also through the website, viewers can learn how to contribute, from joining the #FreeThemAll campaign to donating to the #MeltICE Freedom Fund.

The project comes at a time when tens of thousands of people are kept in ICE detention facilities as the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in the United States. In May, it was reported that detainees were participating in hunger strikes; more recently, a judge ruled that all children held at ICE family facilities must be released because of the pandemic.
Artist Tina Takemoto's message "Not Forgotten" over federal prison Terminal Island in San Diego on July 3.

Artist Tina Takemoto’s message “Not Forgotten” over federal prison Terminal Island in San Diego on July 3. Credit: Mark Von Holden

The messaging is “a poetic act that stays in the sky — if the wind is behaving — for up to 10 minutes,” Cassils said. However the project will be extended via an augmented reality app that shows the messages virtually.

Over the South Texas ICE Processing Center, which has a unit for transgender women, Zackary Drucker, a consultant on “Transparent,” chose the Spanish phrase “Nosotras te vemos,” (We see you), a reference to the proclamation from former attorney general Loretta Lynch to the transgender community in 2016. “(It’s) the feminine version of the phrase, a subtle way of recognizing one femme to another,” said Drucker, who is trans, in an email. “I want to convey a message of unity to the transgender women and to all the people living in forced detention.”

Along the US-Mexico border, at the Laredo Juarez-Lincoln Port of Entry, viewers could hear from detainees themselves. Artist Devon Tsuno’s message was the phone number 956-701-0149; when called, it played the written correspondence of immigrants who have been kept in custody. “(Tsuno) used this platform to literally amplify the voices of people that are in detention.” Esparza said.

Artist Beatriz Cortez's message "No Cages No Jualas" over a Los Angeles immigration court on July 3.

Artist Beatriz Cortez’s message “No Cages No Jualas” over a Los Angeles immigration court on July 3. Credit: Dee Gonzalez

Landmarks related to immigration are included as well. Over Ellis Island in New York, where the Statue of Liberty raises her torch, Dread Scott’s message was a name: Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, an immigrant who died in an ICE facility from the coronavirus, in May. The statue is “a symbol of freedom,” Scott said over email. “It is important to have a message that is dissonant with that image.”

The company flying the planes is the Skytypers Air Show Team, who come together in a planned formation, ensuring the smoke released from each plane combines to form a message.

“Skytyping is a methodology for delivering proud country messages on the Fourth of July,” Cassils said. “(We delivered) these different kinds of sentiments that bring into question where we’re at as a country in this moment and what it means to be an American. “This is not a dissenting artwork; this is actually a very patriotic artwork.”

The article has been updated to reflect that not all artists involved in the “In Plain Sight” project are American.

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