Participatory Democracy: Step Right Up and Vote
By George Fifield
A catalog essay for an art exhibition at Art Interactive in Cambridge, 2004
Copyright © George Fifield, 2004
“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
– Sir Winston Churchill
With the presidential election looming and Boston having been chosen as the site of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, it seemed that local artists needed the chance to reflect creatively on the meaning of our quadrennial national pastime. I proposed to Art Interactive that we give a group of artists the task of addressing the interactive nature of the democratic process, timed to coincide with Boston’s hosting of the convention at the end of July. Subsequently, the certain nomination of Boston’s native son, Senator John Kerry, only highlighted the appropriateness of this exhibition.
Artists Ravi Jain, Natalie Loveless, Jeff “Jeffu” Warmouth, Andrew M.K. Warren, and Douglas R. Weathersby were asked to participate. In addition to being provocative artists, they were chosen because each have demonstrated an eager willingness to collaborate in previous projects. They were given a small number of criteria framed under the notion of Participatory Democracy. They needed to explore three aspects of interactivity. First, they had to interact among themselves and actually devise the structure of the exhibition. This they have done admirably. Second, they had to interact with their audience and, third, the art they made had to be participatory. Originally, I anticipated that these guidelines would require the artists to be at the gallery during its open hours, constructing the exhibition and engaging the audience in conversation throughout the duration of the show. Bob Riley, former video curator at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, once told me about a video installation artist at the ICA who had not completed his installation by the time of the opening and in fact never really completed it. As much as this was a curatorial nightmare, some aspect of the artist’s presence during the run of the show has always appealed to me.
Choosing the actual event of the vote as their theme, however, the artists circumvented my expectations. Instead of creating their work as the show progressed, the exhibition will be complete at the time of its opening. The artists will still be present in the gallery and interacting with the audience, but their role will be to supervise the interactive activities. In keeping with the carnival-like atmosphere of the American political arena, the five artists are transforming Art Interactive into a circus midway devoted to getting the audience to vote for their favorite candidate. Choices include Two-headed Ed (“We cover both sides of every argument”), The Contortionist (“I can wrap myself around any issue”), or The Bearded Lady (“The difference is clear”). And, of course, there is always The Great Incumbo (“You’re in good hands”). Carnival games such as skee-ball and darts will be chances to vote, rather than games of chance.
The vote is the interactive core of democracy. It is the act that defines the democratic citizen. Yet, it is all the more ironic that voting has declined precipitously in the United States. Out of the twenty-four established democracies in the world, the United States ranks as the second to last in terms of the percentage of active voters. We only best the Swiss in apathy. In the 1960 presidential election, almost sixty-three percent of eligible Americans voted. In the 2000 election, the number had dropped to fifty-one percent. Only half of the eligible voters in this county actually participate in the democratic process.
There is a razor’s edge difference between political art and art about politics. Political art is the use of visual material at the service of a political ideal. It can be as crude as a Maoist poster or as rich as a George Grosz painting, but in all cases, the side taken is clear and the viewpoint narrowly fixed. Art about politics, on the other hand, creatively investigates the composition of the political process. Artists like Hans Haacke, Krzysztof Wodiczko and Ingo Gunther have all produced work that mediates between artistic and political practices. “Participatory Democracy” is situated in this vein. The artists have taken a creative look at the basic structure of our political system, commenting not on who’s right and who’s wrong (well okay, maybe a little) but on how we, the electorate, perceive our roll in this great adventure we call the United States. Does democracy give us some control over our fate or is it only a sideshow illusion? Does our vote matter and if it does, then why do only half of us exercise it? Do we steer the body politic or are we merely passengers?
The vote is not merely the act of closing the curtain and making your mark. It is a long process that, in this country, has always consisted of an overwhelming deluge of information and opinion that seeks to convince us that any one candidate is a person of high moral fiber with great experience while their opponent is a vacillating incompetent who will lead us to ruin. How we weigh these overwrought exclamations in their garish trappings (VOTE FOR ME!) and actually arrive at a decision is the task we are expected to participate in as citizens. Interaction with politics, like interaction with art, means more than flipping a lever or pushing a button. It means determining who you are and what kind of world, real or virtual, you wish to live in. Come one, come all for a slightly twisted, not-quite-serious look at our true national pastime.