Virtual Is Political

Pretender contenders: US Department of Art and Technology plays house of representatives

New-media conceptualist Randall M. Packer moved from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., in 2000. "I was so struck by Washington as a stage set for America. It all seemed like a Hollywood movie set," he says by way of explaining the genesis of the US Department of Art and Technology (US DAT), the fictional government agency with which he is literally redefining art as politics—or at least its kinder, gentler, and funnier simulacrum. "It seemed like our country was missing a role for the artist. I decided to insert myself into the system," he says. Having planned the concept during the summer of 2001, he was propelled into action by 9-11: He officially launched the Department on Halloween 2001, when he wrote to President Bush to propose the new cabinet-level department. He received a standard form letter in response but decided he was not going to take that as an answer. So he appointed himself Secretary of US DAT and staged a swearing-in ceremony at the Maryland Institute of Art, where he taught. A copy of John Cage's Silence served as the Bible, a replica of Jasper Johns's triple flag was the flag. "It's not about activism and opposition," he insists. "It's critiquing the system from the inside out. What would it be like if there really were interaction between artists and politicians?"

As his project evolved, it took on a life of its own. "You can't have a government agency without a seal," he says. And so he created an official seal, representing the power of virtualization. He digitally appropriated a government building, "formerly the Department of the Interior," he remarks of the official-looking photo of an imposing edifice. "It still is, in the physical world." He created a political party, the Experimental Party, enlisted other artists, and came up with a motto ("Representation through virtualization") and a virtual candidate, Abe Golam, who first appeared in Mark Amerika's hypertext novel Grammatron. "Our candidate is an avatar. He's electronic. He can go anywhere."

US DAT now lists 15 agency officials (or "staff artists"), who collaborate on digital works and installations such as the Experimental Party Disinformation Center, a "convention intervention" that was installed at a 57th Street gallery during the Republican convention, with live real-time deconstructions of the media coverage. Mark Amerika is Director of the Office of Freedom of Speech. Jeff Gates is Deputy Secretary and Undersecretary of Artistic and Homeland Insecurity and founder of DJ Spooky the Subliminal Kid is Undersecretary for the Bureau of the Aesthetic Hyperculture. Roberta Breitmore, the National Chairwoman of the Experimental Party, is a performance persona created by Lynn Hershman. Andy Deck, Nick Kent, Rick Silva, and others are responsible for some fancy digital sampling and live-feed remixes of the daily news, including "Society of the Spectacle (a Digital Remix)" and "Overdub: The Remix of Politics," in which Bush and Blair sing a love song and Grandmaster Bush remixes his own speeches. Jon Henry, Packer's former student, is responsible for the Exquisite Corpse, a lifelike tableau of a body (his own) in a flag-draped coffin, "fallen in the line of duty," that materializes the missing military image from the war in Iraq.

Flagged down: Randall M. Packer
photo: Randall M. Packer
Flagged down: Randall M. Packer

Expect to see more of US DAT's work between now and November 2. A selection of the Department's artifacts and official documents will be included in "Democracy Is Fun?" at White Box this fall. "They're government documents; they'll be under glass," says Secretary Packer, who will also give a speech at the gallery. And he's planning an event that will take place on election night: a live remix of media coverage, deconstructing election results. There's a sense of urgency to the work. "I think we all feel we're very close to the death of what this country represents," says Secretary Packer. US DAT's state-of-the-art projects may be tongue-in-cheek but they're deadly serious.

"Democracy Is Fun?" opens October 21, through November 6, White Box, 525 West 26th Street, 212.714.2347.

Previews by Kim Levin

September 30–November 27
Peter Blum, 99 Wooster Street, 212.343.0441

"Ode à L'Oubli"

October 2–30
Lehmann Maupin, 540 West 26th Street, 212.255.2923

Two new video installations: Six Figures, a six-video loop about reincarnation and Turkish Shiite Arabs; and Stefan's Room, about a man who collects moths.

October 6-January 2
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, 800.944.8639

The meticulous L.A. artist spent five years creating this three-part installation, titled "The Perfect Ride." It includes a large sculpture of a human ear, another inspired by the Hoover Dam, and an animated film of a cowboy on a bucking bronco.

October 13-January 9
Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 West 125th Street, 212.864.4500

Known primarily for his monumental narrative paintings of life in black urban America, this Chicago-based artist has branched out over the past five years into sculpture, installation, photography, video, comic strips, and printmaking. "One True Thing: Meditations on Black Aesthetics" includes some 30 works in all those media.

October 15-February 13
Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, 212.423.3500

With some 450 works and a fat catalog with essays by more than 20 scholars, this exhibition—billed as the most comprehensive survey ever outside Mexico—could be a major event, or it could be another bloated blockbuster of handsome decontextualized objects. We're counting on the Mexican co-organizers to keep the Gugg's megalomania in check.

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