Posters for Awakening 2020, a campaign by For Freedoms

Any election year is accompanied by the inevitable onslaught of political advertising—find it on social media, on billboards and bumpers, flying from flagpoles, and dotting your neighbors’ yard. But this year, the barrage feels especially inescapable, not least because art galleries, usually a reliable visual refuge, are closed due to the pandemic. 

As opposed to the divisiveness of political messaging, “art is something that people can relate to in their own way,” says Michelle Woo, “there’s no right or wrong answer.” Woo, along with artists Eric Gottesman, Hank Willis Thomas, and Wyatt Gallery, founded For Freedoms, an artist-run non-profit that uses art and collective visual communication to open up political and civic discourse. Through public art and awareness campaigns, the group aims to interrupt the landscape of political imagery that is such a force in shaping U.S. political discourse. Unlike the rigid binary of party advertising, the work that For Freedoms creates is “anti-partisan,” encouraging participation, nuance, and critical political conversation in order to work toward a more unified society. 

To designers, the common strategies of campaign design and advertising are all too familiar: striking slogans; a deified figurehead; vague allusions to an appealing, yet totally fabricated lifestyle; and a non-stop social media presence. Supporters and politicians literally parade their brand colors and slogans, in what could be considered an unparalleled show of “brand loyalty.” For Thomas, Gottesman, and Woo, this branding of political communication is a dubious marker for the flattening of political and civic life of Americans. “We had a desire to complicate the conversation. To have conversations with nuance, that really explored those grey areas that we actually all live in,” says Woo. 

The artists started For Freedoms in 2016 as a SuperPAC, but it has since transitioned. Now the organization focuses its efforts on giving political art greater public exposure, without pushing any one political agenda. This year, for example, For Freedoms created the open-source campaign Awakening 2020 in an effort to foster political participation. Visually, the campaign avoids any reference to a particular political party or politician, instead alluding to the iconography of the Wide Awakes, a political movement from 1860 that helped elect Abraham Lincoln. The campaign’s branding, designed by COMBO, also incorporates the infinity symbol to remind participants that “politics and civic life is an endless game.” COMBO also created the “Infinite Playbook,” a public manual on Google Slides that encourages people to use open source brand elements to make their own designs. 

The playbook is a clever deconstruction of the typical brand guidelines designers provide their clients. “We wanted to open it up and create something that everyone feels like they can add to,” COMBO founder Kapono Chung.  “It’s not just black vs. white, or red vs. blue; we tried to push away from that as far as possible.” In order to avoid the intimidation of standing before a blank canvas, COMBO provided a variety of colors, textures, and typography that could be stretched and manipulated by people in whatever way they choose. The branding also employs the use of rings as a nod to Olympics and the unity they inspire. 

In addition to the Awakening campaign, For Freedoms also launched a billboard campaign on Indigenous People’s Day that can be seen across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands. In lieu of people being able to visit a gallery to see political art, For Freedoms set out to bring art to the public. Among the participating artists are Guerrilla Girls, Shepard Fairey, the Donald Judd Foundation, Ai Weiwei and more. As another action to pull people out of siloed discussions, the billboard campaign aims to get citizens thinking about political issues without telling them what to believe about those issues or who to support.