States of Democracy

and Borderstasis by Guillermo Gómez-Peña




Crucial to the success of democracy stand the challenges of equal representation, justice and human rights. Progress towards these goals can be fragile and recent election cycles have created salient evidence that deep regressions in democratic systems are warnings we must take seriously.


Driven to explore states of democracy, poignant artworks are effective vehicles through which we encourage discourse and provide opportunities to critique, examine and reflect on the impact democracy has on our lives. The Artists chosen for this exhibit all brought to bear interesting interpretations through which we can think of democracy.


The exhibit focuses on a variety of subjects that help form a broad representation of  democracy. The work in this exhibition was selected for its potential as a collective of work capable of transmitting experiences, interpretations, situations and language associated with a laundry list of socio-political issues present in society. Each artist brings forth a valuable perspective and the cumulative effect of viewing their work makes one more aware of a distinctly convoluted state of democracy. The intent of the exhibit is to pierce through the mediated and prescribed notions of ourselves and find patient reflection on how to address the challenges ahead.


Upon entering the gallery the visitor will notice that several audio works can be heard simultaneously, this is an intentional mix of audio tracks that become an integral element of the experience; while one approaches a single work the audio of that track becomes dominant. The cacophony of the mixed sounds helps inundate the viewer with a sense that democracy is the voice of the many. Turn left and the first video in the exhibit highlights the daily experiences of a mother of four children. Ashanti McGee’s  Family Life on Dash-cam provides the viewer a glimpse into the life of motherhood, family, and the daunting routine that many must face to get through the day. One thinks of many challenges associated with parenthood: education, transportation, healthcare, security, and home. When one thinks of states of democracy we can look at parenthood as an indicator. In the United States parenthood is met with a socio-economic barrier that makes the life for many with children daunting. Many who wish to have children are forced to measure the heavy financial risk associated with parenthood. The image we are left with is the mother, persistent, loving and caring and the “everything" despite the opposing forces.


Two sequentially looped videos, Martin Kraftts Democracy bringing to focus a survey of what democracy means to a broad spectrum of U.S. Citizens, and Kelley O’Briens looks at “connections between the women’s suffrage movement and current fights for the rights of those incarcerated. Past and present meet through a shared architectural structure in East Cleveland; the original headquarters for the Women’s Suffrage movement is now home to a barber shop run by a former inmate”.


Jake Dockins, a BFA student at the University of North Texas, smartly used media footage of an empty presidential podium often seen in anticipation of an announcement. Shown in tandem with audio of news reports about mass shootings the video unifies the anticipation of action with its inevitable disappointment . Highlighting the “absence” of leadership to resolve shootings in the United States this video called Moments of Silence is also prescient of a state of democracy. Freedom Never Tasted so Good by Mia Adams gives us a “satirical representation of the dark history of the United States. Vivid red cake is used to represent the ongoing terror that in the end, always gets sugar-coated. Even after the damage is done, subtle remnants of that history still remain present in contemporary society”. Lindsey Garcia’s Cutie in The City along with Dockins and Adams work bring performative elements to the exhibition, highlighting the embodiment or lack of embodiment, aspiring in all cases to commit to an action.


Istanbul based Hina Barlas reminds us that democracy is an ongoing and international project. We can look to history for evidence of this persistent effort. Rooted in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued on December 10th SOS is a projection of the text of the document aligned with sound that arouses the sense of empowerment and universal freedom.


Yasmina Chavez shows us another perspective, one that reflect on personal space, ritual and the #metoo movement, we enter the homes of women in full view of an orchestrated dance to Al Stuart’s Year of the Cat, Yasmina asks us to think about spaces considered safe; the women featured in this video show us the freedom and joy sometimes found in these personal spaces, and prompts us to think of our own places and sense of safety within them.


As we turn the corner and enter the final stages of the exhibit we come into view of A Collective Performance a five channel video by Stacy Arezou Mehrfar, a Professor at the International Center of Photography and School of Visual Arts in New York. A collection of over 4500 photographs are orchestrated in various sequences to give us a new perspective on protests. It brings us the sense of empowerment and significance of such events. These convergences are much more than the amassing of individuals, they offer camaraderie, learning opportunities and the strengthening of social bonds and convictions. A key aspect to our democratic state is the freedom to congregate and speak of unfinished expectations such as equality, justice and human rights. Protests have been essential to movements towards democracy, persistent democratic progress cannot happen without them.


While we contemplate on what democracy is to each of us and we develop thoughts, opinions and ideas around it’s exercise we must also look at the ever-growing and increasingly complex system through which governments have obfuscated and deterred access and transparency. While we consider the issues that we face going forward, it is clear that the immense bureaucratic nature of government structure is not understood all at once but in pieces and fragments as we meander through its recessed halls. That is the sensation one gets when we look at the final work in this exhibit entitled The Arcade . Michael Marks states “This video work is an excerpt from a constructed virtual reality (VR) environment titled The Arcade. The environment uses recognizable symbols of American governmental architecture, but reconfigures these structures into a science fiction scene, where buildings float and crash into one another in the void of space.” Marks also reminds us that democracy is fragile and rooted in the struggle of the present despite how abstract and obscure our public institutions are.


One cannot embark on curating a video art exhibit like States of Democracy without addressing the current landscape of corporate televised media. One wonders what our relationship to systems of democracy would be like without the barrage of instant video and sound bites available on smart device anywhere, anytime and without pause. The glut of media available for consumption beguiles a perplexing, counter-productive and dangerous social conditioning for populations in desperate need for long term democratic stability. Politics in media can often be is an amalgamation of good and bad intentions intermixed with short sighted speculation and bluster. Good and bad would be a single set of polarities from which we can describe news media in the twenty-first century. We can also speak of truth and lies, left or right, facts and fiction, war and peace, love and hate. The loser in a system of polarizing opposites in constant agitation is democracy itself. Discourse and argument have always been good for states of democracy but media conglomerates have found ways to reduce argumentation to bits, sound bites, memes and other shallow interpretations. Democracy is mediated like a spectator sport, supplying fodder for antagonism, vindication, grief, and disallowing a broader plurality of voices and opinions.  We have given the green light to politically motivated, fluid and constant redefining and reinterpreting of important tenets of democratic systems and processes to our news media. The result is a language of a spoken meaninglessness that glosses over the consequential actions, good and bad of leaders around the world.


David Sanchez Burr


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David Sanchez Burr is an Artist and Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Expanded Media at Lake Forest College in Illinois.