80 artists will mark Fourth of July with skytyped messages over U.S. detention centers

80 artists will mark Fourth of July with skytyped messages over U.S. detention centers

It is a Fourth of July custom. Fleets of airplanes take to the sky and produce massive typewritten messages in the air. Known as skytyping, these vaporous missives generally serve as advertising for music festivals, summer movies or car insurance and are often generated over public parks and crowded beaches.

This holiday weekend, however, some of those messages and their locations will be very different.

A group of 80 artists from around the country, led by rafa esparza and Cassils, have teamed up to produce skytyped messages that will appear over immigrant detention camps around the United States, as well as other sites related to internment and incarceration.

The project, called “In Plain Sight,” will last for three days beginning Friday morning and will feature messages such as “ICE WILL MELT,” “CARE NOT CAGES” and “NO MORE CAMPS” displayed over sites such as the New Orleans field office for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Los Angeles County Jail and the Santa Anita Park, which once served as a temporary detention facility for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II.

Also included will be messages in Spanish, such as “NO TE RINDAS” (Don’t give up) to be written over the U.S. Customs and Border Protection outpost at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, and one in the Mayan language of K’iche’, which will materialize over L.A.'s MacArthur Park. That message — “MA KA QA XE’IJ TA Q’IB,” which translates to “We will not be afraid” — was organized by artist Beatriz Cortez and a coalition of Central American community organizations.


An augmented reality visualization shows how a message in K’iche’ will appear over Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park.

(4th Wall AR / In Plain Sight)

“It’s exiting the confines of traditional art spaces and using the sky as the ultimate platform,” says esparza.

Adds Cassils: “It’s thinking about how art can serve.”

It’s also about producing a work that just might be visible to those who are incarcerated as well.

The artists describe the action as a vast collective artwork — albeit one with a distinct purpose. Each skytyped message will feature the hashtag #XMAP, which should lead the curious back to the project’s website: xmap.us. That page will feature information about immigrant detention and a map of incarceration sites around the U.S., along with a list of organizations fighting for immigrant causes, such as the National Immigration Detention Bond Fund, which helps immigrants pay bonds set by immigration judges.

“You’ll also be able to put in your ZIP Code and see what detention center you’re closest to,” says esparza. “In terms of the sheer amount of immigrant detention centers — it’s something that people feel distant from. People place them along the border, but they don’t imagine them in every state. We want people to know that.”


A map by the artist project “In Plain Sight” shows immigrant detention centers around the U.S. — along with sites that will feature skytyped messages over the Fourth of July weekend.

(In Plain Sight)

Among the participating artists are Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors; Mexican singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas; graphic designer Emory Douglas, once the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party; and a range of cultural practitioners, including Ken Gonzales-Day, Harry Gamboa Jr., Mary Kelly, Susan Silton, Raquel Gutiérrez, Raven Chacon, Karen L. Ishizuka, Edgar Arceneaux, Cannupa Hanska Luger and Devon Tsuno.

Esparza, a Los Angeles artist whose work straddles performance, painting and installations crafted with hand-made adobe, says the idea for “In Plain Sight” was born around July 4 last year amid rising concerns over the sheer number of incarcerated immigrants and the conditions they endure.

“There was a group of artists that had self-organized,” he explains. “We wanted to create visibility around immigrant detention.”

The group began discussing ideas in a group chat on Signal. Cassils, a multidisciplinary artist whose work engages issues of the body, gender and sexuality, was in Europe at the time — but was moved by the discussion.

“I’m from Montreal,” they say. “Immigration has weighed on my life for a long time. It took me 17 years to immigrate and that was with all the resources. ... Navigating the immigration system and staying in compliance and the expense of it. The lack of ability for me to hire a lawyer. It was so incredibly difficult.

“I can’t imagine if you’re trying to do this while you are fleeing for your life. To land in this country that is supposed to be about freedom and they lock you in a cage for profit. That is appalling to me as a new citizen.”

Rather than doing a benefit show in a gallery or staging some sort of charity auction, the group wanted something that would make a big statement to the broadest audience possible. Skytyped messages emerged as an idea that could help an unseen problem (incarceration) be accessed by everyone.

“It also,” says Cassils, “seemed like a brilliant way to invert the terms of patriotism” — airplanes taking to the sky during Fourth of July.

So they got to work fundraising. Patching together donations from private supporters and various arts organizations, the pair were able to generate the $160,000 necessary to put planes in the sky on July 3 and 4, for a total of 80 skytyped messages. But everything else has been a volunteer effort. Dozens of artists, along with uncounted others, have donated their time to make “In Plain Sight” happen.

Esparza says many were personally motivated to participate.

“There are folks whose family members were in incarceration camps during World War II,” he says. “There are folks who have relatives that were Holocaust survivors. And Black artists that use their work to talk about the prison industrial complex. We are all wanting to harness our voices to focus it on immigrant detention.”

Beyond the sky messages, “In Plain Sight” will exist in other ways. Documentarian PJ Raval and producer Farihah Zaman are filming a documentary series related to the project that will also explore deeper issues of migration and identity. To make up for the carbon footprint, artist Sam Van Aken is planting trees close to detention facilities and other carceral sites.


An augmented reality visualization of the words “NO MORE CAMPS” to be skytyped over Santa Anita Park this weekend. The project was organized by curator Karen Ishizuka and the group Tsuru for Solidarity.

(4th Wall AR / In Plain Sight)

Artist Nancy Baker Cahill has uploaded the skytyped messages into her augmented reality app, 4th Wall, which users can download for free to their phones. Once installed, it is possible to view skytyped messages virtually at each location. Not sure where those locations might be? A function in the app uses geolocation to direct users to the nearest site.

Moreover, Oxy Arts, the cultural space run by Occidental College in Eagle Rock, which is serving as a presenter of the project, will host a fall exhibition of participating artists and offer related programming, such as panels and performances.

“In Plain Sight,” therefore, will continue to exist in myriad forms after the last clouds of vapor have evaporated.

Says Cassils: “It will live on.”

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