East City Art Reviews—Refractions: Prints and Projections by Robin Bell at Lost Origins Gallery

By Sarah McGavran, Ph.D. on November 12, 2019
Robin Bell, Emoluments Welcome, digital video projection, Trump Hotel, Washington, DC, May 2017. Photo: Liz Gorman/Bellvisuals.com

Robin Bell may be best known for his guerilla projections on the façade of the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington, DC, which addressed themes of corruption and accountability. His recent exhibition at Lost Origins Gallery expanded upon this work while asserting that viewers have a responsibility to speak out as well.

In May 2017, Bell’s projection Emoluments Welcome made national headlines. Like a meme transported from cyberspace to the façade of the Trump Hotel, the projected phrases “Emoluments Welcome” and “Pay Trump Bribes Here” made the arched entrance to the federally-owned Old Post Office look like a coin slot, the entire structure a presidential piggy bank. Bell had begun projecting onto the building in November 2016 with the phrase: “Experts agree: Trump is a pig.”[1] But this time the alignment of the site and message hit a nerve, cleverly and succinctly expressing the criticism that Donald Trump is profiting from the presidency.[2]

As Bell stated in an interview with PBS, “We chose the Trump Hotel because it’s a Trump beacon on public property. He’s taken it over and could be using foreign profits to enrich himself. It’s important we don’t shy away from calling that out.”[3] To drive home this point, Emoluments Welcome incorporated the Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution, which holds that no member of the government accept gifts from foreign states without the express permission of Congress. The projection also included the flags of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, countries where Trump has business interests, driving home the message that his conflicts of interest extend far beyond the Trump Hotel.[4]

Emoluments Welcome belongs to a wider body of political projections. Bell’s first projection was in 2003, and he also employed the medium during Occupy D.C. in 2011. More recently, he and his team at Bell Visuals have collaborated with a range of organizations to conceive and project bold statements onto buildings and monuments, temporarily branding them as sites of corruption. For example, in 2015, Bell worked with the Illuminator Collective and the Sierra Club to create a series of projections featuring the hashtags #ActOnClimate and #ShellNo on the American Petroleum Institute, the Republican National Committee, and the Chamber of Commerce, institutions that harbor individuals who deny climate change.[5]

Projections like Emoluments Welcome, which lasted for about ten minutes before hotel security asked Bell and his team to leave, are generally short lived, although the messages live on via social media.[6] In the intimate space of Lost Origins Gallery, Bell harnessed the durational aspect of time-based media to prompt longer and deeper reflection on the history of his activist art and on current events. Whereas visual clarity is essential to Bell’s outdoor projections, which are designed to be viewed in passing like billboard advertisements, optical confusion carried the message at Lost Origins.[7] Texts and images reappeared throughout the exhibition, linking and even collapsing past and present.

Robin Bell, Mirror I, video installation with mirrors, Mac mini, camera, and LED lights, 2019. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

A selection of prints for sale in the back room documented some of Bell’s projections. The main gallery featured two groups of site-specific video installations—one that was grounded in the present Trump era and another that looked back to earlier crises in democracy. Mirrors, the first group of three video installations, throws viewers into the midst of the current media frenzy and political chaos. Upon entering Lost Origins Gallery, they immediately saw their own images reflected in the video triptych Mirror I, a collage of recent media clips featuring the likes of Kellyanne Conway and Steven Mnuchin, historical photographs, kaleidoscopic digital patterns, and texts. Cameras captured and projected images of visitors onto multiple screens, almost like surveillance footage. In this way, Bell reminded us that we are all part of the conversation, and that our participation in debates within the digital sphere leaves footprints that can have real-world consequences.

Robin Bell, Mirror I, video installation with mirrors, Mac mini, camera, and LED lights, 2019. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

Mirrors mounted on the back wall refract and multiply the viewers’ reflections, adding to the sense of confusion and chaos. Open-ended statements, such as “Silence speaks volumes,” prompt a different kind of reflection. Reminiscent of contemporary artist Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, a series of one-liners that interrogate commonly held beliefs, they encouraged viewers to keep questioning what is going on around them. Many of the texts have appeared in Bell’s outdoor projections, while others summarized his project more generally: “Protecting democracy one projection at a time.” Importantly, Bell reminded us that “Democracy is not a one person business.” The work asks us to consider how we might join him in his protest, apart from liking and sharing.

Robin Bell, Lupo Inferno, projection mapped mixed-media installation, 2019. Photo: Sarah McGavran for East City Art

Lupo Inferno is representative of the second group of works. At certain moments, this light projection and video installation resembled a garish American flag. Anchored by a display of found objects arranged on a shelf like a bizarre library, the installation drew a parallel between the fall of the Roman Empire and the present-day United States. The first word references Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were said to have been weaned by a wolf (lupus in Latin). “Inferno” invokes Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the Roman poet Virgil leads the author though the nine circles of hell.

In Lupo Inferno, the faces of present-day leaders and pundits, many of whom appeared in the Mirrors, are projected onto Styrofoam heads and plastic skulls. Their likenesses are either grotesquely distorted by the mannequins’ features, or are simply misaligned, implying a divorce between purported values and actions—or simply a lack of humanity. Arranged on a flimsy wire bookshelf in place of historical tomes, these flickering countenances take their place in the longer trajectory of the rise and fall of civilizations. A blurry clip of a protest sign reading “Save the U.S. Constitution” in the adjacent projection Deep Television Fake (2019), which featured clips from the beginning of Bell’s career in the early 2000s, reinforced the idea that the fight for democracy is ongoing.

Robin Bell’s public projections and the work presented at Lost Origins Gallery contend that we are at a low point in history. Occasionally, the artist responds to the turmoil with a direct insult, like the one he first projected onto the Trump Hotel in 2016. However, Bell is at his best when he transcends the heat of the moment to address the broader theme of individual responsibility within democracy. If we follow his example and speak truth to power, he assures us that “The future is better.”

Refractions: Prints and Projections by Robin Bell on view October 4­–27, 2019 at Lost Origins Gallery located at 3110 Mt. Pleasant St. NW, Washington, DC, 20010.

*All of the works that were on view at Lost Origins Gallery were for sale. For more information about Bell’s prints and video installations, please visit: Bellvisuals.com

[1] Rachel Kurzius, “Trump Hotel Projection Says ‘Felons Welcome Here,’” DCist, August 22, 2018: https://dcist.com/story/18/08/22/trump-hotel-felons-welcome-here-projection/

[2] Government ethics watchdogs have warned that Trump’s ownership of the hotel could create conflicts of interests. Indeed, lobbyists for the Saudi government booked a block of rooms at the hotel a month after his election in November 2016. Two federal lawsuits allege this was an effort to curry favor with the president, in violation of the Emoluments Clause. For more on the federal lawsuits, see: David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell, “Saudi-Funded Lobbyist Paid for 500 Rooms at Trump’s Hotel after 2016 Election,” Washington Post, December 5, 2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/saudi-funded-lobbyist-paid-for-500-rooms-at-trumps-hotel-after-2016-election/2018/12/05/29603a64-f417-11e8-bc79-68604ed88993_story.html

[3] Lora Strum, “This Projection Artist Is Using the Trump International Hotel to Protest the President,” PBS, August 19, 2017: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/projection-artist-using-trump-hotel-protest-president

[4] In October 2019, multiple news outlets reported that the Trump Organization is considering selling the property due to ongoing criticism and lawsuits accusing Trump of violating the Emoluments Clause. For example, see: Eric Lipton and Maggie Haberman, “Trumps Put Their Washington Hotel on the Market,” New York Times, October 25, 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/25/us/politics/trump-hotel-washington.html

[5] Gina Rogers, “Sierra Club Acts in Solidarity with the Illuminator on Clean Power Plan National Day of Action,” The Sierra Club, August 4, 2015: https://www.sierraclub.org/planet/2015/08/sierra-club-acts-solidarity-illuminator-clean-power-plan-national-day-action

[6] Christopher Mele and Daniel Victor, “‘Pay Trump Bribes Here’ Projected on Trump Hotel in Washington,” New York Times, May 16, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/16/us/trump-hotel-projection.html

[7] For more on the issues of duration and clarity in Bell’s work, see the interview “Robin Bell,” in Library of Light: Encounters with Artists and Designers, ed. Jo Joelson (London: Lund Humphries, 2019): 39-44.