Political art isn’t new, but MCA Denver assistant curator Zoe Larkins has seen an uptick in overtly topical work during the four years that Donald Trump has been president. As propulsive issues like climate change and social justice have turned desperate and political actions have stirred the public, artists have followed suit.
“There was a proliferation of politically engaged art-making and activity by artists outside of their studios,” Larkins notes. “Some have always been political in this way, but there also seemed to be a real eagerness to see public engagement. I started following the trend, finding examples of artists who were paying more attention to the production of politically engaged work. Wanting to take stock of it, I started to think about the work made: what different works had in common, what was important to remember about this moment.”
Over time, her explorations began to congeal into Citizenship: A Practice of Society, a survey of recent political artworks created over the past few years that opens on October 2 at MCA Denver. The hands-on, museum-wide exhibition invites public participation and a return to the kind of face-to-face communication that’s been all but lost in the era of social media and even more so during the pandemic.
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The show’s participating artists and organizations run the gamut, yet their works share some commonalities by design. “I was looking for works that either model or actually solicit their particular models of engagement to facilitate visitors in practicing civic engagement,” Larkins explains.
For the most basic of examples, she cites Alan Michelson’s “Blanket Refusal.” The pair of large screen-printed fleece blankets alludes to a letter sent to President Calvin Coolidge by the chief of the Onandaga Iroquois, denouncing Coolidge for rewriting old treaties and stealing tribal rights.
“They were engaging with elected officials and protesting,” Larkins says. “For them, it was an important gesture defending treaties made with the government and the settlers.” In modern times, she notes, such protests don’t always hold the same weight. “We all talk about writing letters to representatives, but not many have actually done it,” she notes. These are times that demand the level of activism the Onandaga practiced decades ago.
Artist Pope L. takes more definitive action with the "Flint Water Project," an installational store selling nothing but contaminated water, bottled in Flint, Michigan, with proceeds benefiting Flint nonprofits. Larkins points out that while Pope L. isn’t exhorting folks to follow his lead as an activist, he’s making an attempt to solve the issue and actively raise money to support the grassroots engagement of the people of Flint.
Denver artist Laura Shill takes a whole different approach in “Including Other in the Self,” which, says Larkins, “will facilitate engagement in the gallery by visitors and show how people can practice discourse, a fundamental political action, by asking each other questions and trying to understand one another.” Two people at a time are invited to ask each other 36 questions developed by psychologist Arthur Aron to bring people closer together. “Her goal is to have people think about asking thoughtful questions, engaging in deep conversation with each other and truly listening,” adds Larkins.
Other works mine the theme through satirical humor and a DIY sensibility, like the Denver-based Institute of Sociometry’s little library transformed into a tiny zine exchange, while Alexandra Bell’s “A Teenager With Promise” examines racism in the media.
Everyone will love Aram Han Sifuentes’s truly democratic “Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can't." Explains Larkins: “Visitors can vote on the president and other topics, and we’ll be tracking results in the gallery. There is also a lot of information about voting rights, like who can and who can’t. But anyone can vote here: No ID is needed, you don’t have to be a U.S. citizen, and even children can vote.”
But "Pledges of Allegiance," a group installation of politically oriented flags designed by notable artists and facilitated by the public-art organization Creative Time, might make the biggest impression.
“It might be the most important work for creating the context of the rest of the works,” Larkins says. "We could have tried to install the flags indoors, but because it's a survey, we really wanted to throw them outside. Especially because of COVID, we thought it would be nice to show the works on top of the building and in the rooftop garden.”
Most important in Larkins’s mind is what happens after people walk out of the exhibition. “The main goal is that conversations are had,” she insists. I don't care what about. As Laura Shill demonstrates, conversation is important in itself. Right now, we don’t do that as much. We’re not meeting in person or even on the phone, and we’ve only been seeing the same family members for the last six months. Even before COVID, we’ve seen tech infiltration, attention spans getting shorter. Deep conversation and connections with others have become more rare.
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“And one other thing: I hope visitors learn how to choose to cultivate civic practices of their own,” she continues. “Citizenship is not only a legal status or about an explicit state-granted right; it’s something we can and should all do in spite our of legal status. It’s not like voting or jury duty — it’s a daily intentional duty practiced day after day.”
Along with the exhibition, the MCA will launch an extensive series of weekly virtual events to help people do just that.
“It’s the most robust program series ever for MCA,” Larkins says. “It’s important to the nature of the show to have a lot of conversations and explorations of what it addresses, especially because of COVID. We’ll have a streaming program you can attend from home almost every Wednesday, in a range similar to the works in the show, including conversations between artists, workshops, talks and performances by Motus Theater and Emancipation Theater, and we’re putting everything on YouTube after the initial streaming.”
Citizenship: A Practice of Society, a survey of politically engaged art made since 2016, opens on October 2 for members and October 3 to the public, and runs through February 14, 2021, at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street. Admission ranges from free to $10; reserve timed-entry tickets online in advance and learn more about related virtual events at the MCA's website. The museum will host a socially distanced Parade for the People in conjunction with Citizenship: A Practice of Society, on Saturday, October 3, from 2 to 4 p.m. at City of Cuernavaca Park, 3500 Rockmont Drive. RSVP in advance.