You’ve seen the posters. They feature a woman with a stars-and-stripes dotted hijab, a dreadlocked kid, or Helen Red Feather of the Lakota tribe protesting at Standing Rock. Perhaps you know that they were part of the “We The People” poster campaign that swept the nation after the election of Donald Trump and his inauguration in January 2017. Or that Shepard Fairey, Jessica Sabogal and Ernesto Yerena designed them.
But did you know that a Seattle-based nonprofit called Amplifier was responsible?
“That was a historic moment in our American history, and creating imagery that represented the demographics the Trump administration was most violently attacking (…) really shook people. You could tell it awakened them. It resonated and went viral around the world,” says Isabella Sisneros, Amplifier’s operations manager.
A Kickstarter campaign to print and distribute the posters raised more than 1$ million in a week thanks to over 23,000 donors.
“We broke a Kickstarter record for the most small donors,” says Amplifier’s deputy director Cleo Barnett, sitting in one of the brand-new looking couches of Amplifier’s recently opened Central District art lab and offices.
Describing what, exactly, Amplifier does is tricky, because it can easily sound vaguely artsy. Take their website language: “A design lab that builds arts experiments to amplify the voices of grassroots movements” and “art machine for social change.”
HELP CHS COVER THE COVID-19 CRISIS -- SUBSCRIBE TODAY: Support local journalism dedicated to your neighborhood. SUBSCRIBE HERE. Join to become a subscriber at $1/$5/$10 a month to help CHS provide community news with NO PAYWALL. You can also sign up for a one-time annual payment. HELP TELL THE LOCAL STORY -- More here.
“Building large-scale nationwide media experiments to amplify social movements,” as Barnett puts it, or “backend support for [social] movements” perhaps gets closer. But to fully characterize Amplifier, it’s best to go back to its beginnings: the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where Seattle-based National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey had lived closely with the Oglala Lakota for years.
Shepard Fairey, the street artist responsible for Obama’s iconic “Hope” poster, transformed one of Huey’s photos of a young boy staring at horses into a poster for Indigenous resistance with the slogan “Protect the Sacred.” It felt right to Huey, who wanted to advocate more than he could within the realms of journalism. He founded Amplifier in 2015.
“Aaron was experimenting with how to take messages outside of a magazine out into the streets where people can’t choose if they see it or don’t, as a way of reclaiming public space,” says Barnett, holding up the stark, ochre- and red-tinted screen print.
“It was clear that there were so many powerful nonprofits across the country that were doing powerful work but were extremely underfunded. Because of that, there was no art. And art is a way of bringing the message out into popular culture. That’s when I came on board and when we began commissioning artwork from artists on different social justice issues,” Barnett says.
Six months later, the “We The People” campaign put Amplifier on the map. Thousands of protesters brought the posters to to the Women’s March on Washington. The images even made their way, via full-page ads, into the Washington Post. An exhibition featuring 150 artists who submitted their work through an open call toured the country.
Since then, Amplifier’s grown into a nonprofit with two full-time and three part-time employees, working on campaigns such as the “No Muslim Ban” series made by New York artist Molly Crabapple, known for her Occupy Wall Street activism. Amplifier has also distributed posters featuring youth organizers working for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights, gun control and the environment to over 20,000 classrooms. Last year, they partnered with March for Our Lives, the student-led movement supporting gun control measures following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.
Many of the nonprofits and organizations Amplifier works with are based in DC, New York and LA, but Amplifier has stayed true to its Seattle roots. Though the nonprofit briefly operated out of Pioneer Square digs, they’ve now opened their first “permanent headquarters,” in the Central District, in the co-living building The Roost on Hiawatha Pl S near Rainier.
“We know that space is scarce in Seattle, so we feel really blessed, and we have and will continue to open up this space for free to other organizations that are doing like-minded work,” Barnett says.
Since opening early this year, Amplifier’s Art Lab has hosted screen printing workshops, student presentations, weekly donation-based yoga classes from Capitol Hill-based group Poseurs, film screenings, an art residency and the art market for the recent, two-days art fete festival:festival.
“This is a gentrifying neighborhood, and I know that art is often at the forefront of gentrification,” Barnett adds. “So we want this space to be for the community. If community members want to use this space, they can. And we have free art” to give to community groups.
The artwork is stacked into a bright and airy backroom slash storage and office space. Tall racks carry rows of boxes filled with posters, stickers and postcards, ready to be shipped all around the country for protests, exhibitions, schools and anyone who donates (they can also be downloaded for free online).
“We value the digital distribution as much as we value the analog distribution,” Sisneros says, but “we do believe that when you see something in person, in hand, when you can feel it, and it’s tangible, [it] leaves a deeper impression. Having a space to mass distribute physical artwork is really important.”
To “democratize” their process, the organization has recently launched an open call platform for artists (who get paid for the licensing of their work) to submit designs and the public to vote on their favorite artworks. In October, Amplifier will also open an immersive installation of posters at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center, aimed at educators and students. Meanwhile, they’re working on their first-ever animated short film set for release on September 20th, the first day of the Global Climate Strike.
And then, of course, there’s the upcoming presidential election.
“Everything we’re doing right now is to set ourselves up for the 2020 elections,” Barnett says.
This fall, they’re also planning to launch a clothing line. “Whether it’s on a poster or a t-shirt, it’s still moving in the world, and helping us shift [culture],” Sisneros says. “Art can take complex ideas and distill them into something that is palpable, palatable for the general public. We also believe it gives people strength. It provides a sense of solidarity, especially if your identity isn’t something that is often seen in mainstream media.”
“We believe once you see something, you can’t unsee it,” Barnett later adds. “And so in times like these, in times of crisis, when fear and disinformation attempt to divide us, art is more than beauty or decoration. Art has the power to wake people up and create meaningful change.”
You can learn more about the Amplifier Art Lab at amplifier.org.