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The artists on the road in Trump’s old campaign bus

The presidential candidate’s promo bus went on sale last year, so this duo turned it into a moving installation – they kept the stripper pole too

The United States is hurtling towards the presidential elections. The California Primary will take place in June, and it's potentially a huge swinger for election candidates. If we cast our minds back to June last year, when Donald Trump first set his sights on the presidency, his bid was pretty much laughed away. Fast forward through the violent rallies, and the anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-everybody speeches and we're staring down the barrel of a very dangerous prospect for the free world as Trump emerges as the likely Republican candidate. North America's very much on the edge of dissolving into a mushroom cloud of hair peroxide and the juice of Trump steaks right now.

As his campaign grew like a persistent garden weed, Trump snaked his way around Iowa in a large blue campaign bus with his slogan emblazoned on its side: "Make America Great Again". Then, because of payment disputes with the bus company, it was put on Craigslist. This is where Mary Mihelic and David Gleeson, two working artists, picked it up and turned it into a moving parody, a cross-country art installation. They've been following the political trail and now they hope to land in California just in time for the Primary; plus, they've published a book, From the Finger to the Fist Pump: On the Road with Trump’s Campaign Bus, to catalogue their experience. We caught up with them on the tail-end of their journey.

How did you procure the bus?

Mary Mihelic: I was watching The Rachel Maddow Show here in the US and saw that Trump’s campaign bus was for sale on Craigslist in Iowa. David and I are friends and both artists. David was making other artwork about Donald Trump at the time including installations, videos, swords, ballot boxes and taco stands. I was making art about global feminism and religious freedom based on the kidnapped schoolgirls.  I called David and told him about the bus for sale and we talked about how it could be transformed into an anti-Trump artwork. We thought that it was just too good to be true. But in fact, it was true. This was the end of last September and at that time Trump was a longshot – nobody really believed he was going to last long. When our friends heard we actually bought the bus, they all thought we were crazy.

The Trump Campaign used the bus in Iowa last summer after he first announced he was running for President, leasing it from a company. After using the bus to campaign in Iowa for a few months, there was some dispute between the two over payments. The leasing company just decided to sell the bus “as is” with all the Trump campaign artwork on it and in it. We paid $14,000 USD for it. The bus has a million miles on it and doesn’t go faster than 51 mph – the speedometer doesn’t always work so we just used an app to check that. It also has a stripper pole in it, since prior to the Trump Campaign using the bus, it was a party bus used for bachelor parties. We were told by the sellers that Trump was on the bus a few times. It seems to us, that if we were running for President of the United States, we would make sure the stripper pole on our campaign bus was removed before we started using it. But hey, we are on our way to Las Vegas right now so it will fit right in.

How have you made it into a piece of art?

Mary Mihelic: The first thing that makes this art is the irony that a billionaire like Trump used an old beat-up bus with a million miles on it and a stripper pole in it to launch his campaign. That is magnified by the fact that it went up for sale on Craigslist.  The absurdity of it continues to fuel our artistic interaction with this vehicle and mimics the absurdity of Donald Trump’s campaign.  All art is a physical expression — this uses an old mobile object branded with Trump to try and get at the emotional and psychological distress that he is creating in the American political landscape.  

We added a dot to Trump's name everywhere on the bus, so instead of saying 'TRUMP' it says 'T.RUMP'. We also crossed out Trump’s slogan: Make America Great Again" and changed that to “Make Fruit Punch Great Again” on one side and “Women Trump Trump” on the other.  After Trump said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the US, we also added Trump’s slogan to the back of the bus — only we wrote it in Arabic.

In order to be President of the US, one must be a “natural born US citizen”. So when Trump questioned Ted Cruz about his place of birth, Marco Rubio about his, and years ago Barack Obama – who was born in Hawaii – about his, we decided to make an artwork about this.  So we put “BIRTHED IN THE USA” on the back of the bus and surrounded that with flags representative of every country in the world.  

After attending a Hillary Clinton rally in New Hampshire and being called Nazis by the Hillary supporters who didn’t bother to read what the bus said, we added "My Struggle” to the side of the bus. Underneath “My Struggle” we put a bulleted list of Trump’s struggles that included everything from “to not rape my women” (in Spanish) to “to not cheat at golf” (in English).

When Trump said he would bring back waterboarding and do even more of it than before, we added 'Save Water. Only Waterboard on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays' to the back of the bus. We also began doing a performance artwork which involves tying the bus down, covering its face in cloth and pouring water over the front of the bus — in short, waterboarding it. 

And artwork inside the bus?

Mary Mihelic: Inside the bus, we embroidered Trump quotes onto American flags in a performance called Desecration. This is about what America is becoming and how Trump is representing our country around the world. With Desecration, we put Trump’s words in better perspective and visually showed people what kind of president he’d make. With quotes including penis references (“the size of his hands”) and menstruation (“the blood coming out of her eyes”), we are making an artwork that comments on how nothing is sacred anymore. Desecration uses art to question Trump’s vitriolic statements and how they fit within the ideals Americans hold so dear – while referencing what he is doing to our country. 

We created an installation around the stripper pole about Trump’s three wives. It is titled Dark Passengers and reflects on Trump’s mental state. We used the TV show Dexter as our inspiration – materials included shrink wrap, dresses, high-heeled shoes, gloves and suitcases. We take the Trump political yard signs that people put out on their lawns here in the United States and wrap them in burkhas. Then we put them back out on lawns or set them up around the bus.

Our Open Carry artwork includes a six-foot long paintbrush mounted with a rifle scope. It reflects on how art can be used as a weapon. It alludes to when he told the world that the victims of Charlie Hebdo would have had a better chance to defend themselves if they’d had guns. Trump has vowed to 'unsign' Barack Obama’s plan to tighten gun control. Over 20,000 people signed a petition to carry guns at the Republican National Convention this July. The art comments on the number of people killed by guns each year and the overpowering presence of guns in American culture and politics. It demonstrates our belief that art can make a difference in a divisive presidential campaign, and it’s our way of honouring the memory of Charlie Hebdo.

“We want to demonstrate that art can be a weapon and a tool for managing this volatile situation. It can be used to respond to bullies like Donald Trump” – Mary Mihelic

So what’s at the heart of the project?

Mary Mihelic: The prospect of such a bombastic, divisive and hateful person being President of the United States provoked a strong creative reaction from both of us. We had to do something. As artists, the bus was a gift to us – the timing was perfect. It was as if it was meant to be.  

What is the political climate like in the places you have visited on the bus?  Does it vary widely?

Mary Mihelic: We are finding the political climate around the US is pretty much the same. Things are very polarised. It’s just a bad scene right now, everywhere. 

Where have you been travelling?

Mary Mihelic: All over the US. We have been up and down the East Coast from Florida to New Hampshire – through most of the Midwest (Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska). Right now, we are crossing the Rocky Mountains and heading to Las Vegas and then on to Southern California. Then, back to NYC to exhibit the bus at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn.

What has the public reaction been like? 

Mary Mihelic: In the early days, like last October, it was sleepy; now it’s insane. When we drive down the street, cars honk and then we get everything from the finger to the fist pump. We’ve seen dozens of cars almost get into accidents over the bus. We’ve had people pull over and wait for us to pass to spit on the bus and had milk crates thrown at the bus, then caught people spray painting it. As the violence outside Trump rallies continues to build, we have updated our performance art attire with bullet-proof vests. The deliberate confusion the bus creates about the Trump vs T.RUMP brand is part of the art. It plays off the fact that people do not read anymore – it’s clearly anti-Trump – and how people are brainwashed by Trump’s brand. It comments on the power of the icon and the visual and how for centuries people have always reacted strongly to icons.  

When people see the bus, we watch the Trump fans go from excitement about the bus to disappointment. Then the protestors go from disgust to joy. That change of emotion which happens when a Trump supporter sees the bus, gets excited and then gets disappointed is important because it shows that you can actually change someone’s thinking if you approach the subject in a more creative way. If we can change their emotion, perhaps there is some hope of changing their mind about voting for Trump.  The use of humour gets everyone laughing at Trump, so we can engage in a level of dialogue that is lacking from protestors who simply stand across the street and yell at each other. 

We were recently at a Trump rally in rural Maryland where the riot police were called in. They had face shields and helmets and split the protestors and supporters onto opposite sides of a four-lane road. Now each side had a line of riot police in front of them preventing anyone from stepping into the street. For some reason, no one thought to prevent traffic from going down the street. We drove the bus right down the middle of this intensifying clash. Thousands of people on both sides cheered, booed and mostly laughed when they saw the bus. We like to think we helped use the bus as humour to diffuse a very tense situation.   

What is the statement you want to make?

Mary Mihelic: Our goal is to help stop Trump from becoming president and emphasize how important art can be in that process.  We want people to realize that the United States is better than this. We want to demonstrate that art can be a weapon and a tool for managing this volatile situation. It can be used to respond to bullies like Donald Trump. He has stated he wants to undermine Freedom of Speech as protected in the First Amendment and that is a direct threat to freedom of expression for all Americans including artists like us. 

What have been your most memorable moments on the bus?

Mary Mihelic: So some of the good and some of the bad. In DC, we were stopped on the street by a Muslim whose brother had been waterboarded and he got teary-eyed as he thanked us for the Arabic statement on the back of the bus. In New Hampshire, the secret service thought David was a sniper on top of the bus when he was up there swinging his golf club in a blizzard, so they boarded the bus. Every time we run into the secret service it’s memorable. We overhear them on their headsets asking “’What the hell are we supposed to do about this bus?’.

REM’s Michael Stipe hunted us down to tell us how much he loved the art at the VOLTA art fair in NYC, and in Gary Indiana, we had pulled into an industrial plant, the USS Steel Manufacturing plant, to take photos, and we were swarmed by five security vehicles with lights flashing. 10 officers forced me to delete all the photos I had taken from my phone, which I did while watching them all take photos of themselves in front of the bus’ Manhood Measuring Station.  

Then in Massachusetts, someone tried to run us off the road.  

What do you plan to do with the bus after?

Mary Mihelic: Exhibit it in galleries/museums and hopefully ultimately sell it.  If Trump wins, we are thinking about hanging it upside down somewhere.  

From the Finger to the Fist Pump: On the Road with Trump’s Campaign Bus is available on iBooks and Amazon

The bus will be shown at Smack Mellon, Brooklyn in their Of the People show Brooklyn, June 17-18, at the Jack Shainman Gallery, Chelsea as part of its For Freedoms show from June 23-30