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Designers Are Faxing Protest Art To Lawmakers (And So Can You)

To protest the proposed defunding of the National Endowment for the Arts, artists and designers are encouraging people to fax their representatives pieces of art.

Designers Are Faxing Protest Art To Lawmakers (And So Can You)
Left to right: Pentagram, Isabel Urbina Peña, Lilly Lam, On November 8th, 2016 . . . Erik Benjamins, Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln, 1860/2017 Casey Reas. [Screenshot: Artifax]

The Trump administration is poised to gut the National Endowment of the Arts, despite its already minuscule budget and tremendous (to reclaim the word) impact and scope. Resistance is underway, with organizers across the art world encouraging people to first and foremost speak to their lawmakers about the importance of the endowment.

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Then there’s Artifax, an effort led by the Los Angeles design studio Use All Five, which is unearthing an unlikely protest tool: the fax machine. With a wink toward the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of local government offices, Artifax is encouraging people to fax pieces of artwork to elected officials to tell (and show) them why the arts matter. They’ll even provide the artwork: 20 artist and designer-commissioned works, including those by Pentagram, Open, and Isabel Urbina Peña, are available to use.

As with most messaging around budgets and statistics, the most effective are the ones that tell a numbers story. For example, fax your representative a reminder that National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment of the Humanities represent just 0.02% of the overall budget:

Math by Open. [Screenshot: Artifax]
Or send a Natasha Jen-designed missive that compares Melania’s security expenses to the NEA’s yearly budget (which is less than half):

Pentagram. [Screenshot: Artifax]
Once you have selected your artwork, the site prompts you to enter your zip code to find your local representative—an incredibly helpful piece of design.

Importantly, Artifax also offers a message field so that you can add your own message. It offers a script but stresses that personalizing it is better. This is something that doesn’t always get emphasized with new apps and initiatives to make it easier to call representatives but is important to note. While the way that incoming messages are handled varies from one representative office to the next, most organizers will tell you that it’s always more impactful if you can make a persuasive and personal argument—one that both speaks to specific issues and shows how it effects you, the constituent. Messages that are received en masse—whether a scripted voicemail or a printed image—can make it easier to dismiss or group into one initiative (“Oh, these are the 350.org people again”) rather than carrying individual weight.

There is one caveat to this worth noting, which is that most fax machines these days are automated to forward to a designated inbox in the form of an email. Your representative will likely receive this piece of artwork in the form of an email, not a physical printout. This undercuts the assertion on Artifax’s website that faxes “still have that material impact that commands attention; they’re physical, and inconveniencing, and that’s what it takes to convey an impactful message to your representatives.” But an image still demands attention to an extent, and using actual pieces of art to convey why funding that directly supports the country’s artists and institutions is certainly a nice touch. The medium is the message.

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Faxing representatives alone won’t save the NEA, of course, but that’s also not what Artifax is proposing. This is a clever approach to voicing protest to the budget, and one that emphasizes the subject through original artwork, as well as the outmoded technology still accessible to elected officials. Initiatives to get people to participate in democracy are worthwhile, and designer-led efforts that deal with systems of local government are rare and great to see.

We also like to think that our lawmakers can appreciate—if not totally enjoy—the cleverness of using an outmoded technology to get through an entrenched bureaucratic system. (Except for the interns on the email front lines. The interns will definitely hate it.)

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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