LOS ANGELES — “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand,” said the Martinique-born psychoanalyst and critical theorist Frantz Fanon. The quote sets the tone for S/Election: Democracy, Citizenship, Freedom at the Municipal Art Gallery in East Hollywood, a group exhibition that critically questions the infrastructure of democracy, particularly as issues have been highlighted — or ignored — during an urgent presidential election. Specifically, the show, which was curated by Erin Christovale, features 32 artists who consider what privileges and burdens are associated with American citizenship and the winding road to the liberation promised but not necessarily granted to all.
Eight American flags hang from the high ceiling of the central exhibition hall. Monica Rodriguez’s “We Are America” (2011) inscribes various slogans on each flag in black block letters, the text taken from a protest against planned changes in US immigration policies in 2006: “NO FENCE CAN STOP HISTORY FROM MOVING FORWARD,” “WHERE ARE YOUR ANCESTORS FROM?” A writing desk is placed below the flags. Pencils and tags are provided for visitors to write their own observations and commentary, and hang them on most, though not all, artwork wall labels. For instance, under the description for Olga Lah’s “Blessings All Around” (2011), which affixes bunched-up construction-site orange netting to a white wall, an observer noted, “Democracy is not cash,” next to a trio of smiley faces.
The gallery has also posited its own rhetorical questions on the labels. The one for James Berson’s “Peaceful Protest Helmet” (2016) asks, “In what way has the documentation of violent conflicts affected your perspective on democracy?” A line of colorful helmets are emblazoned with “PEACEFUL PROTEST HELMET,” and a small mobile recording device is attached to each, with the lens facing the viewer. Facing the cameras, I wondered who benefited from the protections supposedly provided by our government and was disheartened to recognize how citizens themselves must hold authorities accountable for their aggressive tactics presently.
Jennifer Moon is another featured artist whose work, “Prison Relics from Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This Is Where I Learned of Love” (2012) interacts with the gaze of the state. The project comprises photographic documentation of the objects she gathered during her incarceration at the Valley State Prison for Women. There is also a text chronicling her time there, in which she expounds upon her philosophy of love and care, necessary in an oftentimes ruthless society.
The imprisoned are not the only people shielded from public view. In a smaller gallery, Marco Kane Braunschweiler’s short video “James Baldwin #1–#5” (2014) captures a shifting silhouette of the author speaking about the socioeconomic destruction wrought by racism: “And when the social fabric begins to give, chaos is one of the results. And nobody in this society escapes that.” Although his form is abstracted and his face unrecognizable, Baldwin’s words, first spoken five decades ago, expose how little has changed for black Americans despite the forward march of time.
In the central hall, Ramiro Gomez’s installation “Cut-Outs” (2015) hugs the length of two walls, depicting domestic workers tending stark California modernist spaces amidst painted blue pools and spiny green palm trees. As the cardboard figures pop out from the central panel invading the gallery space, we become aware of the mostly unacknowledged labor that keeps these intimate spaces pristine.
Several public programs were organized alongside the exhibition’s run, and I was able to attend “Geographies of Displacement,” organized and moderated by the Los Angeles-based pedagogical platform at land’s edge, which focused on anti-gentrification efforts in Los Angeles and examined the art and culture industry’s attendant responsibilities. The panel gathered a coalition of groups active in East and South Los Angeles to purposely ally activists and artists, and to remind the audience that these two roles are not mutually exclusive. Other programs included workshops on community organizing and a lecture on the history of American elections and the reformative possibilities of ranked-choice voting. There will also be a forthcoming writing seminar on Saturday, January 7 that encourages participants to explore the philosophical construct of citizenship.
As a writer, Baldwin recognized the potential of his practice, stating, “What a writer is obliged to realize at some point is that he’s involved in a language which he has to change.” The participants in S/Election are preoccupied with manipulating language and its forms, utilizing it as a weapon against what can seem like an unyielding system and aligning themselves around the margins to consider the damage that has been done.
S/Election: Democracy, Citizenship, Freedom continues at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Art Park (4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles) through January 8.