Independence Day, on the fourth of July, has long been an occasion for pomp and splendour, marked by boisterous firework displays and military flyovers across the United States. This year however, an ambitious counter-production, calling for the abolition of immigrant detention and the country’s culture of incarceration, has taken equal footing. 

‘In Plain Sight’ is a multilayered collaborative art project that brings together 80 artists to expose the ongoing abuses in American detention centers. Organised by the Los Angeles-based performance artists Cassils and Rafa Esparza, the activist artwork saw fleets of sky-typing planes fly over 80 different sites – detention facilities, immigration courts, borders, sites of former internment camps and other historically significant landmarks – to spell out artist-created phrases, written in water vapour, that could be visibly read for miles. 

’Stop Crimmigration Now’ by Bamby Salcedo, typed above the Los Angeles Field Office. Photography: David McNew for In Plain Sight

The performance was conceived to expose the locations of these sites, all of which are public knowledge yet widely overlooked, and to draw attention to federal-level injustices that are taking place within one’s vicinity. With already appalling health conditions in these privately run, taxpayer-funded facilities steeply deteriorating due to the pandemic, the need for action has never been more urgent.

‘Over a year ago, Rafa had started a Signal thread among artists in LA, discussing that there was no visual representation or active art world agitation around this issue of immigrant detention,’ recalls Cassils about the project’s inception. ‘It was triggered by fourth of July, and thinking if we could invert the terms of patriotism and use the indexical quality of an airplane to demarcate a site that is invisible to the US consciousness. There are so many of these ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities that are hiding in plain sight, and very disturbingly interwoven into our urban landscape.’  

‘I started to dig deeper into how many detention centres exist in the country, in every state,’ adds Esparza. ‘That evolved the idea from being something that could happen in Los Angeles to a much broader national intervention.’ 

Anti ICE protests in Los Angeles 

The consortium of artists, activists and designers involved spans all ages and backgrounds. Each creative was assigned a site, which they researched to come up with a contextually relevant phrase. Artist and political strategist Patrisse Cullors, who founded Reform LA Jails and co-founded Black Lives Matter, chose the words ‘Care not Cages’, which was written over LA County Jail, while Titus Kaphar’s ‘Unseen Mothers’ was written above the border patrol station in Walesco, Texas – a site that previously held the 16 year old Guatemalan migrant Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, who passed away in custody after being denied medical attention The power of each message was palpable and unequivocal.

‘All art is a form of activism,’ says Hank Willis Thomas, whose phrase ‘Life, Liberty, And’ was flown above the Hudson County Correctional Facility. ‘[My phrase was] inspired by the constitution and the Declaration of Independence, where [it states] everyone is entitled to inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness,’ he continues. ‘I recognise that so many people around the world, but especially in this country legally and “illegally”, are still in pursuit of the incomplete promise of the American dream. The hypocrisy is that we are now, and probably even more than then, undermining the very liberties that we claim our country was founded on. American citizens are no more precious or important than anyone else.’ 

‘Artists are uniquely suited to imagine social change in transcendent ways,’ reiterates the artist/trans-activist Zackary Drucker, whose phrase ‘Nosotras te vemos’ means ‘We see you’ in the words’ feminine form, and expresses a message of support for incarcerated transwomen and all people living in detention. ‘We have a moral obligation to provoke critical thought and challenge norms. There’s really no excuse for anyone to be apolitical right now.’

Azadi (’Freedom’ written in Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Kurdish, Pashto, Azeri, Balochi, Armenian, Punjabi, Bengali and Kashmiri, amongst others), by Arshia Fatima Haq, above the Orange County Intake & Release in San Diego. Photography: Labkhand Olfatmanesh for In Plain Sight

Cullors says, ‘By exposing the world we live in – racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic – we can challenge ourselves to create something truly transformative.’

Accompanying each skywritten message was the hashtag #xmap, devised to lead viewers to xmap.us, which features an interactive map that geo-locates exactly where the sites are situated. This specially developed website sidesteps unpredictable algorithms, media bias and the overall white noise that tends to suppress awareness of immigrant incarceration. The project further includes a docuseries, calls for civic action, and partnerships on arts-related education with cultural organisations. 

At its heart, ‘In Plain Sight’ builds upon the efforts of its partner grassroots organisations like The Haitian Bridge Alliance, the ACLU of Southern California, Detention Watch Network and Mijente, who directly serve and support these oppressed communities. 

‘A huge part of this project is using art to elevate the voices of the folks on the ground who have been doing the work for decades,’ Cassils concludes. ‘People who are met with this information are often overwhelmed and don’t know what can be done. This artwork was carefully crafted with an impact team, [and] is very much in service to the folks who are leading humanitarian causes and meeting [injustices] with very direct action.’ §

A view of Patrisse Cullors’ phrase ’Care Not Cages’, sky typed above Los Angeles County Jail. Photography: Chris Mastro for In Plain Sight