We knew that artist DK Pan's poem, "TIME IS MEMORY," would appear in the sky over Seattle this weekend and, as time slips to memory, disappear before the writing could even be completed.
"TIME IS MEMORY" is the whole poem.
That happened around 4 pm yesterday, when there was a brief break in what appeared to be some of the most unpredictable clouds in Seattle history.
But that wasn't it. There was more.
Another, separate, message. This one equally fleeting.
Were the two messages related?
The answer is yes and no, as an email sent to supporters of the project at 9:52 pm last night explained.
"The organizers within Black Lives Matter in Seattle are both leader-full and decentralized," it read. "We work collectively to inspire dedication to social change that ends anti-black violence. Today's action was organized by black art activists. Though symbolic and temporal, this effort was designed to center all black lives—transgender/non-gender-conforming, women/girls, men/boys, low-income/no-income, immigrant, disabled, incarcerated and beyond. We wanted the conversation writ large. We'll will continue to use imagination, audacity and community-building to create a more just and beautiful world."
Pre-forming a bulwark against the potential scrutiny of individual activists (having seen individual women put under the microscope after interrupting the recent Bernie Sanders rally in Seattle), the email also asked, "Please credit ONLY Black Lives Matter rather than any individual person for this effort—it's in the spirit of movement-building and it took many hands to pull it off."
I didn't get to see either. I wasn't looking at the sky at the right time. "TIME IS MEMORY" is documented on Instagram here; "BLACK LIVES MATTER" here. The Black Lives Matter organizers request that you circulate and recirculate any photos today on social media, since today "is the last day of Black August, a month of national rallies to commemorate the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson."
Pan called his project art from the start. He wrote a poem containing three words, and he spread the words into the sky in symbolic typography. The moments when the last word disappears are the moments when it becomes what it describes: memory. The piece captures both of the Greek words for time: chronos, or quantitative, chronological, regular marching-on time; and kairos, that kind of time that is right for something, that is the right moment, in which chronological time doesn't matter and even seems to stop entirely. Pan and his pilot overlapped types of times.
"BLACK LIVES MATTER" never called itself art, but its organizers specifically called themselves "black art activists" (my emphasis), and at least two of them are well-known Seattle artists. Why didn't they leave out "art" and just call themselves "activists"?
In their email, the Black Lives Matter organizers wrote that Pan had organized his piece so that theirs could piggyback on it. That makes him a Black Lives Matter organizer, too, and it makes "TIME IS MEMORY" a work of activism as well as art. It functionally generated public political speech.
Likewise, the Black Lives Matter organizers, by not announcing their event, deployed a classic tactic of performance art. There was no rally to join in. There were no posters to carry. There was no money to raise. There was nothing you, watching this parade of smoke in your sky, could do to participate. You could only watch, and photograph. They used the element of surprise, and they relied on the multiplying power of photography and documentation (something that goes back to works virtually created for photography, like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, or Interior Scroll, the Carolee Schneeman performance that had its 40th anniversary this weekend). Part of what's built into works like these is an understanding that the intended audience for the work is not limited to whoever can fit into the room, or whoever manages to notice fleeting letters in the sky.
I'm not saying "BLACK LIVES MATTER" is art, and "TIME IS MEMORY" is activism, but that their connected appearance in that few minutes of blue sky over a rainy and windy city yesterday puts them in a conversation that has echoes down through art's history.
I couldn't help but think, too, that "TIME IS MEMORY" is a hell of a prelude to the words "BLACK LIVES MATTER." Together, they start asking about how activism relates to time. Do temporary events lead to lasting change? How do you add up what happens in chronos to arrive at that moment of shift that gets you to that place of rightness, that kairos?
Plus, is "TIME IS MEMORY" a call to urgency or a quiet meditation? It's not the sort of thing you would shout at a protest: "Time is memory! Black Lives Matter!" Yeah, that doesn't work. "TIME IS MEMORY" and "BLACK LIVES MATTER" point instead to the frustrating way that political movements write, and erase, write, and erase. The sense is of two steps forward, two steps back, rather than a forward march.
But it's interesting to consider the difference between the tone taken by the Bernie Sanders protesters and the tone of this "BLACK LIVES MATTER" act. This one symbolizes urgency rather than expressing it directly—noticing letters fading makes it feel like the message is in danger of vanishing. This is not my attempt to join in the chorus of people criticizing the Bernie Sanders protesters, rather to say that art is a different kind of communicative tool, and sometimes it's the nature of the response that lets you know you've committed an act of art. It will be interesting to see whether this gets the national and international attention that did. I'm enormously grateful to live in a city where both occurred.