Arts Writing

Activist Art and the Poetics of Junk Mail

by K. Silem Mohammad

If you’re like me, and it’s a safe bet you are, you’re fed up with spam calls and texts. Recent surveys show that nearly half of the 97 percent of Americans who own smartphones receive robocalls or junk text messages every single day, and by the time this article sees print, that number will probably be far higher. Scam phishing operations and the like are a highly lucrative industry with very low operating costs, and they show no sign of going away any time soon. Ironically, one of the keys to their success has been their ability to mimic SMS protocols that were created to protect consumers: many of the texts, for example, identify themselves as coming from legitimate companies such as AT&T or Wells Fargo. Anyone foolish enough to click on the URL s in the bodies of the text is guided through a series of verifications that ask for personal information like Social Security numbers and bank account numbers. The rest of us just ignore the messages, but the nuisance persists.

“I liked my phone more in 2013,” says Ariana Jacob. I am talking with her and her collaborators over Zoom about the Spreading Rumours collective, which she initiated nearly a decade ago with Garrick Imatani, Anna Gray, and Ryan Wilson Paulsen, and which created a range of public interventions with the involvement of around twenty other Portland artists and activists.


This essay was edited by Mack McFarland, and appeared in CONDITIONS, a publication of The Ford Family Foundation. The annual arts journal (shifting title as it progresses) is part of the program element CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS, led by the University of Oregon with partners Portland State University, The Cooley Gallery, Reed College; and PNCA at Willamette University.

The title and concept for CONDITIONS came into focus as the editorial team launched its first issue, FIGURING. Here, we shift from FIGURING’s multiple perspectives on the body and the psyche to examine the cultural and biological mysteries and actualities of life at this tenuous environmental and socio-political moment. As our need for breath and sustenance are foregrounded across an accounting of our shared lives, we hope that CONDITIONS offers a space to meditate on the ways in which works of art (including writing) support us in making meaning from our state of, and provisions for, being. 

Featured Contributors: Amelia Rina, Laura Butler Hughes, Luiza Lukova, Sara Krajewski, Malia Jensen, Lumi Tan, Steph Littlebird, Ido Radon, Alejandro Espinoza Galindo, Stephanie Gervais, Stephanie Snyder, K. Silem Mohammad, Prudence Roberts, Sara Jaffe.