If you’ve passed by Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) recently, there’s no way you could miss its newest installation. Plastered across every inch of the center and its adjoining store Open Book’s front windows are 148 hand-printed posters, each one with the phrase “White supremacy is ____.” White supremacy is intentional. White supremacy is traumatic. White supremacy is wack. There are 18 different words used to fill in that blank, and some posters leave the blank open, allowing viewers to search for the word they would use to fill the space.
The work’s creator is Ben Blount, an artist, designer, and printmaker from Evanston, Illinois. By leveraging the “power of multiples,” as Blount puts it, and the power of printed word, “Eyes Wide Shut” explores how language, and the ways it is presented, affects us. “If you’re going to avoid [the word], I’m going to put it right in your face,” he says.
The installation could not be more timely; the team at MCBA finished setting it up only days after the insurrection at the Capitol took place. And after the uprisings that consumed Minneapolis in summer 2020, it is also felt like the right city to exhibit this work, Blount says.
“With this installation, there’s an immediate awareness. I think it resonates with what our city and our country has been experiencing, especially in the last four years,” says Torey Erin, director of exhibitions and artist programs at MCBA.
Blount’s work predominantly revolves around issues of identity, race, and culture. In recent years and after receiving his MFA in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College, he’s gravitated towards letterpress printing. When making “Eyes Wide Shut,” Blount used individual wood letters to hand set the type, which was printed with black ink on each white poster. Throughout the process of conjuring up the 18 words describing white supremacy, he had conversations with other Black people about what the word meant to them. Blount says he hopes the work will compel people to consider how the word makes them feel—whether it’s “hot garbage” or “exhausting” (just two of the words displayed).
“Language is the main feature of this piece. Everything is centered on the page and putting this idea in black and white—it’s very straightforward,” Blount says. “I wanted to make it almost utilitarian.”
The simplicity and directness of these prints calls to mind the many times in history when printmaking has coincided with protest movements—from students protesting the Vietnam War holding signs reading “Abolish the Draft!” to the thousands of “Black Lives Matter” prints raised above the crowds during the Minneapolis uprising. This installation follows in the footsteps of other MCBA installations honoring George Floyd and another encouraging the public to “get out the vote.”
“I think of the ‘I Am a Man’ posters or even how handmade posters in general are usually white or cardboard and have [words written in] big black ink to be as bold and clear as can be,” Blount says. “I definitely feel like it’s in that tradition.”
So far, MCBA staff have viewed the public’s response from a pandemic-safe distance. People are pulling their cars over to take photos. Pedestrians have stopped in place to read the words. “As we were installing the posters, people were giving thumbs up and fist bumps,” says Erin. “It’s interesting especially during COVID, too, because there’s an opportunity for people to view an art installation outside.” The MCBA’s executive director Elysa Voshell agrees, adding: “It’s also been an opportunity to reach audiences who might not be seeking out seeing an exhibition necessarily.”
Though MCBA is still closed to the public, the statement Blount’s work makes on its exterior has turned Washington Avenue into a gallery of its own. “Eyes Wide Shut” is on view until March 28, 2021.