You can listen to the podcast by An Wentzel on the Wall of Lies here.
A project of Radio Free Brooklyn (RFB), the Wall Of Lies was first erected on 3 October 2020 in Grattan Street, Brooklyn. The art installation, by Tom Tenney and Phil Buehler, is a wall covered with 20,000 of the lies uttered by US President Donald Trump from the time he took office, up to January 2020. Not life imitating art, but lies made into art.
The Wall was meant to stay up until the US election on 3 November, but was vandalised overnight on 7-8 October. It was defaced using spraypaint, with phrases like “Vote Trump or die” and “Stand back and Stand by”. This last phrase refers to Trump saying: “Proud Boys stand back and stand by”, when asked, during the first presidential debate on 29 September, if he would condemn white supremacist groups.
The Proud Boys is a men’s only “club” who describe themselves as “western chauvinists” and have been known to participate in marches with supremacist groups. Tenney, executive director and founder of Radio Free Brooklyn (RFB), says there is no proof that the Proud Boys were behind defacing the wall, but whoever it was, their act of destruction brought the RFB community rallying together to put up a new and bigger Wall.
Tenney says immediately after the Wall was defaced, people “came with counter-vandalism. There was somebody who spray-painted ‘Love thy neighbor’ over ‘Stand back and Stand by’; they cut out where it said ‘Trump’ and ‘Vote Trump or die’ and in its place they spray painted hearts.”
Crowdfunding for a new Wall saw enough funds raised almost overnight to not only replace the defaced one, but to put up a bigger Wall.
Buehler says: “We made it bigger, sort of we won’t be stopped, and we wanted to go someplace else, besides Brooklyn. Originally, I found a wall around the corner where the owner did give us permission… but it was kind of close and it’s the same audience, so we wanted to go to Manhattan, particularly because it’s a different audience and a different media landscape.”
The new Wall went up in SoHo, lower Manhattan, on the corner of Lafayette and Grand streets on 22 October. There was another attempt to destroy it, but the fundraising to create this second Wall was so successful that they had funds to repair it and keep it up.
Tenney says they could afford to have security keeping an eye on the new Wall.
“We decided that we were going to invite the public on the weekend, but we would put it up on the Thursday and invite media on Thursday so that they could write about it on Friday… and we did not want it torn down by Saturday, so some of the money was used for overnight security.”
He believes, “There was this sort of rage about the vandalism. I know that was a big… motivator for people to give money to the project.”
Buehler says the Bushwick community was outraged by the vandalism. “It was a little bit like ‘somebody came into our community and did this’. It could have just been this art thing on a wall and instead it turned into… this outrage turned into ownership… the community, it was their wall and the fact that RFB was named in every story about it, there was this pride that Bushwick was doing something about the election and in a way that reflected what Bushwick is about. Which is art, and music.”
“We’re not a particularly political organisation,” says Tenney, adding that “in fact I think the Wall project was one of the first overtly political things that we have done.”
He says some of the radio shows are political because, “We’re a freeform station, we’re about 50% talk, but the organisation itself has no say over what the individual producers of any given show have on their broadcasts.”
The wall was Tenney’s brainchild. He wanted to find a way to showcase and allow people to engage with the scale of Trump’s lies. He was trying to find a way to make it work for a radio format and, largely because of Covid-19-related contact issues, was not getting very far. He also engaged Buehler to get involved – Buehler is an RFB board member, visual artist and photographer:
“Stalin supposedly said, ‘One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic’, it’s a little bit like that – one lie by the president of the United States is important but, you know, 20,000 lies becomes a statistic. The original idea to do it as a radio broadcast was trying to dramatise it or give you a sense of scale through time. Because the number doesn’t give it to you, so if you say 20,000 lies, you actually say them, you’ll take like a week 24-7 to do that. Tom calculated it out and this [the Wall] instead does that same thing in a different way, visually. So instead of temporally, through time, it’s spatially.”
RFB is community focused and has education and engagement at its core. As their website states: “RFB’s philosophy rests on three pillars: Community, Discovery and Education.”
“We’re a non-profit community radio station; we’re internet only, we do not broadcast on a terrestrial frequency. We’ve been around since 2015. We started with basically just a ragtag group of artists in a basement with a microphone… the basement of a bike shop here in Bushwick.”
Bushwick, in Brooklyn, New York, was founded in the 1600s and by the late 1800s there was a well-developed beer industry in the neighbourhood, leading to Bushwick being known as the beer capital of the northeast. Today Bushwick is a multicultural, cosmopolitan area.
Tenney says once RFB got on the air, there was no looking back.
“We started growing pretty quickly when we realised what an appetite there was for people to have a platform like this – not just for artists though; for people in the community, for activists and people like that, so we grew very rapidly at the beginning… and I thought that this was a great opportunity for radio to be an educational platform also.”
RFB has one daily news show which Tenney says is “left leaning” and plays music that is normally found outside the mainstream. RFB also partners with arts festivals “like the Bushwick Film Festival and the Frigid theatre festival of New York. Brooklyn Pride is another organisation we have partnered with, we are active in the community.
“This idea that we could become an educational resource… I wanted it to have a focus and I wanted us to become self sustaining, by having a non-profit status doing educational initiatives in the community, to also raise money to keep it going, so I sort of turned it into something that’s like… we’re a bit of a hybrid, we don’t consider ourselves a fully educational organisation, but we are very community focused.”
Standing beside the Wall is a visceral experience; to feel the “physical”, psychic presence taken up by so many lies spoken by one of the most powerful men in the world is disconcerting. The wall is 10 feet (3m) high by 100 feet (30m) wide. Each lie is printed on a piece of paper, “the size of a chewing gum wrapper and then out of all these little chewing gum wrappers we can actually build something that’s 10 feet high and a hundred feet wide… pretty remarkable.”
Buehler says he used seven software packages to make the Wall come to life.
“My day job is, well I do a lot of data analyses and statistics, and a lot of what I do is present data in a visual form, like information architecture or data visualisation. The dramady idea of Tom’s was, you know, dramatise these lies from this database, using time. Then when you change it to using space, and I’m mostly a visual artist, so space is my medium and then it became very clear in my head.”
Tenney says, “We abandoned the idea of doing it on the radio because of Covid-19 and we couldn’t get the right people together at the right times.
“It was Phil’s idea to do it as a visual project instead and I think that that actually has a lot more power than it would have had on the radio – you can’t walk by the Wall and ignore it, it’s just not possible.”
The two men strategised over how to complete the project – in Tenney’s words: “Phil and I met in a bar and went over design treatments on September 19th and on October third, the Wall went up.” It was meant to just be up for the weekend, but then it acquired a life of its own.
The Washington Post provided the project with the actual lies. Tenney contacted the newspaper via email early this year. “I was very vague and I said, this is for an art project, and they were super responsive and got back to me the same day or the next day and said yes.” Then Covid-19 steamrolled into town and shut everything down and it seemed the project was not to be.
Tenney contacted The Washington Post again in September and “they were still very responsive and they sent us the update to the database which only goes through July, because they can’t keep up with all the lies. The Washington Post database has how many times that lie was repeated, so what you are seeing on the wall is just unique lies – not how many times he said it.”
The Wall Of Lies, for now, is safely rolled up and secured in Buehler’s studio and next time it will be displayed it will be in Washington DC on inauguration day, very close to the White House, if all goes as planned. That would be 20 January 2021. But what about after?
Buehler says they have already booked for the inauguration, “a hotel down in DC and the plan is to drive down with the Wall – the two rolled-up Walls in the back and then just roll it out. Maybe we could put an appendix on and say this is all the lies since then.”
Tenney adds that they could potentially add a new category now, “which is lies about the election being stolen”.
But what happens after 20 January 2021? Buehler says, “We can’t name it yet but a major New York museum institution is… Tom and I expected to do this for a weekend… it’s a horse that went galloping and we were holding on for a while. It turned from a weekend project to six, seven weeks of maintenance and answering people’s questions; it became a big responsibility, so that’s why we want to kind of hand it off to an organisation that then would take care of it. Because we thought it was worth saving.”
Daily Maverick will follow up in early 2021 to find out which New York museum has taken on the responsibility of showing Trump’s lies. DM/ML
An Wentzel is Night Editor, specialist reporter for Daily Maverick, she went to the USA to visit family as the pandemic struck and is currently marooned in the land of the ‘free’.
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