LOS ANGELES — “What does it look like for radical imagination to be put into the office of the presidency?” artist Constance Hockaday asked when describing her upcoming project Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020. “For me, it’s not just about the presidency, but how we perform leadership and power.”
Kicking off this Friday, September 18, the project features 50 artists, each of whom Hockaday asked to create a five-minute presidential address. Every Friday through November 13, a new batch of addresses will be released via podcast and radio broadcast available on the project website and through Apple podcasts. It is produced in conjunction with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, where Hockaday developed the piece during her current residency there. UCLA CAP will host a livestreamed discussion with Hockaday and project participants Daniel Alexander Jones and Kristina Wong on Thursday evening.
Although Artists-in-Presidents arrives alongside other politically focused artistic collaborations, like In Plain Site and Artists 4 Democracy, that are responding to our fraught moment, its origins predate the current administration. And like many of Hockaday’s previous projects, it started with a boat. Inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats — radio addresses that the president began during the Great Depression to assuage the fears of an anxious public — Hockaday originally conceived of the project around 2015 as a kind of “floating social club” to take place aboard FDR’s retired presidential yacht.
She was struck by the fact FDR was both a unifying and polarizing figure. His addresses attempted to unify the nation — as citizens across the country gathered around their family radios to hear his words — while his policies excluded large segments of the population.
“His most famous legislation didn’t include brown and Black people. He interned Japanese-Americans. But he also did some things that we’re still celebrating,” said Hockaday, citing programs like the Works Progress Administration. She saw her fireside chats as an attempt to “perform leadership in a way that is more representative of us, or what I consider to be the majority of the nation: women, people of color, the disabled, immigrants, and queer people.”
After Donald Trump was elected, Hockaday saw a clear illustration of the performative role of the president, albeit in a very different way, that she also observed in FDR. As Trump’s term has worn on, the parallels increased of a struggling nation caught in a global financial meltdown. “Our trust and faith in Democracy is decimated, like right before FDR,” she said.
The rise of the coronavirus pandemic six months ago put an end to the boat idea, forcing her to migrate the program online. Fortuitously, this will bring it more in line with FDR’s fireside chats of almost 90 years ago: heterogeneous groups huddled in their separate homes, all tuned into the same frequency.
Hockaday assembled a list of artists she wanted to invite to participate, but didn’t want to be the sole decisive voice, so she asked some of those artists to invite others, like a chain letter. The results are a diverse group of artists, activists, musicians, dancers, and writers, including filmmaker Miranda July, comedian Kristina Wong, well-established artists like Ann Hamilton and Mel Chin, alongside younger voices Arshia Fatima Haq, Sarita Dougherty, and Xandra Ibarra. Significantly, less than 10% of the 50 artists are cis white men.
Hockaday maintained a fairly hands-off approach, pairing artists with political speechwriters to help them construct their vision. “Instead of legislation they’re proposing, I asked them to be slightly more conceptual,” said Hockaday of her minimal prompts. “What would it be like for you to take on the voice of a leader you’d like to hear?
“Some people were very literal […] and there are plenty of burn-it-down talks, but I think they end up pairing nicely with the talks that have a radical imagination.”
One such talk is by playwright and artist Asher Hartman whose fantastical, enigmatic theatrical productions can be confounding, humorous, and inspiring at once. For his speech, he wrote a poem that he describes as a “rhythmic rant” about “participating in these systems that are supposed to give us a feeling of belonging, but are draining us of life.”
“The spirit that channeled this poem was in a kind of divine rage. The piece isn’t really comforting,” he explained during a Zoom discussion. “People are afraid of rage. Typically we bottle it up, but it can be useful if it’s not bottled up […] Given the Puritan history of the country, we spend time trying to ignore rage. When we do that in ourselves it’s very painful, we get sick, culturally sick.”
As for what new forms of leadership he imagines, Hartman wrote in an email: “Leadership looks like dismantling not only the systems of political power that cause suffering, but the emotional and spiritual forces that built and continue to suture that power […] You, America, are in agony. Let’s discuss.”
Jasmine Nyende, a musician and visual artist from South Central LA, also channels rage in her address. She contributed the song “Burn Ye Old White Male Patriarchy, Burn,” by FUPU (Fuck U Pay Us), the Afro Punk band she is the singer for. Over a throbbing bass riff, Nyende scream-shouts the title line over and over in a kind of mantra calling for revolution and reparations.
“The song was written as a spell,” she explained. “Every time you hear it, it’s a way for the listener to break down what patriarchy means in their lives, and the role they have in destroying the current system, a way for people to imagine change […] It’s almost like a spell that spreads around the world.”
For his contribution, Brontez Purnell, a musician, writer, and dancer from Oakland, simply recited an earlier presidential speech: Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural address. Instead of delivering a message of inspiration, he thought, “what’s the most frightening shit I could do?”
“The most frightening president to me is clearly Reagan,” he said over the phone. “In his speech, it’s not what he says, it’s how he says it and what we know of him historically. This is some evil-ass shit. This is how people get away with coded warfare all the time. He’s getting ready to attack the poor, and uphold blatant white supremacist tropes.”
Cuban-American artist and writer Coco Fusco took a more direct approach than many of the artists, focusing on “the deplorable situation of immigration policy, the treatment of refugees coming to the border, the way that the current administration has weaponized xenophobia by making all sorts of defamatory claims on immigrants, and so on,” she explained. For Fusco, the subject is one she has a lifetime of experience with, both as the first-born American in her family, but also through her work as a volunteer translator for asylum seekers.
Fusco’s address takes aim not just at the government but at more entrenched issues of inequity that immigrants face throughout American society. “I’m not going to tame my perspective, especially in California where the entire middle class is serviced by immigrants who are treated like shit. I wanted to drive that home.”
Alongside each address, the artists were each asked to contribute a presidential portrait depicting alternative visions of power. Purnell’s photo is a send-up of Obama’s portrait, with a nude Purnell in the role of the former president, while Hartman’s recasts him as a magician, harnessing his mystical abilities to challenge the status quo.
Where FDR’s fireside chats delivered coherent, unifying messages to the nation, Hockaday’s project explodes that idea, championing a multiplicity of voices that counters the notion of simple solutions. These are messages delivered by, and to, the various communities that have been excluded from this kind of dialogue for centuries, the beginning of contentious discussions that need to happen before we can move forward as a nation.
“We look at these performances of our leaders to tell us who we are,” Hockaday said, “but this one-man hero narrative is not gonna work anymore. One guy can’t talk for us. To us, these artists are a touchstone, a reminder of who we are, who we could be, what we can sound like when we’re all together.”