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The Projectionist Provocateur

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Robin Bell

The traditional protest tool kit of spray paint, hand-written banners with slogans and walls of graffiti seem old school. Dissenters now use AV as their communication tool of choice-- just like corporations and artists.

In Washington, D.C., since Election Day a "projectionist provocateur" has flashed dozens of messages and images on the architecture of American federal power.

Meet Robin Bell.

Bell’s group includes a fast-talking liaison to deal with security guards, a videographer-photographer, and two production assistants.

They set up a two-wheel handcart modified with shelves to hold a truck battery, a power converter, an 8000 lumens projector (yes, they do need a better projector!) and Bell’s laptop.

Bell designs projections with video-editing and motion graphics software. Other software lets him map the imagery so it flows across architectural features which aren't usually flat or untextured.

He and his crew strike at night, showing up at unexpected venues. Phrases will suddenly appear in giant lighted capital letters over an entrance to the Trump International Hotel or on a federal statue or important city building facade.

Bell beamed imagery critical the Obama administration but Trump's election skyrocketed demand for his work. Bell now does one or more per week-- sometimes more than one a night.

Trump Hotel

A Washington Post writer quipped: "Bell’s projections now come regularly enough that during especially volatile news cycles, it’s like sensing mayhem in Gotham and looking out for a bat signal."

While some of these messages and projects are created by Bell and his team, other projections are paid collaborations with non-profit groups pushing causes he believes in: Amnesty International, Moveon.org, the Sierra Club and others.

To add legs to the short projected mesage, Bell creates videos of the projections so clients can use in their social media. The video streams of his night’s work can easily log about 370,000 viewers.

A projection is said to cost his clients a “few thousand dollars.”  His expenses include his crew for night work, participating in planning meetings about messaging and the overhead of a professional mobile artist.

Like many projection artsts, Bell claims his margins are too thin. And he runs the regular risk of costly parking tickets.

Bell’s projections often reflect the nature of the work done inside the D.C. buildings. On the facade of the Department of the Interior, Bell projected the names of America's national parks being considered for size-reductions by Trump's new administration.

At the Customs and Border Protection HQ, he projected quotes supplied by Amnesty, from immigrants or refugees who could be affected by the Trump travel ban.

For Moveon.org, Bell projected the phrases “Investigate Sessions” (Attorney General Jeff Sessions) and “Investigate Trump” on the Justice Department. When an animated magnifying glass passed over the words, the projected letters changed from English to Cyrillic, a pointed reference to the 2017 presidential elections investigation involving the Russians.

 Bell at Newseum

On the Newseum, a building whose large panel displays the text of the First Amendment (one of his favorite walls), Bell projects the image of the woman who was killed in recent Charlottesville protests.

Is this a business model that is legal? Can you, so near the White House, project political criticism directly onto federal property? Onto privately owned buidings? On to President Trump's own hotel in Washington, DC?

A UCLA law professor who examined Bell’s projections for legal precedents cited a case where a state appeals court held there was nothing illegal about a union projecting a message onto an employer’s wall. Trespass, ruled that court, is usually defined as an invasion by a physical object, or when less tangible matter (i.e., pollution from a factory) causes quantifiable damage to property.

Bell's projections can’t be legally classified as trespassing. And it would be hard to show a projected message is a ‘nuisance’ in the legal sense of the word--unless the message causes some harm. Harm such as keeping somebody up at night because you are shining a bright light.

The Washington D.C. police have been known to comment, “There is no indication that a crime has been committed.”

Some building owners may disagree. The Trump Organization did not respond to a Washington Post request for a comment. Not even a tweet.

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