PHILADELPHIA — In 2016, Kara Springer’s sculpture “A small matter of engineering” debuted on the lawn outside the Tyler School of Art in North Philadelphia. In white text on a black background, the billboard-sized piece simply said: “white people. do something.” It was erected at the same time as the Temple University Black Student Union protest against police shootings. Breitbart discovered the sculpture, and thus began an enraged, racist, trolling tirade. It’s odd that a few words can have such power, but the simplicity of Springer’s language, along with the context of the piece, struck a real nerve in her vitriolic detractors. Their responses reveal deeply rooted weaknesses of the ego.
I thought of Springer’s work when I saw Pledges of Allegiance, part of Festival for the People, organized by the nonprofit art foundation Philadelphia Contemporary. Located on Race Street Pier, a park adjacent to the festival grounds, this installation features a row of flags designed by high-profile artists, addressing issues they think are worth fighting for. Succinct phrases such as “FEAR EATS THE SOUL” (Rirkrit Tiravanija) and “Don’t Worry Be Angry” (Jeremy Deller) aren’t particularly provocative. They are nods to political position, but with little to no actual impact. Context made Springer’s work powerful; the lack of a meaningful context neuters these flags.
The festival’s free newspaper declares: “Culture, rather than being some elite enterprise, is the language in which we currently communicate.” This is the rallying cry of the Festival for the People. Described by the organizers as a wide embrace of populism, Festival for the People represents Philadelphia Contemporary’s mission to establish a globally oriented and locally aware art institution. Visitors are encouraged to share typewritten poetry, play with rotating prisms and artist-made seesaws, and watch video art. Each of the festival’s three weekends features a different theme — analog culture, embodied culture, and digital culture — and offers opportunities for public participation in activities including screen-printing and vinyasa yoga. Lectures by German artist and writer Hito Steyerl and former Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas kicked off the event.
There’s something to be said for real estate as an indicator of relative value. Seesaws, food trucks, and seating take up the majority of the space. I’m uncomfortable with the way the festival invokes urgent political concerns, yet spatially positions these concerns at the periphery. In addition to the flags, which are not on the festival’s main grounds, five video pieces, tucked away in alcoves and seemingly watched by few, comprise the festival’s political heart, its silent highlights. Themes range from the Steubenville rape case in #sweetjane (2014) by Andrea Bowers to the dark arc of western colonialism in Michel Auder’s The Course of Empire (2017). Oracle (2015) by Yoshua Okón speaks to xenophobia in the United States — the artist films a reenactment of US border patrol agents protesting migrant “invasion” by marching through the desert with guns and flags aloft. It apparently includes as a soundtrack a Guatemalan youth choir singing about the history of US invasions of Central America as a counterpoint to this display of US nationalism. I couldn’t hear it over the sounds of the festival.
Hiwa K’s Do You Remember? (2017) is a searing piece about the erasure of Kurdish culture in Iraq. It documents a protest in which demonstrators sought to make the oppression of the state visible by burning passages about Kurdish culture with magnifying glasses in a public square. It’s a poetic blueprint for collective action and powerful gestures.
My favorite work in the festival is Tabita Rezaire’s Sorry for Real (2015), which is both riotously funny and deeply sad. A 3D animation of an iPhone rotates slowly in the center of a galactic screen, while a computerized male voice recites a litany of apologies from the Western World to everybody else. Meanwhile, two anonymous individuals text back and forth, flabbergasted: “So they can ease their consciences! While still fucking us over!” It illustrates a catch-22 — apologies without action are preferable to Breitbart trolls, but they’re also next to useless, and contain an inherent, entitled expectation for unwarranted forgiveness.
Together, these videos showcase globalism at its very best as they encourage thinking globally and acting locally. Yet I wish Philadelphia Contemporary had followed through on the promise of representing everyday people within the city by drawing connections between these global concerns and their local manifestations.
Inclusions of Philadelphian art and culture are stronger on the performing arts front — the second weekend featured local tattoo artists and a “Day of Movement” with performances by groups including Malidelphia, which uses folklore, masquerade, song, and dance to bridge African-American and African immigrant communities.
Aside from a whimsical video by Jennifer Levonian, few local visual artists are featured. We are a city with a history of artist-run and non-traditional arts spaces alongside institutions like The African American Museum in Philadelphia, The Asian Arts Initiative and the Slought Foundation. These spaces hardly represent elite culture. They could align with this festival’s mission and enrich the experience, helping to create a dialogue between underrepresented Philadelphian artists and their global counterparts.
One of the few artworks that attempts to center the event within the landscape of Philadelphia and remains visible for the entire duration of the festival are 10 banners by Erlin Geffrard representing different neighborhoods. Geffrard’s texturally rich, bombastic tapestries are influenced by his Haitian roots, and draw on the history of Voudou veve flags. Great as the banners are, a single commission representing Philadelphia’s neighborhoods is not enough to embody the will and creativity of the city’s people.
I’m struck by the festival’s potential for genuine public engagement. Why not reach out to different artists in each of these neighborhoods to make works that truly reflect Philadelphia’s cultural diversity? Why not invite public school students to make collaborative banners about their collective experiences? Or, feature examples of the vernacular art and visual culture that already exists in each neighborhood? Nothing says South Philadelphia like a window display made of everything from plastic tchochkes to the Virgin Mary. These works of folk art are wonderful, sometimes wacky tableaux that occasionally display a self-taught knack for formal assemblage.
A Philly-based public project that successfully connected politics with the public and addressed national concerns on a local level was the Mural Arts Monument Lab of 2017. Amid debate over the removal of contentious monuments from public spaces around the country, local and national artists responded to the question: “What is an appropriate monument for the City of Philadelphia?” Results included crowd-pleasers like Mel Chin’s “Two Me” (2017), which invited everyday citizens to pose as monuments in City Hall, and Kaitlin Pomerantz’s “On the Threshold (Salvaged Stoops, Philadelphia)” (2017). For the latter, the artist collected stoops from demolished buildings and reinstalled them to create a public forum in Washington Square Park, inviting people to think about architecture, memory, and home.
I’m not positing that Philadelphia Contemporary become more like Mural Arts. Festival for the People brings a necessary international perspective to a city that often lacks it, and if the Philadelphia Contemporary continues inviting incredible lecturers, it will undoubtedly become a critical, exciting feature of our city’s cultural landscape. Where Festival for the People missteps is in its half-hearted attempt at local engagement. If the goal is to engage with the nuances of the city, it’s crucial to embrace Philadelphia’s complexity.
Festival for the People continues at the Cherry Street Pier (121 North Christopher Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia) through October 28.
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