An artistic vigil is a type of protest in which demonstrators use their creative talents to raise awareness about a cause or issue. Vigils can take many different forms, but all aim to send a powerful message through the use of art. This guide will provide tips and ideas on how to create an effective artistic vigil.
The word vigil comes from the Latin word for wakefulness, and refers to a practice of keeping watch through the night over the dead or dying. Compared to the blustery pronouncements of a rally, a candlelight vigil offers a more soulful and symbolically potent expression of dissent.
Unfortunately, routine and self-righteousness can strip vigils of their power. In the American peace movement of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, the “candlelight vigil” — all too often a handful of dour people silently holding candles — became a standard, and fatally predictable, form of protest.
These vigils were silent and solemn, but there was a precision to the message that gave them a visceral potency in that emotionally raw time.
An artistic vigil, on the other hand, brings a more artful touch. This doesn’t necessarily mean costumes and face paint and puppets (though it could). It means thoughtful symbolism, the right tone, and a distinct look and feel that clearly convey the meaning of the vigil. An artistic vigil often draws upon ritual elements (see: PRINCIPLE: Use the power of ritual) to both deepen the experience of participants and demonstrate that experience to observers.
How to organise
There is no one answer to this question as it can vary depending on the specific goals and objectives of the vigil, as well as the resources and capabilities of the activists involved. However, some tips on organising an artistic vigil could include:
- Choose a location that is significant to the issue or cause being protested.
- Create eye-catching and impactful signs and banners to grab attention and communicate the message of the vigil.
- Use music, dance, and other forms of performance art to add energy and emotion to the event.
- Invite well-known artists, musicians, and other celebrities to participate in the vigil to help raise awareness and draw media attention.
- Make sure to promote the event in advance through social media and other channels to ensure a good turnout.
A good example is the series of “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War” vigils organized by the Artists’ Network of Refuse & Resist in New York City in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers. People were asked to wear a dust mask (common in NYC after 9/11), dress all in black (common in NYC all the time), show up at Times Square at exactly 5 pm, and remain absolutely silent. Each participant held a sign that read “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War.” These vigils were silent and solemn, but there was a precision to the message that gave them a visceral potency in that emotionally raw time, for participants and observers alike.
The most famous vigils of the late twentieth century were probably those organized by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentinian women whose children were disappeared by Argentina’s 70s-era military dictatorship. By gathering every Thursday for more than a decade in the plaza in front of the Presidential Palace, they not only kept vigil for their lost loved ones, but also kept pressure on the government to answer for its crimes.
The “artistry” of a vigil can be exceedingly complex, or as simple as a few basic rituals. The simple fact of women wearing black and gathering in silence on Fridays gives shape and presence to the Women in Black worldwide network of vigils. Begun by Israeli women during the First Intifada to protest the occupation of Palestine, it has since expanded across the globe and embraced broader anti-war and pro-justice themes, but nonetheless maintains its distinctive character. At the other end of the spectrum, artist Suzanne Lacy has created complex works of art in which victims of sexual violence stand vigil amidst the art installations that tell their stories.
Improve this page
These are some questions people may have:
- What is the expected outcome of the vigil?
- How long should the vigil last?
- How to organise a vigil?
- How do I clearly communicate my message with a vigil?
- The Body Politics of Suzanne Lacy | Jeff Kelly in *But Is It Art?*, Ed. Nina Felshin, 1994
- The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle | T.V. Reed, 2005
- Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War, 2011
- Suzanne Lacy
- Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
- Women in Black
- Artistic vigil by Beautiful Trouble (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 License)
- The Rebel Write tool was used to help write this article using artificial intelligence (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 Licence)