If you happened to be walking downtown last Thursday night, you may have noticed a new projection in the upstairs windows of the historic Atlantic Trust Building at Front and Market streets. Earlier in the week, multimedia artist Johnny Bahr III was working in his studio on the fourth floor when he looked down to see riot police advancing on protesters. Feeling the need to capture his emotions, he created a simple projection that spanned the length of three windows. “BLM” and “ILM” flashed at regular intervals, with only the letters “B” and “I” rotating to represent both the Black Lives Matter movement and Wilmington’s airport call letters. Bahr recorded the installation from ground level and posted it to Instagram, where it quickly became an emblem of support for Wilmington’s peaceful protests.
The child of an Ecuadorian mother, Bahr grew up downtown immersed in the arts. His work mixes photography and pop art iconography with video and other digital technologies, and is often marked by a sense of mischief. In one mixed media piece from his 2018 “Creatures of Cape Fear” series, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man looms ominously over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
In a caption accompanying his June 4 Instagram post, Bahr wrote: “Racism, injustice, prejudice, and bigotry is rooted in the fearful and I hope those cursed by it can right their wrongs, change their ways, and learn to think with open minds and open hearts and treat all people like people with fair judgment and without harm.… I hope this is a movement in the right direction for everyone.”
encore caught up with Bahr over email late last week.
encore (e): Tell us about this particular installation. Where did the idea come from? How was it constructed?
Johnny Bahr III (JB): I was up at my studio working on Sunday night when the protestors and riot police came down Front Street, and I got to witness it from a bird’s-eye view. It was pretty surreal, like something you see in a movie.
I have been using a technique called projection mapping in my art installations at my studio where I use a combination of hardware (projectors, computers) and software to direct light to a specific area or areas. In the past I have projected animated imagery onto the window curtains so they are visible from outside. With everything going on, it felt like it was the best way for me to show support within my own community. It worked out that I have three south-facing windows and that both ILM and BLM are made out of three letters.
e: What has been the response on and off social media? Have you heard from any local leaders?
JB: I primarily use Instagram since I am a visual artist. I think the short clip of the install has gotten the most views within a few days than anything else I have posted. No one has reached out, specifically, but I have had some I consider community leaders up in my studio before. I think art definitely has an important role to play in all communities, and can send powerful messages and unite people.
e: We’ve seen “Black Lives Matter” painted on the street outside the White House, and numerous boarded-up businesses showcasing murals of George Floyd and messages of love and peace. Can you tell us how you’ve processed some of the street art you’re seeing in response to the protests nationwide?
JB: I follow a lot of artists from all over on social media and there is some really powerful imagery being created and circulating. I think the most powerful art I’m seeing is footage from protestors all over the world. This is going to be more than just a part of American history—it’s going to go down as history of the world.
Honestly, what has moved me the most is the response from people and the unity and solidarity. Especially coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, which has separated us all, it’s amazing to see people standing together and uniting over an issue that has kept us divided us for a long time.
e: Have you been involved in the protests in any other way?
JB: Crowds kind of make me nervous, but seeing the protestors and riot police marching down my street from the studio, it was surreal but inspiring and I knew I couldn’t just be quiet. As a visual artist, I think sometimes the best thing to do is take those emotions and feelings and create something.
View this post on Instagram
ILM♥️BLM. I love my community and the diversity it has offered and exposed me to growing up here, it’s why I choose to continue living here. Im a mixed kid with white skin and was fortunate to have exposure at a very young impressionable age to all kinds of people…white, black, Asian, Latino, middle eastern, African, gay, straight, bi, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, you name it. If anything it taught me to be curious and accepting of all colors, traditions, cuisines, religions, sexual preferences etc and to question and accept differences and learn to think for myself. Racism, injustice, prejudice, and bigotry is rooted in the fearful and I hope those cursed by it can right their wrongs, change their ways, and learn to think with open minds and open hearts and treat all people like people with fair judgement and without harm. United we stand, divided we fall. I believe in us, I believe in the future, I hope this is a movement in the right direction for everyone. #ilmstrong #capefear #blm #wilmington #nc #projectionmapping
e: How has living in Wilmington informed your art?
JB: I grew up in a diverse downtown neighborhood and my parents exposed me to lots of different cultures growing up. Perhaps because my mom was an immigrant and my dad was an adventurer, they sought out other families in Wilmington that were from other places, so I was able to meet people from all kinds of different countries, cultures, and backgrounds at a young age.
I have lived in bigger cities (Atlanta, D.C., L.A.), but I haven’t found somewhere more beautiful than Wilmington yet. For me it is home, and I have met people here [who are] doing interesting things all over the world who have inspired me to establish my art practice here.
e: Where else can encore readers find your art right now?
JB: I post regularly on Instagram and use that as my primary social media (@bahr_iii). I also have shows at my studio regularly, or if anyone is curious they can drop by with an appointment. I like working with local businesses and you can find my work hanging at YoSake, Capricho [and] Slainte. I also have a projector installation running at the Wilson Center.
e: Do you have plans to make more art around themes of racial and social justice?
JB: Yes. I think throughout history art has definitely been a means of protest and can both inspire and offend people simultaneously. I think creating and viewing art is a means of introspection; if you like or don’t like something you have to ask why and be able to answer to yourself or explain it. Art is a good vessel to extract truth. I find that sometimes the best way for me to speak out about an issue is to create, and I will continue to do that in my work for things that I feel strongly about.
I’m looking to get involved with the Dreams program here in town and would like to expose the kids to some of the new media that’s out there. Ive met with the director and had him at my studio and I think focusing on the youth is a good way to bring positive impact to the community.
e: Is there anything else you’d like encore readers to know?
JB: Wilmington is an amazing community. I am very happy and fortunate to have grown up here and to be making art here now. I have lots of love for this place and all the amazing people I have met here and hope we can prosper collectively and set an example and be an inspiration to others. My goal is to make Wilmington a worldwide art destination.
Johnny Bahr III