Take one part conceptual art mix in some activism and add a dash of awkward teen
Sign-carrying activists, listen up. The power of your medium has been proven effective. Yes, massive gatherings of passionate picketers can still effect change. A SAIC student has proven this.
Nate Chung, a fi rst-year graduate in the MFA program, saw his artwork evolve into protest signs that captured the attention of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in his home state of Hawaii. These protest signs, and the protesters ehind them, had a decidedly different message that spread like a virus over the course of several years.
In 2004 Chung organized a gathering of family and friends to hold signs presenting phrases such as, “Nate Chung Says You Look Splendid Today.” The group stood on street corners and looked like run-of-the-mill picketers from a istance. But up close their chants of “I like your shoes,” and “Have a great day,” could be discerned.
Chung called it “aggressive positivism,” and his experience with this project illustrates not only the power of a positive message through “political” means, but the evolution of an artwork once it is taken over by the masses. By May of 2007, approximately 200 individuals gathered at a major intersection in Hawaii, wielding signs asserting similar messages to Chung’s original posters. The spectacle, he said, was overpowering. To be clear, Chung is no Pollyanna. He was aware of the messages’ apparent shallow and unspecific qualities. The art that inspired these “protests,” however, was conceptually weightier.
While attending school in Los Angeles, Chung made signs with a parking-sign motif and positive words. He then stuck combinations of the signs on his campus at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and got instant feedback. What at fi rst looked like city regulatory signs actually projected words such as “sweet” and “love.”
“Any combination gave you this warm, fuzzy feeling,” Chung said. Soon after he plastered a photo of his face on picketing-style signs with the same warm-and-fuzzy words, and the idea caught on. Chung found himself making similar signs with student groups and arts organizations. Middle and high school kids became excited about pasting their own faces up and “protesting” pleasantries out on the streets.
“The intent was to have an exercise in generosity, and I created the medium for it, but it became theirs because they were involved in it,” Chung said. “You started seeing students getting excited about their campuses, and you can see… how it can really alleviate the social pressures and high school awkwardness.”
Working with the teens proved timely. A study came out at the time saying Hawaiian teens had the highest rates of depression and suicidal thoughts in the country.
“We weren’t responding to that per se,” Chung said, “But the project got a little sharper (in meaning).”
Seeing politicians and supporters stand along highways “sign-waving” is common in Hawaii, making the state extra-amenable to Chung’s concept. He’s not sure it would translate in Chicago, and says he’s still trying to “fi gure out” the Midwest.
As the project left his hands and strived for a wider audience, Chung’s art and his relationship to it changed. It became conceptually thinner and thinner at each step, he said.
“For the general public, we had to simplify the vision,” he said, adding at each step the vocabulary had to become broader. It became a campaign to promote a culture of positivism, “but that wasn’t the original intent.”
Looking back, Chung thinks the concept caught on because the payback was so direct. “They got a return of a smile, of someone’s face lighting up, not because it’s political,” he said. “On one hand, it was beautiful because it was a gathering of a critical mass. There was a craziness of gratitude, of generosity, of encouragement.