Our digitally connected, social-media engaged world has created new frontiers for artists interested in making a social and political impact. To find an example of this, look no further than the recent happening on the front lines of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), where a cohort of indigenous and ally artists, performers, and volunteers created an awesome spectacle amid the snowy plains of North Dakota.
Armed with mirror shields, participants brought the power of the river to life, animating the dangers of the oil “snake.” The sheilds were designed by artist Cannupa Hanska as way to protect the person holding it and reflect the humanity of the aggressor back at them.
“I had seen mirrors deployed in Ukraine, with actual mirrors and grandmothers taking them to the street when they were facing militarized police forces,” Hanska says on where his inspiration came from. “I wanted to facilitate a project, and make a how-to video to share on social media.”
Thanks to drone footage, photographs, and social media, Hanska and his collaborator, Rory Wakemup, are able to share their message with people far beyond the front lines of the pipeline.
The video Hanska posted specifically spoke to how one person could produce six shields that would help create a reflective wall that protects 50 to 100 people behind that wall, in addition to the thousands of people in the camp and the 8 million people downstream from the river.
“This was a way that one person could protect 8 million,” he says.
While the mirrors in Ukraine were used in a direct-action protest, for the most part they were not employed in that way for the Standing Project. “We recognized that Standing Rock is not an urban center, and there is no third party to bare witness,” Hanska says. “If everyone brought mirrors, there was a potential for them causing more damage than good.”
Wakeump, who is the director of All My Relations Gallery, which is run by the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) in Minneapolis, is longtime friends with Hanska. Recently, Hanska was a featured artist in All My Relations' “On Fertile Ground” exhibition. During that show, Wakemup hosted a workshop making mirror shields.
Wakemup was able to get funding from Forecast Public Arts, which in combination with support from NACDI, was enough to make 500 shields. With the help of volunteers, he brought them to Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.
“I wanted to do a performance to show not only that art can be used to protect ourselves, but also as an art performance statement,” says Wakemup. “It’s more like a fun activism, which I like to call ‘funktivism.’”
The performance aspect of the Mirror Shields Project was a little different than using the shields in direct action. “It was meant to do the same thing, but more in sheer numbers of people,” he says. Instead using the shields on the front line, Wakemup directed participants to create a performance some distance away, so the mirrors would still be reflective toward the police but wouldn’t cause danger of anyone being harmed.
Wakemup first filmed a rehearsal for the performance, which he shot with a drone, and says it was received well on social media. “Everyone loved it,” he says.
“One thing I realized throughout this whole process is that the river I'm most concerned about protecting, the pipeline that I’m most interested in stopping, is the one that crosses in front of our hearts,” says Hanska. “We are the river. There is a pipeline that has leaked and stained us as a society. and that’s the one that we really need to focus our efforts toward, because if we don’t stop it here, on our front, us as the front line, then they are going to build another one somewhere else.”
Wakemup next plans to use the shields at events such as the MayDay Parade and the American Indian Month march on the first of May.