Andre Chung/Bell Visuals
Robin Bell has projected at least 50 messages onto the Trump International Hotel over the last four years, including this one on Jan. 10, 2021.
Andre Chung/Bell Visuals
On the evening of January 10th, the D.C.-based artist and activist Robin Bell pulled up to the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. He and his crew quickly began setting up video projection equipment — they had a lot to do, and not much time to do it.
Four days earlier, a pro-Trump mob had stormed the Capitol Building down the street. Security in the area was getting tighter by the minute, both in response to the insurrection and in advance of President Joe Biden's inauguration.
Within a few minutes, a police officer showed up and asked what Bell was doing. "We're going to be here for like five minutes," Bell told him. The officer lingered but let them keep at it.
A few moments later, Bell began projecting a series of anti-Trump messages in enormous, bright lettering across the front of the hotel.
"A TRAITOR SLEEPS IN THE WHITE HOUSE." "ARREST THE PRESIDENT." "IMPEACH." "GAME OVER."
A photographer snapped photos of each projection. Bell planned to post the pictures on social media over the course of the next ten days; he saved a shot of the "GAME OVER" slide to share on Inauguration night.
Over the four years of Trump's presidency, Bell projected more than 50 protest messages onto the Trump International Hotel and countless more on other buildings in D.C. and around the country. Some of the images went viral on social media, and national news outlets like the New York Times and CNN took notice of his work.
"If the D.C. street art scene were a jazz ensemble, Robin Bell is the drummer. He's keeping the pace," says a fellow D.C. street artist who goes by Absurdly Well. "He can take the vibration of the city and make art out of it."
Now, with the Trump presidency in the rearview mirror, Bell is taking some time to himself to digest the last four years and plan new projects. He spoke with me recently by Zoom from his Mount Pleasant studio, which has also been his home since the start of the pandemic.
Bell at his February 2019 solo exhibition at the Corcoran.
Bell has a long, thin mustache, trendy purple glasses and wispy hair that sprouts from the top of his head like an apathetic houseplant. He speaks in long blocks of unfinished sentences and stories, pausing every seven or eight minutes to apologize for meandering away from my questions.
"I'm tired physically and mentally," he says. "We just dealt with some maliciousness over the last four years. We're going to spend a long time processing that."
Bell did his first Trump Hotel projection just a few weeks after Trump was elected: the phrase "EXPERTS AGREE: TRUMP IS A PIG" appeared for a night over the hotel's entrance. The message was a throwback to a local Reagan-era postering campaign targeting Attorney General Edwin Meese III. Posters that read "EDWIN MEESE IS A PIG" created a stir around town; they were later revealed to be the brainchild of Jeff Nelson, the drummer in the punk band Minor Threat.
Bell says he agonized over that projection and all the ones that came after. He wanted to find a tone that conveyed his — and many of his fellow Washingtonians' — disdain for the new president's policies, while also providing a bit of humor and release.
"I was nervous about propping him up any more than he was already being propped up by the media and by art," Bell says. "We're laughing at him, but if history's any lesson, there's a gentle balance between authoritarians and how you laugh at them, and then how you really have to take them seriously."
Artists like Absurdly Well quickly took notice of what Bell was doing, in part due to the sheer size of each piece. "His art is necessary because it's so big," Absurdly Well says of Bell's building-sized projections. "Like, who has the nuts to do that? It's this guy with these glasses on, who's humble as shit."
To that point, Bell harbors no illusions that Trump saw the projections or was influenced by them. Bell's goal was to bolster the spirits of people in D.C. who were "doing the hard work," as he put it, to resist the administration's policies.
While some projections came together quickly — he projected a "for sale" sign onto the hotel within a few hours of the company announcing it was on the market — it often took Bell weeks to figure out how to word a message succinctly.
Projection art forces the verbose artist to distill complex news stories into about 30 characters or less so passersby can understand quickly ("EXPERTS AGREE: TRUMP IS A PIG" clocks in at 29). Bell calls the process "an exercise in extreme brevity."
One of his most popular projections was in response to the 2018 emoluments case, in which two attorneys general sued Trump over his refusal to divest from businesses like the Trump Hotel. After about a month of noodling, Bell decided to project the words "PAY TRUMP BRIBES HERE" onto the hotel, with an arrow pointing to the entrance. The four-word projection spawned nearly two dozen news stories.
"It solidified a few things," Bell says. "One was how it made people happy, and then two, how art can really visualize things that there's just no way to visualize."
Bell's projections are part of a larger and longstanding movement in D.C. to use public spaces and federal property to speak out against government policies, says Kym Rice, the interim director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.
"Look at Black Lives Matter Plaza," she says. "City landscape can be turned into sites to question the national government."
Even though most of the local audience for Bell's art is comprised of people with the same political leanings as him, Rice says it's important to remember that the city welcomes thousands of tourists from across the country every year.
"There's something about putting subversive things outside on these buildings," she says. "It's a very direct way of bringing these opinions out in the open. We don't have many other vehicles, other than Twitter, to do that."
Looking back, Bell feels a deep sense of relief that he and his team never faced any serious challenges to their safety from out-of-town Trump supporters staying at the Trump Hotel. One of his collaborators was arrested in March 2019 while Bell was projecting "DISCRIMINATION IS WRONG" onto the Rayburn House Office Building as part of a project supporting LGBTQ+ equality. The charges were eventually dropped, which Bell credits to the media attention the arrest received.
Liz Gorman/Bell Visuals
One of Bell's crew members was arrested by Capitol Police in 2019 while they were projecting this message.
Liz Gorman/Bell Visuals
Over the years, he's received legal advice from a number of lawyers who have seen or read about his work. In a 2017 op-ed in the Washington Post, lawyer and Post contributor Eugene Volokh argued that Bell's Trump Hotel projections are legal: They do not violate criminal trespass laws, as long as the projections don't interfere with the business or constitute a "nuisance."
Legality aside, Bell is still in the process of exhaling after years of worrying about how to explain himself to law enforcement. That's the reason he's never projected onto the White House: He never wanted to tempt fate by pointing a beam of light onto the building in clear sight of the Secret Service.
The White House has new residents now, but Bell plans to stay just as busy. Part of his motivation comes from simply needing to make a living: Even though his status has grown over the past four years, the business of projection art isn't going to get anyone rich. He often partnered with other artists and advocacy organizations on projections and received payment for his work. But just as often he'd spend a night projecting on his own dime, managing logistics, equipment and any related costs on his own.
His overt political leanings have lost him some jobs with potential clients, he believes. "Frankly, people are afraid to work with us," he says. "People don't want to work with you if you're known as 'the political artist.'"
That just means Bell has to hustle harder. He has a few new projections in the works already, but he's keeping the details quiet for now. The artist in him wants the public to be surprised, and the activist in him knows that a major news event could pop up at any moment and demand his full attention.
"The nature of art is to push back against the nation state. Protest art isn't over because we have a new president," says Kym Rice. Or, as Bell puts it, "we're going to have our work cut out with Biden."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.