After months spent sheltering in place, the art world was out in full force on Saturday, gathering in sites across New York and cities across the country for the Wide Awakes march. The activist event, which was at once a cry for justice, a joyful celebration, and a push to get out the vote, also marked an important, little-known moment in US history.
On October 3, 1860, the original Wide Awakes, an abolitionist organization formed to help elect Abraham Lincoln, staged its biggest event, with 10,000 people marching through the streets of Chicago.
Today’s Wide Awakes marches are the brainchild of artist Hank Willis Thomas, who has adopted their symbol of an unblinking eye and caped uniforms to the needs of 2020. The initiative is an outgrowth of For Freedoms, the artist-led political action committee he founded with Eric Gottesman in 2016.
Saturday’s New York events started at the northernmost part of Central Park, outside the Africa Center. Participants processed down to Times Square, where other artists were congregating for the Vote Feminist Parade, the latest participatory art march from Michele Pred. The Oakland-based artist, who is also a member of For Freedoms, originally planned to hold a New York march on the Fourth of July.
For Pred, the message behind the work has only become more important since then. “This is an emergency response to what’s happening in our government,” she told Artnet News. “This is artists acting as first responders.”
Leading the crowd in activist chants as they processed down to Washington Square Park was artist Amy Khoshbin, who was part of Pred’s Radical Love Parade in Sweden in 2019.
“We’re one month away from the election,” she told Artnet News. “We had to make as much noise as possible to get people out to the polls to use their power, and to take it from the streets into the ballot box and beyond.”
Others spotted in the crowd included Brooklyn Museum president Anne Pasternak, clad in a cloak outfitted with an animated LED Wide Awakes eye; artist Leo Villareal (who, as it happens, codesigned Pasternak’s cloak); and his wife, public art producer Yvonne Force Villareal.
“It’s important for people to vote for Biden to get Trump out of office,” artist Dred Scott told Artnet News, “but even if people are successful in that, that’s not going to realize the vision of a radically changed world that so many people are yearning for. And things like this can be part of [creating that change].”
Many friends and colleagues were meeting in person since the first time since lockdown began in March. In some ways, it felt like a new “back to school” for the art world—minus the superficiality of the usual September gallery crawl.
“We came together,” Thomas told Artnet News. “It’s been pretty awesome to see.”
See more photos of the Wide Awakes march and rally below.