In early June, J.C. Futrell, education director at RedLine Contemporary Art Center, challenged resident artist Lares Feliciano to create a work reflecting on the police murder of George Floyd, and she dashed off an urgent video. But as Feliciano witnessed police brutality at protests and watched her partner come back from the demonstrations night after night, clothes soaked in tear gas and body covered in bruises from rubber bullets, Futrell's challenge continued to nag at her. And soon the artist started an animation project focusing on the murders of Black people by police and the collective trauma those killings have caused in our country.
"I wanted to find a way to both express my rage against police violence and white supremacy and also express my grief over the lives that are continually lost over and over again: people being shot by police — specifically, black people being shot by police," Feliciano says. "The process of making this was in itself a grief process. I was just feeling so hopeless, honestly. There’s no time to grieve. There’s just no time to grieve before you heard about another person whose life was lost."
Animation, a notoriously slow art form, gave Feliciano the space to process myriad emotions, review historical and archival videos about police violence on the Internet Archive, and learn more about the people who had been killed in recent months.
"I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression, like so many folks throughout this whole thing," says Feliciano. "There’ve been days where I cannot leave the house. I cannot mentally, emotionally handle that, but I can get on my computer and move some butterflies around."
The result of months spent moving objects around on a screen, her short animated video, "a prayer," will play in a loop outside the Clyfford Still Museum on Thursday, October 8, as part of the institution's film/Still series. During the showing, Feliciano will join in a virtual conversation with experimental hip-hop act Wheelchair Sports Camp's Kalyn Heffernan and Wes Watkins, along with Machete Mouth and KOKO LA, about their song "187bpm_demo," a chaotic sonic revolt against the Denver police killing of Paul Castaway that scores part of "a prayer." They will discuss the animation, the song, and the function of art in social movements.
"A prayer" opens with a look at a couch in a room that harks back to the ’60s; the image is both nostalgic and unsettling. "Nostalgia has always been something I’ve been really drawn to," explains Feliciano. "It’s something we use to create our own identities. In this particular time period, when time is moving in such a fucked-up way, we’re so detached from ourselves. With the couch, I was just really thinking about this idealized vision of home and family and the security and safety of home, and I just love the gaudy fabric and patterns of 1960s furniture catalogues."
While brass bands play, the image of the living room morphs so subtly that it's occasionally hard to tell if anything is happening — though it is. An old-fashioned TV is superimposed on top of the image. The sounds of static interrupt the jazz, along with documentary footage of protesters chanting "Breonna Taylor" and "Hands Up, Don't Shoot," images of monuments being destroyed and cities burning. Superimposed over those are antique police badges that rain down the screen, suggesting that police violence is as old-fashioned as the fabric in the living room.
Eventually, the domestic sphere is distorted into a swirl and interrupted by police marching through the frame, and then the black-and-white faces of people murdered by their government take over the screen. Butterflies, a symbol of liberation, rise among them.
The humanity of Black victims of police violence, whose faces we see, is shown in stark contrast to the masked riot cops, whose individuality is absorbed in the militaristic fashion of state brutality, as the sounds of Wheelchair Sports Camp create anarchic energy. Eventually, the police are engulfed in flames. Once their images are gone, the living room returns, and we hear the sound of a lone violin, evoking the memory of Elijah McClain, who died after an encounter with Aurora police in August 2019. Home is stable again, but grief about government violence remains.
"This isn’t new," says Feliciano. "None of this is remotely new. That’s the idea of the couch and the loop of the couch — that we end right there on the same spot that we start is reflecting that feeling that this shit just keeps happening over and over and over again. It’s this repeated collective trauma that we all experience, and repeated intense loss and grief for the families directly affected.
"We’re in this quaint, pink-saturated American home that we share," she says. "We are being traumatized over and over and over again by the very people meant to protect us. We’re being abused. We're being abused by the government."
Feliciano, who studied filmmaking at San Francisco State University before moving to Denver six years ago, says that her art is one entry point in the movement against police violence.
"I definitely consider myself a socially engaged artist, and I feel like I can’t help but address the political in my work, because the personal is political," says Feliciano. "In this particular time, it’s been both a way for me to participate in the movement and also a way for me to process what’s happening."
As Feliciano tells it, there are many roles for people in social movements. "There are folks who are out in the street getting tear-gassed and arrested and shouted at by masked Proud Boys, and that is legit and real and necessary," she says. "There are many roles to play in the revolution, and I feel like creating art and reflecting on what’s happening through creative means is an important role. It’s how I participate."
Film/Still With Lares Feliciano, a screening and discussion, takes place online from 7 to 7:45 p.m. on Thursday, October 8; the event is free, but donations are encouraged. The movie will be projected onto the museum at 1250 Bannock Street from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on October 8. For more information, go to the Clyfford Still website.
Update October 9, 2020: This story has been updated to include an embed of "a prayer."