SignStorm was an art installation intended as a peaceful act of resistance, a silent rally with signs instead of people.
The purpose of this project was to provide an opportunity for everyone, regardless of their physical limits, to publicly express feelings about our president, our concerns about his chosen cabinet and administration, and fears for the resulting future of this country and our world.
On February 18 of this year, I gathered 150 protest signs and laid them down in a public plaza for all to see. I called this project “SignStorm”, and ever since, various interested parties have been asking me, “when are you planning to do this again? When is the next SignStorm?”
The short answer to this question is, “I wasn’t planning to do it again…” It’s not because I’ve lost any commitment in the causes I believe in. Nor have I lost any of my resources or ability to do it again.
Instead, this is something I’d like to share. I’d love it to be something anyone can do.
Let’s put it this way – If keep it to myself, and I hold another SignStorm, the result is probably an event of about the same size or smaller. However, if I teach people how to hold their own SignStorm wherever they live, it’s not just an event…it’s a MOVEMENT. (Or, it can be, if you want it to be!)
Sounds easy, right? After all, how hard can it be to put a bunch of protest signs down on the pavement?
It depends about how you want to go about it. If you want to just grab a bunch of signs and put them down on the pavement, or at City Hall, or at the park… of course you can do that. It has already happened organically, mostly in conjunction with the larger marches – people set aside their signs and lined them up against a fence after the Women’s March, for example. It is definitely possible to pull off a spontaneous SignStorm, free, without permits. It’s the easiest way – just “piggyback” on another resistance-related march or rally. It’s best to arrange this ahead of time with the event organizers, but if you can do that, you’ve got it made. Signage shows up organically and disappears organically, you already have a public crowd to witness/take photos, and the area has already been reserved with permits by the event organizers, so if you can swing it, this approach is the BEST.
However, not everyone has this kind of easy access to a large event. Some of you might be more isolated. You may need to just hold your own event. And a SignStorm style of event might be just the right kind of thing for your neighborhood, town, or city. Signstorms are quiet and don’t involve huge crowds, and so might be an easier “sell” for your town. SignStorms are also good for special needs groups, disabled, or the elderly, for whom marching is not an option.
I’ll break it down into parts. If you’re going solo, you’d have to handle all the tasks alone, but if you have a team, you can assign a person (or people!) to each part. It is possible to do everything yourself, but having a team helps increase the size and potential impact of your SignStorm event.
- Location and Permits – (do this first!)
Finding the right public location that fits (large enough for the number of signs you predict, flat, preferably protected from the weather in some way) isn’t easy. You’ll need to reserve the space, and secure any permits required for the space on that day. Typically, unless you have your own location, you’ll need to lock this detail down first. Sometimes it can be months before you can reserve that particular plaza/park/lot, because public calendars can fill up – you’ll probably need to go with any dates available.
How did I scout locations for my SignStorm? I looked up my City’s website, and found that they have an Office of Cultural Affairs with locations identified, plus separate web pages that provided just enough information to get started, and plenty of forms to fill out. If your town or city doesn’t seem to have a similar service, ask their information desk. You can ask them something like, “I’d like to hold a temporary art installation downtown. Who do I need to talk to about locations?” Don’t assume the folks who work downtown are going to be more suspicious than helpful. Artistic, cultural, and news-making events can be welcome in any town, big or small. If you hit a wall here, consider asking any local arts organizations for advice.
If I could go back and do it again, I might spend more time and effort trying to find a more physically protected space. I would also do it during summertime, when the weather around here tends to be dry and storm-free. As it turned out, weather was a major issue for our team…not necessarily the rain, but the WIND was the real issue. I used white ceramic tiles and ended up setting the signs against a wall, and even then the wind did keep catching the signs. We considered taping the signs to the concrete or to each other, but I suspected once the signs were attached they might form one big “sail” and we’d lose it all at once! Taping wasn’t a good option either since I wanted to keep my security deposit, and I feared we’d never be able to remove duct tape entirely. In the future, I would consider doing it in a large field or park. If you do it on dirt, consider tent stakes and ropes. Again, feedback from your experience will be helpful to those who try it later, so please share what you did!
Since you’ve now forged ahead and found a good public spot to hold your SignStorm, you might run into some reservation fees. My fees topped out to about $400. This included insurance (required), application and processing, and use fees. The cleaning deposit was just that – a deposit – so I won’t scare you by telling you how much it was. Obviously, if any sort of deposit is required, you want to make sure they hold your credit card number and don’t charge you anything unless you break the deposit conditions. Read, read, read carefully all the instructions and contracts they give you!!!
Anyway, back to the money. So how did I come up with the cash? First, I set up a GoFundMe account, and then I extended the goal to $500 to cover GoFundMe’s own fees and Website fees (required for Publicity, see below). I met my goal about 7 days before the day of the event. You may want to factor in some additional funds for sign making supplies and any advertising you plan to do.
If I did another SignStorm event, I might put more effort toward finding a truly FREE space, donated for the day by a willing sponsor. (If you hold a ‘Storm, I’d love to hear about the free/cheap spaces you all find… then I can add some more good examples to this document.)
Website – I used WIX.com to create an almost-free website to serve as a home base for my SignStorm. You can certainly use another website provider, or just a Facebook Group instead, with an associated Event, or just a Facebook Event. At any rate, choose one place online where all the information for your SignStorm lives, and have every other form of outreach refer back to this central place. The presence of a separate website gives your event some weight and makes it seem more real to outsiders and the media. I used (and continue to use) the website as a place to:
- Keep a copy of the press release available.
- Hold .pdfs of the map, and scans of city ordinances and any other paperwork. Transparency is key.
- Be a central spot for photos and videos of the event.
- Show a schedule and map of the location so people can be prepared and find it on the actual date.
- Allow you to thank people and sponsors who helped.
Local TV/Radio – I wrote up a simple press release and posted it on the SignStorm website. I also printed this out and handed it to the receptionist in the lobby at my local PBS affiliate station. From this, I received a phone call from one of the hosts. This did not result in any coverage, but I feel I got close. If you do this, ask around and find who handles publicity/media for your local non profit or activist group. Pitch your SignStorm to them. If they like it, they might be willing to share their contacts with you.
Local Papers – While I was focusing my attention on my PBS affiliate station, a local paper spontaneously found out about SignStorm, interviewed me, and printed a photo and short article. The best thing about getting coverage like this is it stays in people’s consciousness for longer than a few seconds – don’t knock your local paper! Hit them up, share with them. Don’t wait for them to call you, contact them first. Mail and email them your press release early. That publicity/media person might have just the right email address for you to use!
For more tips about how to contact the media (internet, radio, TV, and print) here’s a very helpful article: https://www.eff.org/electronic-frontier-alliance/media-tips
- Social Media
Facebook – If you’ve been doing any activism lately, you’ve probably noticed that Facebook Groups are where a lot of the action is. This is no accident. Facebook Groups seem to have just the right balance of secrecy/privacy and accessibility.
Check to see if there are any local activist groups who would be willing to help spread the word. Post-election, political action FB groups started popping up everywhere. With their likely agreement, these helpful folks can potentially add your event to their calendar, post on their news feeds, and help you recruit. Try the following search terms to find your local chapters – Together We Will, Indivisible, Resistance, SURJ, Peace and Justice, and ACLU. The Facebook AI will be watching the kinds of things you like and will probably suggest related groups. My suggestion is to start with your own like-minded friends and ask them outright what groups they already belong to and recommend. Then, join in and propose your SignStorm project!
You can then use Facebook to create your SignStorm Event, and start inviting people who show an interest. Never invite people “cold” – people hate aggressive recruiting.
Twitter – I did not make a special SignStorm twitter account but I did establish two hashtags, and leveraged these from my personal account. (#signstorm and #signstormsj, for SignStorm San Jose). If you decide to use Twitter, please use #signstorm plus your own personal version. If you want to remain anonymous, you might want to consider posting to the local activist group’s account with their permission. The best thing to do with Twitter in my opinion is to angle for a retweet from someone who has a huge number of followers. Whether or not you use Twitter will depend on how your friends use Twitter. To be honest, Twitter didn’t really serve my needs for recruitment or organization, but I did value Twitter as a form of pure outreach. After all, what’s an event like this unless a lot of people know about it? Get those retweets and spread the word.
- Sign Making/Collection
The first thing I did was tell everyone I knew in the local art scene what I planned to do. Luckily, a local art supply store owner I knew was sympathetic to the cause. I asked if his shop could be a collection point for the signs, and he agreed. Having a business or businesses that offer to hang on to donated signs for you helps both you and the business owner…you don’t have to have strangers come to your house, and the shop gets a little added foot traffic and good will in the community. About a couple of weeks beforehand I made a few trips to that shop to gather the signs and held them in my house until the event date.
One good way to collect signs is to hold one or more sign-making events. You can do this out of your own garage, or ask your friends if they have an empty shop or studio they can donate for an afternoon’s sign making fun. Bring a bunch of poster board and a couple of packs of broad Sharpie pens. Ask people to bring anything they want – scissors, graphics, colored tape, foam core, and clear packing tape or clear contact paper to make really sturdy waterproof signs that can be used again and again. Once they make signs, they can take them or leave them. I found that when people got their energy going, they usually made a few extra for the project. Having an event like that just generally helps with getting the word out. Note: always over-invite. Fewer than 10% of people who RSVP for things, particularly online, can be counted on to actually show up.
- Event Crew
I figured I needed about 10 people. I ended up with about 6 “core” helpers who showed up and put in the time and work. I did have a few others who dropped in here and there, and their input and help really made a difference. Last but not least, I had spontaneous drop-ins who ran to help grab signs that had been caught by the wind. You’ll find that people generally do want to help!
I mostly used Facebook and my own friends list for recruiting purposes, but I did get a few interested parties through a local activist group meeting. I showed up in person and asked for five minutes to explain my project and ask for help. I did take the microphone at a few rallies to announce the project and ask for volunteers, but in hindsight that was better for general exposure than direct recruiting. I had a signup sheet on my website, which seemed very fancy – but as it turns out, that was largely ineffective. So what have I learned? = For an event like this, it’s best to use your own network of people who know you face to face or have the opportunity to speak to you in person.
After my SignStorm, I temporarily stored them in the back of my car, and thought about what to do next.
It took a while to figure out what to do with 150 signs, to be honest. The initial goal was to simply get the signs back in the hands of those who made them, and/or throw them away. Anything to get the signs off my floor, where they had lived during the pre-event collection phase.
But then, people started asking for them. So, I divided the signs into two piles “Claimed” and “UnClaimed” and had those piles at another sign-making event. That event was, due to weather, under-attended. (Honestly, I feel that this year, the weather gods were sworn to undermine my every attempt! LOL!)
Recently, a friend and fellow activist came to my home and took all the Unclaimed signs. Then, she showed up at a local Rally at City Hall and laid them out, free for the taking.
This, my friends, was SignStorm #2. Perfect weather, perfect ending, pretty much perfect everything. Not everyone took a sign, but other than the dozen or so remaining, that many got saved from landfill. So this is the point. Having a SignStorm is never a one-time deal. The signs get made and viewed as much as possible, and re-cycled to new SignStorms or to new people, new marches/rallies. I just heard that at the next March for Science, there will be a place set aside for sign display. SignStorm 3. So now you have something to do with the sign you bring. Rather than throwing it away, see if there is a SignStorm happening either at the event itself, or near you at the next event. Or, hold one yourself. You can do it! Quick Tips:
- If you make a sign and attend a resistance event, save your sign from the landfill. It can be part of the next SignStorm. You can either contribute on the spot or save it for another time.
- Even if there is no SignStorm or sign collection plan: you can pay it forward and give your sign to someone else. Or, participate! and let your sign be passed on to others who can use it. Remember: Recycle, Reuse, Resist!
- If you attend an event and see a SignStorm, photograph it and post it online with the hashtag #signstorm. You might consider making up a hashtag for the ‘Storm that fits that event, like #signstormsj, #signstormfresno, #signstormny, #signstormpdx…..you get the idea.
- If you can’t march because you’re too busy elsewhere, you can make signs at your school, work, or church group, and bring all of them to a SignStorm, or send them along with one person who can serve as your Sign Ambassador.
- If you can’t attend a march or rally due to health reasons, make a protest sign anyway, and send it along to your local SignStorm event. Later, it’s so gratifying to see your sign in photos.
Let’s make it rain! Good luck, everyone!
Leah Jay (Jakusovszky) has been an artist and illustrator in San Jose for 25 years. She creates using a variety of media including watercolor, acrylic, pastel, ink, and collage. Her illustrative work has been featured in many books, and highlights from her career include directing 2001’s WTC Memorial Art Project to facilitate artist’s responses to 9/11 and successfully crowdfunding her artbook “Amphibian Love” to benefit Save the Frogs in 2015.