Local Politics

Maine Activist Protests PACs With Paint

An image showing Ian O’ Russel working on the latest billboard in a series of political signs created to protest the influence of political action committees (PACs) in local elections. Photo courtesy of Elora Griswold.  

In this interview, Maine educator and political activist Ian O’ Russel shares how he uses billboards as a medium to communicate ironic political slogans in protest of the influence Political Action Committees (PACs) have over local elections. Student reporter Elora Griswold from The SMCC Beacon met with Ian at home to record the following interview on October 31st, 2022.

Disclaimer: Some portions of the following interview have been edited for clarity. The interviewee has also opted to use a pseudonym (Ian O’ Russel) for privacy purposes.

In order for that irony to be experienced, there has to be at least one individual in that situation, who cannot reconcile the various perspectives. And so that person is the aneiron; they are the hinge on which irony occurs.”

Elora Griswold (EG): When did you first realize you wanted to create the project, and why did you choose the billboard format to share your message? 

Ian O’ Russel (IR):   I guess it started after a political campaign that I was a part of–the Fair Rent Portland campaign. 2017 was when the Fair Rent Portland campaign started. One of the things that really disappointed me about the Fair Rent Portland campaign–which I really liked in a lot of different ways–was that it was a lot like the current campaign Maine’s Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is running. It was a small group of renters, who were trying to [protest] for rent control. And, you know, they [Fair Rent Portland] got completely slammed by the opposition who spent  like 140 grand. The landlords just posted up 140 grand and just went with a media onslaught. The one of the real successes that we had in sort of cracking through that was that they made signs. They would have these signs that say “say no to rent control,” and they put them in the ground all in like red and black lettering. So in response, we [Fair Rent Portland] made these signs with an arrow at the top that said, “your rising rents paid for this lawn sign.” Right? So creates this irony.

EG: So you’ve shared that this has been a project spanning several municipal election cycles; starting with your participation in the 2017 Fair Rent Portland campaign. Why have you chosen to specifically protest the Political Action Committee (PAC) Enough is Enough for your 2022 installment? 

IO’R: So I mean, Enough Is Enough is a poorly thought-out fascist organization. And I mean fascist in a very particular sense. There’s a general sense in which people talk about fascism as like, oh, it’s authoritarianism or it’s antisemitism, and it often has those elements. But fascism is actually ultimately an economic logic. It’s when those who control, for instance, of housing or development, are able to control the political structures around them in such a way that everyone is forced to play their game. They control the political structures in such a way that there’s no way out of it. There’s no meaningful competition, either at the level of the market or in the broader context of the political operation of the city.  For instance, the DSA is raising awareness for ballots and eight charter initiatives. And this group of people’s attitude about it is [to] vote no on everything, right? What do you mean vote no on everything, in a democratic society? The idea is that you engage with the debate, and like, okay, maybe you don’t like some of these things. By encouraging non-engagement, what are you trying to say that you can’t say out loud?

IO’R: One of the reasons that I liked this project is that it requires the viewer to engage in an intelligent way. There’s no way you can view the signs and not be like, ‘oh, there’s something interesting going on there and that activates something in people. And so precisely because of that, I’m taking their message–which is intentionally flat and empty and hostile–and sort of turning it around in this way that says, like, ‘oh, no, it doesn’t have to be this way.’ Speech can be clever and quick and interesting and multifaceted and multi-layered. Of course, it shows the poverty of what they’re doing in itself.

EG: Can you explain why you’ve been using the name “aneiron” to anonymously share your work? What does this mean and what’s its significance to your project?

IO’R: Every situation of irony has multiple perspectives at work…for that irony to be experienced, there has to be at least one individual in that situation, who cannot reconcile the various perspectives. And so that person is the aneiron; they are the hinge on which irony occurs. Now, it’s also the case that in certain situations, you can be both the perceiver of the irony and the aneiron at the same time. For instance, often you perceive your previous actions–like an earlier version of Ian did something and like, oh, isn’t that so ironic? Because now I understand the full context. So you can be the irony yourself. In this context, I’m talking about [it] under the context of political speech…those folks who are taking large amounts of corporate money spew largely anti-democratic or anti-tenant rhetoric. The people running Enough Is Enough–they’re never going to be like, ‘oh, yeah, I’m a wealthy landlord. And I’m paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to basically crush our tenants movement and a livable wage movement and like, great, that’s what I’m doing.’ They have to believe amongst themselves that they’re doing good work. 

A 2022 sign of Ian’s depicting the Portland skyline that reads, “Enough is enough! Stop thinking your opinion matters”. Photo courtesy of Elora Griswold.

EG: Do you personally fund this project?

IO’R: I mean, the nice thing about doing it is that I’ve set it up in an affordable way. I bought that projector for the Fair Rent Portland campaign for 60 bucks. I bought these signs at Home Depot for maybe $150; all 12 of them. I’ve just been recycling them. So I have to buy new paints, and a couple of new paint brushes. So a new cycle only costs me 60 bucks or something.

EG: Could you talk a little about the future of this project? Is it going to continue as long as there are these anti-worker movements in Portland?

IO’R: I mean, am I going to keep going with this? Yeah, absolutely. If you think of money as speech, like, all they’re doing is shouting in public “No! no! no!” really loudly and really extensively. What’s great about that, is you only have to have one voice in the chorus that makes clear how absurd the situation is for an understanding of that absurdity to spread.

If you’d like to dive deeper into Ian’s story, you can watch the following short documentary–produced by author Elora Griswold– which explores his work further.

To learn more about the Enough Is Enough campaign, you can visit this article

Elora welcomes students and faculty to reach out with suggestions for articles– you can reach her via email at eloraagriswold@smccme.edu or on Instagram at @elora.abigail.

Categories: Local Politics

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