Obama and the Wheatpaste Lobby


Yes, he was everywhere you looked on TV today — heck, even Family Feud got bumped for the inaugural parade — but Obama’s mug has also taken over the streets of NYC in recent weeks, fighting for space with The United States of Tara, Pepsi ads, and countless other wheatpasted pleas for consumption. But why is he up there? Didn’t we already swear him into office? Is this some sort of pro-bono gloat campaign? A viral stunt paid for by Levi’s?

No. Turns out, it is the work of Brooklyn-based design studio, Hyperakt. The idea surfaced when creative director Deroy Pereza noticed empty billboard space around the city and thought, “You know, we could put something inspirational here.” From that germ of an idea, the concept of Billboard For The People was born.

Scraping together their own funds and with the help of small donations, Hyperakt bought outdoor ad space in over 185 locations throughout New York. This public “congratulatory” campaign has since received mixed feedback: Some love the project, and others worry that it perpetuates Obama’s personality cult. But Hyperakt made this choice deliberately, hoping that the 1,000+ posters (up through January 27th) would generate a dialogue about this new presidency and what it means to all of us.

This weekend, Deroy Peraza was called upon to participate in ManifestHOPE — a pop-up art exhibition in DC sponsored by MoveOn, SEIU, and Shepard Fairey. ManifestHOPE was not just a “who’s who” of the contemporary political art world, but it was also a visual call-to-action. Using the imagery of Ron English, Munk One, the KDU and others, the organizers of the exhibition were hoping to promote three agenda points: Health Care Reform, Workers Rights, and the Green Economy.

The Hyperakt campaign and the ManifestHOPE gallery raise interesting questions about this next phase of art and politics. But whether you believe that this is the beginning of the next Federal Art Project, or the end of anarchistic street art as we know it, the fact is Obama-centric art is here to stay. As Deroy points out, the role of art is to provide commentary. And while last year, street art commented deliriously on the star qualities of our new president, it could also turn around and comment on his flaws just as fast.

So a word of advice to you, Mr. President: Of the many interest groups, lobbyists, and changemongers who will vie for your attention in the coming years, don’t forget to listen to the creative class. Because if you piss them off, they will take their wheatpaste to the streets.

If you weren’t in DC to celebrate the inauguration and gawk at the artwork our new president has already spawned, take heart. At least you can wander around New York City and find visual reminders of how we made history.

– Jenny Gottstein