Occupy virtual streets

The future of protest involves light, holograms and augmented reality

For some activists, handmade protest signs and graffiti are passé. Instead, they’re employing new technologies like light graffiti, holograms and lasers. Confronted with cutting-edge methods that flummox the existing legal system, authorities are struggling to figure out ways to suppress them—or whether they should.

Take The Illuminator, an art collective born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The New York-based group of performance artists has a van mounted with a light projector so that they can project messages onto the side of buildings. Two years ago, they used this tactic to protest the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s naming the fountains at its Fifth Avenue entrance after museum funder David Koch, the conservative businessman much despised by those on the political left.

“A private company was putting their brand on public land,” said Grayson Earle, a member of the group. In September 2014, around 9 p.m. on a night of a gala honoring Koch, Earle and two other members of the group drove by the museum slowly, using their projector to write in light across the front of the building, “Koch = Climate Chaos” and “The Met, brought to you by the Tea Party.”

Light protest at the MetCourtesy of The Illuminator

Light protest at the Met

“It was only up there for a minute. Usually we get something up for 30 minutes or an hour,” said Earle. “We did one pass and then got too emboldened and did another. That was when a ton of officers surrounded the van, pulled us over and put us in handcuffs.”

They were charged with some traffic violations—having a limb outside the vehicle and driving a commercial vehicle in a non-commercial lane—and, for the light graffiti, “illegal posting of advertisements.” They were in jail until 3 a.m. that night and had their projector seized for two months, taking away their ability to continue doing light protests.

When they talked to a lawyer, he felt they had an excellent case. “Illegal posting of ads” didn’t apply, he said. They had put up political speech not an ad benefitting them commercially, and it wasn’t physically affixed to anything, as defined by the law. It was, after all, just light.

“We fought the criminal charges and got all the charges related to the projection dismissed,” said Samuel Cohen, the group’s lawyer. “Then we countersued for false arrest and First Amendment violations.”

That suit is ongoing. “We’re outpacing the law,” said Earle.

In its response, a lawyer for New York City emphasized that the group “did not have permission from the owners of the museum to place this message onto the side of the building.”


Hologram protestors in Spain

With the explosion of technologies that allow us to augment our physical environments, the question of “permission” is increasingly crucial. Is it needed to project light, holograms and images onto people’s real world property? Sure, scrawling a message in spray paint on the front of the building would clearly be illegal, but what of light?

The Illuminator isn’t alone in its creative approach to protest. When Spain outlawed dissidents gathering outside government buildings last year, a protest group projected thousands of hologram protestors outside of a parliament building. In New Hampshire, a libertarian group uses a laser projector called the “Green Beam” to warn people about police checkpoints and to write messages on government buildings, such as “City Council Sucks.”

The biggest challenge for these protest innovators is that they can only conduct their campaigns at night, because it needs to be dark for their technology to work. And their messages could be neutralized if someone fought fire with fire, or in this case, light with light. If you were to simply blast the area being projected on with more light, it could erase the projection.

Where that won’t be the case is in augmented reality. If an AR platform got popular enough, it could be a place for projecting all kinds of messages about businesses, properties, and even me and you. To return to the famous Koch brothers, there’s already an AR app you can use at the grocery store that labels products made by their companies so that politically-opposed consumers can avoid buying them.

The legal battle around what we’re going to be able to project into augmented realities is starting to be explored, though not in a political context, thanks to Pokèmon GO. Property owners have objected to the game’s creators populating their backyards, parks, and museums with virtual creatures and features. There have been multiple lawsuits around the world accusing the game makers of nuisance and unfair enrichment by projecting pikachus onto private property and government land without the owners’ permission.

An unwanted pokemon in the Holocaust Museum in D.C.

An unwanted pokemon in the Holocaust Museum in D.C.

“Do we as property owners have the right to refuse permission to developers in that we do not want an AR creature or object placed on our property?” wrote Ohio-based lawyer Andrew Rossow in an article on the legal issues raised by the game. Rossow concludes yes, but predicts that lawmakers and courts will struggle with this grey area as “our laws have not yet caught up to cyberspace, or in this case, augmented reality.” After all, as we’ve seen with the protests, this all starts running into the First Amendment and people’s right to free speech (and pokèmon).

What if it weren’t just about wombats? What if, in an augmented reality space that lots of people use, someone started writing horrible things onto your house, saying you are terrible neighbor, or an asshole or a slut, or that your business is a rip-off?

Earlier this year, a labor union was found guilty of trespass for, over the course of three nights, projecting a message about health code violations onto the front of a restaurant in Las Vegas. An appeals court reversed the decision ruling that trespass requires “the invasion of land” through “a physical, tangible object” and that light didn’t count. One of the concurring judges disagreed on the science of this ruling, getting into the physics to argue that light is physical. No one has the right to live in a light-less black hole, the judge argued, and instead the legal objection should be around light that creates a nuisance. This is the argument that property owners have been making in the case of Pokèmon GO.

First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh predicted that the legal fate of light projections will be different from projections in augmented reality. IRL is different from AR: A protestor projecting an aborted fetus onto the wall of an abortion clinic is fundamentally different from projecting it onto the screen of a person looking at that clinic through an augmented reality filter.

“Why do I get to have control over how someone portrays my building?” said Volokh. “My right to stop physical touching of my building doesn’t extend to depictions of my building.”

Volokh said a state could pass a law forbidding projecting images or text onto someone else’s building, as a form of property protection, but that it would be hard-pressed to forbid the same in virtual reality.

So, if the holograms and light and laser projectors do get shut down by lawmakers, expect them to reappear in some kind of Protèstor GO app.