Updated: Dec 28, 2020
The following is by GHOST ROCK co-CEO Constance A. Dunn and in no way reflects the thoughts or opinions of GHOST ROCK as a company or any individual associated with it. This is simply an observation based on the expertise of one person. We publish it here to highlight the power of advertising, art and the fine line between propaganda and authenticity.
The video above appeared in a post on June 1st, 2020 on my Facebook newsfeed in the middle of week-long curfews and tense protests. It shows a CityPost kiosk in downtown Louisville and what appears to be a politically loaded, quick series of images running as an ad. The man filming it is obviously freaked out by what he's watching, "You guys seen this s**t?" He says, "Stand by and watch it. They're running some psyops s**t on it."
What we see is bizarre. A series of images from political gatherings, white middle-aged men with blurred faces, a calm man in a suit speaking directly to us, the color red and blue spray painted across the screen. It's no wonder that the man with the camera phone claims a psyops conspiracy. After all, this is running during a protest downtown where real political gatherings are taking place and real talking heads are telling people to calm down.
The below was updated 6/5/2020 after I received a phone call from the curator of the exhibition BallotBox - Skylar Smith.
The art showcased on the CityPosts kiosks is the work of professional artist and teacher James R. Southard. It was meant to be showcased as part of a call to action to attend the exhibition BallotBox on display in Metro Hall. However, due to covid-19 shutdowns, the exhibition has not been accessible to the public. In the video embedded at the top of this article, the slide inviting the public to the exhibition seems to have been removed while the artwork continued to loop. It is unclear why this happened, but it was likely an oversight. From the BallotBox website: "In honor of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Louisville Metro Government’s Office for Women has partnered with the Frazier History Museum, Louisville Visual Art and the Louisville chapter of the League of Women Voters on BallotBox, a contemporary art exhibit on voting rights."
Statement from the artist: "The videos were created last winter in the hopes of displaying the history of political campaigns in Kentucky. I digitally removed all of the political figures and their names from all forms of media. TV, Radio and Newspapers. There are other artists in the exhibit who worked hard to make art addressing elections and how important they are to Kentuckians. Please check out their work on the website and REGISTER TO VOTE!"
Below is from the original article published 6/1/2020:
Let's break it down image by image to see if we can assess what is really going on here.
The first image is of Harry Belafonte in what looks like a clip from the 1950s/60s speaking directly to the camera calmly with no sound. Compared to the white people presented, he is confident, he is talking to us, and he seems relaxed. Belafonte was a Jamaican-American musician, activist. actor, and confidant of Martin Luther King Jr.
Next an image of a bald, white man with the face colored over in blue.
The same image is then covered in red.
The handsome be-suited Belafonte reappears, looking at us intensely. If only we knew what he was saying? I was not able to locate the clip used in the artwork in question, but I did find another with Belfonte expressing his political views in 1967.
He disappears and a few ads for local businesses slide by... then this...
A nightmarish image of a no face with melting skin. Next comes an image of what looks like a political gathering. Judging by the signs this is most likely the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Given this information we can dig deeper into the meaning of some of the other images. The election in 1968 saw a split in the Democratic party that many believe paved the way for Richard Nixon's win. It was also the scene of large demonstrations and televised police violence. The split of the party and Nixon's election was seen by some as a betrayal of leadership - hence the smeared faces of the leaders.
Another image from the DNC with NBC in the background.
Below - a man shouting near the New York sign at the 1968 DNC. (Maybe Nixon? Difficult to tell.)
Another blurred face. Knowing what we now know of the time period and judging by the hairline, this may be Sen. Edmund Muskie.
The faces of politicians are blurred or painted over, while those of their supporters or protesters are not - ex. see the woman below.
The next series of images ask us to follow the headlines. "Gov. Has Refused to Debate These Important Questions... WHY...?" It is difficult to decipher a year on this article, but let's assume it is also 1968.
Just in case you missed the 'WHY', it is presented again, emphasizing its placement above the obfuscated face and name of another politician.
Another blurred face follows...
Then a fire. This is perhaps one of the reasons why onlookers would associate the ad with current events and see themselves as the target. The Chicago protests in 1968 also resulted in fires.
Followed by a man fleeing a violent confrontation. Given that many of the crowd images are from the 1968 DNC, where mass demonstrations broke out and police violence was widely televised, it may be safe to say that the below image is from the demonstrations in Chicago in 1968.
This guy shouting...
And this guy...
Follow the headlines game again... This is a political ad from 1968.
A torn social security card with what looks like a real SSN and name.
Just in case you were fooled...
More melty face...
Elephant man selfie...
A "Warning to Democrats" - two words in the last paragraph quickly switch out so that they are unreadable. The remainder of the editorial is calling on democrats to be careful with who they support in relation to a specific election, presumably one taking place in Kentucky in 1968.
Elephant Man pulling a Kardashian again.... Nice duck lips.
And perhaps the most disturbing image of all... is an actual PSA.
The BIG REVEAL
This is a city-supported work of art.
The following was updated after speaking with the curator on 6/5/2020.
The BallotBox exhibition opened on March 12th at Metro Hall. Sudden covid-19 shutdowns following soon after led the team working on the exhibition to pivot and push back dates. According to Smith, the video loops have been removed and will be released again at a later date.
The mystery has been solved, but there is an important takeaway - context is everything. The omission of a slide with exhibition information turned this particular work of art into a controversy. Some protesters even saw it as a threat.
Whatever I, or anyone, may think about political art being displayed on a city-owned advertising space, the reaction from young protesters warrants a discussion. While their knee-jerk reaction was falling down the conspiratorial rabbit hole, those that were more circumspect pointed out that it was frustrating to see the city supporting political art about protests that brought about change while at the same imposing curfews and calling in the National Guard.
Smith tells me that when the artwork returns, the artist's name and the name of the work will appear on screen as well as a slide with information about the exhibition.