Emily Squires: Personal Service Announcement

by Kyle McKenzie, November 2012

Philadelphia-based artist, Emily Squires, has invited everyone to submit messages for her current work, Personal Service Announcement (PSA). Messages submitted via her web portal (www.personalserviceannouncement.com) are painted onto signs, which the artist personally takes to Washington D.C. to march them in front of the White House. Her first march was on November 1, 2012, and subsequent marches are planned for December 8, 2012 and January 12, 2013. Recently, Squires sat down with Artwrit to discuss her new project, the complications of speaking on the behalf of others and security at the White House.

KM: How are you soliciting messages? Who is responding?
ES: I’m using multiple strategies for soliciting messages. Since the message portal is a website, it easily lends itself to digital platforms: I’ve emailed people I know and posted project updates and photos on Facebook. I also made business cards that have the website on one side and a brief description of the project on the other.

The messages are all submitted anonymously, so it’s hard to say exactly who is responding. My hope is that the website goes viral enough that the degrees of separation between me and the participants increase, that the audience is bigger and broader than just the people in my day to day life. The piece is not just for some people to participate and others to observe based on a political ideology. It’s intended to be open.

Personal Service Announcement lends the artist’s voice to others. Can you talk about the artist/viewer relationship in your practice?
I’m kind of obsessed with the artist/viewer relationship in my practice. Because so much of my work uses conversation, interactivity and/or participation as a medium to create/co-create the work, it’s something I think about all the time. I think about authorship: I am making the signs and marching the signs and publishing photos of them on the Internet, but the language itself does not originate with me. This piece doesn’t exist without other people deciding to say something. I also think about trust as fundamental to my practice. When I ask people to write postcards and trust me to mail them or to submit a message and trust that I will be faithful to their voice, we are in a relationship, whether we ever meet face to face or not.

Specifically with PSA, all sorts of messages have been sent via the portal. Prior to launching the site, I decided that the only editing I would allow myself is the ability to filter for hate speech. The signs get made in order that they are submitted and each sign gets the same amount of marching time, both facing the White House and also facing the street.

Many artists would find it difficult to give voice to opinions that they don’t endorse, but it seems likely you will be in that position at some point in this project. Are you comfortable being the mouthpiece for positions that you may disagree with?
Yes, and the distinction between the mouthpiece and the content is important. When I had the idea for this project, I hoped/knew that I would be marching things that I didn’t necessarily agree with or believe or personally endorse. That’s where the idea of a “service” comes into it for me. It’s not really about me or my opinions. My labor becomes a platform for your opinion to reach a broader public. But it gets murky because when I’m actually marching, unless the people at the White House—the police, the tourists, the people walking by, etc.—approach me or my photographer and get a card that contextualizes the piece, they have no idea that my opinion might differ from that expressed on the sign.

How has the onsite audience reacted so far?
So far, I’ve been onsite in D.C. twice. The first time was to march the sign that says “Your message here” for the website and promotional purposes.

When I returned to D.C. for the first march (November 1st), I brought the first thirty signs with me. When I arrived at Lafayette Square, about twenty-five yards of sidewalk directly in front of the White House was blocked off by construction. The police officer on duty overheard me talking to my photographers, troubleshooting out loud if I should walk in front of the construction fence, or if it was going to be there for a while and I should consider shooting all photos from an angle. He told me that the fence would be up through the inauguration, and then wanted to know if I was a protestor. The conversation went something like this:

Police: “Before you plan any further, I have to ask, are you protesting something here today?”

Me: “Not exactly. It’s an art project.”

Police: “Those look like protest signs.”

Me: “They are supposed to look like protest signs, but they are actually messages from other people. Why are you asking?”

Police: “Well, you can’t protest on the sidewalk in front of the White House.”

Me: “Well, what counts as protest language?”

Police: “They don’t tell us that.”

Me: “So because these look like protest signs, regardless of what they say, I won’t get harassed by the Secret Service if I walk in the street right next to the sidewalk?”

Police: “Correct.”

I decided, in the moment, to march in the street, right next to the sidewalk. But I’m definitely thinking about all the questions this conversation brings to light and potentially making a different choice at the next two marches.

I mean, the obvious question remains: Is this a protest or an art piece? But I think I am more interested in a conversation about the borders of “protest” and “art.” In the same way that the physical space in front of the White House has become this gray territory where it is wildly unclear what type of speech or behavior is allowed, I think there is gray territory between protest and art. My hope is that this work sort of camps out in that space and makes us think about it.

While it’s unclear if this is “protest language,” would you say that this work is political in nature?
I think political art is work that has a tangible outcome—consequences in the real world. I’m thinking of the work of an artist like Tania Bruguera. At the 2009 Havana Biennial, she did this piece called Tatlin’s Whisper. She set up a podium, and any one could go to the mic for one minute and say whatever they wanted. To create a free speech zone in Cuba is an artistic choice with actual consequences.

So is PSA political? The signs, the site of the White House and the marching certainly reference what we know to read as “political” in contemporary culture. I think artists have this beautiful calling to occupy a space where we can observe and comment upon and reflect back what we witness and experience around us in such a way that it makes us think differently about politics or social injustice or whatever. And to challenge ideas and create new knowledge through our language of imagery, texts, actions, creative expression, etc.—it is such a gift—and I think it’s critical that we do so.