Ours: Democracy in the Age of Branding

Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, Parsons The New School for Design, New York

Through February 1, 2009
by Nicole Caruth

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      Ariel Orozco
      Contrapeso, 2003
      C-print
      27 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches
      Courtesy the artist

      View Gallery

      It seems unfair to formulate an opinion about Ours: Democracy in the Age of Branding after one or even two lengthy visits. It is, after all, made up of multiple platforms and “structures”: An exhibition, a sizable web component, interpretive materials (handouts, a cell phone audio tour, posters and stickers), performances, lectures, charettes (solution-driven workshops) and panel discussions that take place over a 4 month period.

      The first of two curatorial statements declares the exhibition “a stage, conceived as a platform for debate,” hence the show’s centerpiece, a 60 x 47 foot podium, or stage, designed by the British artist Liam Gillick. The statement goes on to offer two trajectories: First, an examination of desires (fulfilled or unfulfilled) generated and promoted by the brand of American democracy, such as choice, participation, freedom of expression, a sense of belonging, and the promise of individual success; second, an investigation of both aesthetic and political systems of representation developed in response to these desires, particularly addressing the underrepresented, or the voiceless. The exhibition subtitle is certainly a hefty bag to unpack.

      Ours was obviously (and justifiably) curated and designed with students and course work in mind—to be revisited, taken apart, reevaluated and discussed. Still, it is an overcrowded room, predominantly red, white, blue, and grey in color; a mishmash that might be compared to a crudely deconstructed flag or a chaotic swap meet. Gillick’s sprawling and unpopulated platform with circular benches serves to push some of the exhibition’s best objects to the margins, functioning more like a blockade than an apparatus for exchange.

      Despite the need for refinement, occasional diamonds in the rough by artists such as Miguel Luciano, Kota Ezawa, Nadine Robinson, Asaf Koriat, Ariel Orozco, Judith Werthein and Rumo Lagomarsino, evoke the blatantly obvious sparkle of Ours—its relevance at this moment. Will the ways in which American national identity is “packaged, distributed and consumed” look, sound and feel the same going forward? How have artists interpreted democracy in recent years? Post-election, as we head toward a historical inauguration, are the ideas embodied by these objects already outmoded or begging for amendment?

      Approaches to branding and democracy in Ours are both local and global and thus differ in perspectives and definitive implications. Miguel Luciano’s Cuando las Gallinas Mean (When Hens Pee) (2003) greets visitors at the door. Like the toy-filled vitrines commonly found at arcades and stores ending in “Mart,” a central hen sits above a heap of plastic eggs. Viewers are invited to insert a quarter to receive a prize. The piece refers to a Puerto Rican saying meant to silence children: “You can speak again when hens pee.” After depositing my coinage, the hen makes some loud noises, pees and releases an egg. I open mine to find a button that reads “$uckce$$.” I take it to mean that the monetary success achievable in democratic societies has a “sucky” side, encapsulated in consumerist desires for material things. When Hens Pee is the first object to bring capitalist values to the exhibition: For Luciano’s apparatus to function at full capacity, it requires active involvement and contribution, resulting in a quick and, hopefully, worthwhile return. The adage that Luciano employs as his title further suggests silence and pacification brought about by material possessions.
      Adjacent to Luciano, American-born artist Brian Tolle renders a familiar portrait of Benjamin Franklin using his aphorisms, printed so small that we must come unusually close to make out the phrases. Man of Characters (2006) attempts to push beyond our immediate associations with the hundred-dollar bill (and perhaps the subtext of success as defined by the 1990s song “It’s All About the Benjamins”) to the character and defining principles of the former United States president.

      Purchasing power and material fulfillment are raised in works by the German-born artist of Japanese descent Kota Ezawa, and Judi Werthein, an Argentinean artist based in New York. Two works from Ezawa’s IKEA light box series feature slogans incorporating the word “your” such as “What’s Happening in Your Life.” The artist raises the irony of advertisement that addresses the individual, particularly given this brand of cookie-cutter home goods, made to resemble the specialty of high-end design only on the surface. At the same time, the artist’s Katzian technique—a flat, pared-down, computer-generated style—illustrates a false sense of uniqueness; though pictures and showrooms differ, in the end, everything is the same.

      Werthein’s sneakers branded Brinco (meaning “jump”) raise a still touchy issue in American politics and media. Manufactured in China, each pair of shoes contains a map of the border area on the inside of the soles, a compass, pockets to hide money and medication, and other “necessities.” In 2005, Werthein became part of the discourse about border regulation when she designed, distributed free-of-charge and also sold the sneakers at a retail price of $215. Reports about the piece by Fox News and CNN stream on multiple monitors in the exhibition. Though they at first appear to be staged and skillfully edited, Werthein was indeed accused by Lou Dobbs and others as aiding and abetting illegal immigration across the Mexico/U.S. border. The artist appears in at least one televised interview grinning, presumably a sign of the absurd logic that sneakers would truly help one making the risky crossing. The news anchor, however, seems to believe it a very serious offense. Werthein’s sneakers, like black berets of the past or keffiyehs of today, are symbols of compassion and desire for change not only in the discourse, but the everyday reality of the situation.

      Brinco resonates with an ongoing piece by Los Angeles-based artist Ashley Hunt, a chalk board that invites audiences to write their definition of terms from a nearby world map; each week the definitions are uploaded to a photo-based glossary. When I visited, the word “privilege” seemed to be the hot button, defined as:

      America(n) [WASP], or the haves and the have nots; primarily belonging to the whitest and few in the world, “privilege” is the state of having reached the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid socio-economically; to exclude one’s self from traditionally cultural institutions such as government, basic human sympathy, and all senses of morality…and sometimes logic.

      I might add: The ability to organize an exhibition that critiques the very government under which you live without reprisal.

      Mixing cynicism and sound, Nadine Robinson’s Americana, Version Two (2008) raises the artist’s own skepticism toward the power of democracy to bring about justice. Two towers of nine speakers on either side each bear an American flag and the phrase “made in the U.S.A.” The sculpture plays historic and present-day samples of American political speeches, in which moments of applause have been replaced with laughter. I catch bits of John F. Kennedy. (1917 - 1963), Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968), and President-elect Barack Obama (b.1961). Given the recent proliferation of Obama’s portrait alongside those of Dr. King and President Kennedy, the three voices at the moment suggest that as a nation we are beyond the point of mere dreams of the Civil Rights era. Though discussions about discord, especially pertaining to race, seem politically incorrect at the moment, has the 2008 election truly transformed the image of American democracy or will we later find it a “little improvement” and “cosmetic distraction” from deep long-term injustice under democratic systems, as Robinson’s piece alluded at the time of its first incarnation in 2001?

      Tel-Aviv based artist Asaf Koriat’s one-channel, split-screen video The Brave (2006), simultaneously shows nine celebrities singing the “Star Spangled Banner” (Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Whitney Houston among them). It is the American Idol picture of opportunity—a country in which you can be anything you desire to be. The picture of the individual is inseparable from the masses in this so-called “critique and celebration.” As the voices come together in less than harmonious accord, the idea of distinctive voices competes with the projection of collective identity.

      Ours is an exhibition of complex ideas in smartly executed works. But as we are seeing President-elect Obama begin to take the reins of American government, it might have better served this exhibition’s pedagogical goals to likewise parse out and tackle one thing at a time. Contrapeso, a stunning photograph by Ariel Orozco shows the Cuban-born artist grasping a flagpole to hold his body out horizontally in mid-air. Against the backdrop of a partly cloudy sky, Orozco performs a flag, not made up of stars, stripes or, necessarily, colors, but an individual. What is on the horizon for the image of democracy, a brand in and of itself that molds and adapts to the time. Perhaps Parsons will follow up in four to eight years with Rebranding Democracy in the Age of Obama. That will be quite a thing to behold.

      I have only covered the experience of the exhibition in the gallery, writing little about the works online: I imagine if you can read this, you can experience them for yourself. All fairly strong (a success of the exhibition given the number of empty Web projects included in exhibitions of late), some to note are Rebranding Acts by Wooloo Productions; Transferring Patriotism by the Institute for Infinitely Small Things; Why They Hate Us by Steve Lambert; and The Good Life by Carlos Matta.

      Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator based in Brooklyn. A regular blogger for Art21, her writing has been published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and Gastronomica. Her personal blog, Contemporary Confections, merges two of her greatest loves: art and sweet foodstuffs.

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