When Indecline started work on their documentary The Art of Protest in late 2018, they wanted to tell the history of resistance art. Over the previous two years — since they broke onto the national consciousness with their naked-Trump, guerilla-art instillation The Emperor Has No Balls, the activist-artist collective has staged numerous pieces of public art in protest of the Trump presidency. To tell the story, they reached out to Colin Day (director of Saving Banksy) and started shopping around the idea to streaming services. But as the pandemic unfolded, and the Black Lives Matter movement reignited across the streets of the nation, their mission changed. As a representative for Indecline puts it: “What was once set up to be a deep dive into the history of resistance art, soon became a ‘call to action.’”
Now, the 45-minute film — executive produced and distributed by Zero Cool films and premiering here on Rolling Stone — traces the history of protest art, from the Civil Rights movement through the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. It does so in a way that is equal parts gut-wrenching and exhilarating, illustrating how despite the passage of time, little has changed. To this end, they were careful in their curation of who to talk to: not only did they bring in the heavy hitters most associated with the modern protest-art movement — like Shephard Fairey, Nadya Tolokonnikova, Tom Morello, and Dave Navarro (who also helped to finance the film) — they were careful to incorporate a wider range of voices. Leaders from youth-run 501(c) The Sunrise Movement talk about uniting movements, while the Yes Men discuss bringing absurdity to Capitol Hill. Atlanta’s Ash Nash remembers organizing the “Kaeperbowl” in Atlanta in 2019, spurring artists across the city to paint images of Colin Kaepernick in public places as the Super Bowl rolled into town. Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, speaks to being literally saved from death row by protest art.
At the heart of the film is Indecline’s work over the past four years. Since the naked Trumps were spotted in cities across the country, the collective’s output has increased at a rapid rate: They’ve painted billboards at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel; walked fake MAGA supporters like dogs down Hollywood Boulevard; turned a Trump Hotel suite into jail cell for 45; and given kids lifelike heads of tyrannical world leaders, including our president, to use as soccer balls from Trump’s Mexican border wall to out front of the White House. In the film, several members — all with their faces and voices obscured, all identified only as “Indecline” — speak to the importance of resistance art, and not letting those in power silence you. But the force of the film comes from the real-life, contemporary acts of artistic courage, their own and those of artists around them. And in the lead-up to the election, they’re hoping to remind people that voting is just the beginning.