The most gripping image from the alternately inspiring and horrifying protests that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is undoubtedly this one: thousands of protesters training their laser pointers upward to reveal a hovering government helicopter, illuminating the implicit threat in smears of green, blue and red. On Tuesday night, as pressure for President Mohammed Morsi to resign mounted, the protesters projected a laser display onto the walls of a government building, showing a series of slogans and symbols including the English words “GAME OVER” and “OUT” (a word that could be seen on posters as well).
You may associate such laser projections most readily with business conferences, advertising, or raves. But they’ve been bubbling up in the graffiti and protest worlds for some years now. Graffiti Research Lab, an art collective that worked with digital technology and public space, built open-source devices to enable precisely these kinds of displays. They used one to project “NSA” on the Verizon building in downtown Manhattan way back in 2008, and co-founder James Powderly spent several days in a Chinese prison after anti-government activists asked him to introduce them to the technology. Though they began by working with small cluster of LEDs (from which Cartoon Network’s bomb-scaring moonites descended), they soon became interested in technologies that could make a larger impact. Eventually they developed devices that could project images up to a mile away, fit within a backpack, and be made by anyone with access to the proper parts. There’s no evidence that such technology is what’s being used at the Tahrir protests, but certainly graffiti plays a major role in the movement.
It’s easy to see the appeal of laser projection in a protest situation. Projectors can be made or bought cheaply, and they’re small, making them easy to sneak into guarded spaces. Even when they’re being used, it can be hard to locate the source, especially in a crowded environment like Tahrir. And, without wanting to state the obvious, they make speech extremely visible. The web has made it possible for people without many resources to nevertheless broadcast their thoughts, but limits the visibility of that broadcast to devices that happen to be tuned in, and these devices are almost always small and personal. Laser projection brings public speech into the public square, displaying dissent in an unmissable way to a geographically-defined audience.
It’s a twist, too, in the ongoing debate about the role of technology in social movements. Despite much initial excitement about “Twitter revolutions”, a consensus has emerged that while digital networking may have helped the movements form, they meant little once the protests began and everyone was in the same physical space. (Though certainly something’s changed when the head of the military chooses Facebook as his venue to officially rebuke the president.) Laser projections, though, are a form of digital technology that’s open-source, portable, and powerful — exactly what people want from Twitter. Except rather than flashing on a million screens, the words they send out appear fifty feet tall, in front of an audience all viewing it at the same time. That’s a powerful way to make a political statement, if the right people are watching.