A silent, private protest’: Art and activism in the age of COVID

What’s a maker to do during a pandemic?

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The crossroads between art and protest is a busy intersection—so busy that one hardly bats an eye when an artist speaks out against resource extraction, or when the most photogenic signs at a protest appear in the press the next day.

There are, however, some strange byways where art bleeds into protest and vice versa in unexpected ways. The pandemic has produced several such offshoots as it has kept many would-be protesters indoors, and their protests close to home.

Eric Dyck, a comics creator in Lethbridge, observed the wave of "Defend Alberta Parks" signs that sprouted up on lawns across the province after Alberta's United Conservative Party (UCP) announced—and then walked back—its plan to close or delist 175 parks in 2020.

“I can think of one [house] a few blocks south of us that has probably upwards of 10 signs and a banner, all related to various bumblings of the UCP,” he recalled. “As more signs popped up, the more it felt really kind of goofy in the sense that you had to put a sign on your lawn saying that you like rivers, or 'don't be mean to teachers'—things that you would have thought were fairly basic human decency.”

Dyck was inspired to write a comic extrapolating on this phenomenon. In it, he invented lawn declarations ranging from the commonsensical “I (love) Public Health Care” to the whimsical “Albertans Against Self-Dentistry.”

It’s a pretty quintessential political cartoon, and the story could have ended there. However, Dyck started receiving messages from readers asking to purchase real-life versions of these imagined lawn signs.

Happy that the comic had struck a chord, Dyck printed an exploratory small run of custom lawn signs with a few slogans inspired by the comic—including, somewhat perplexingly, “Don’t Boop the Badger.”

“We have badgers in our neighbourhood,” he explained. “People think of them as giant gophers, and sometimes newcomers in our neighbourhood need to get a heads up about animals that they probably shouldn't go close to."

It also seemed like a good way to remind Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who served as a longtime Conservative MP in Ottawa, about the sort of things he shouldn't do in Alberta, Dyck adds.

This isn’t the only instance of creators finding new ways for Albertans to express dissatisfaction. In the summer of 2020, Julie Morrison, the owner of Edmonton small business Majesty and Friends, released a mug emblazoned with the phrase “Fuck You, Kenney” to her online shop, and inadvertently began a small, caffeinated revolution.

Morrison reportedly made the first mug as a gift for a woman who tweeted about an interaction with the premier in Edmonton. “I was sitting on a patio on 104 street and I saw Jason Kenney walking across the street just metres away from me,” the woman (who asked to remain anonymous) told me. “I yelled, ‘Hey, Jason Kenney, fuck you!’ and he waved and said, ‘Thank you very much!’”

The Majesty and Friends website says that the mugs are “made in Alberta by people who care about healthcare, teachers, schools, kids, parks, and lgtbq+.” A quarter of the proceeds from the mugs go towards personal protective equipment for Alberta schools.

It turned out there was a waiting market for the mug, listed as the “subtly appropriate Kenney mug” on the Majesty and Friends website. It continues to be a bestseller for the business, and now comes in rainbow colours and in French (“Va te faire foutre, Kenney”). It also inspired hot takes from the media on all sides, ranging from hand-wringing about the death of civility to plaudits for taking a courageous political stance.

Morrison, however, stresses that her intentions were on a smaller scale.

“Our protest is a silent, private protest,” she said in an email. “I like to think it's classier than putting a decal on your truck.”

This comparison feels pertinent in the COVID era. Many Albertans have been spending less time behind the wheel and more time on video calls.

Reflecting on the success of his lawn signs, Dyck echoed this sentiment. “Think of a racist bumper sticker or a confederate flag or belt buckle or something: as awful as it is to see those, it also [says], ‘Oh, now I know what that guy's deal is.’ In some ways, the pride flags on someone's window or the ‘Support Your Teacher’ sign on their lawn, or the ‘Don't Boop The Badger’ sign is also a way of quietly and safely saying, ‘Hey, this is who your neighbour is; this is what I think my relationship to the rest of you is.’”

Dyck wasn’t able to find a cost-effective or environmentally-friendly option for printing, so after that initial run he’s out of the sign-making game for now. But he still sees his signs out on walks, and he has overheard passersby discussing them on more than one occasion.

“I have seen people in the wild kind of cocking their head at it, and then they go up closer. It's not until you get closer and read the fine print that you realize it's a political sign at heart, which is just a side of storytelling that I really like.”

Miranda Martini is The Sprawl's associate editor.

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