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About a year ago, Nato Thompson, a curator and producer at the public-art organization Creative Time, woke up wondering why "life was such a bummer."
"I thought I might actually be politically depressed," he says. "Political depression set in among a lot of people after the second election of George W. Bush—not just artists, but all sorts of people nationwide." With the war in Iraq, revelations about torture and illegal wiretapping, and the failures after Hurricane Katrina, there was "real confusion about democracy. There was this feeling that you can't stop anything."
Thompson's cure for this depression was to organize "Democracy in America: The National Campaign," an artistic and political initiative, which during the week of September 21 to 27 will culminate in the Convergence Center at the Park Avenue Armory, a sort of political Lollapalooza. "It's not an art exhibition in the traditional sense," he says—though some 45 artists will be included. "It's more of a rally, more of a place to discuss, to hear speeches, to get excited."
Although the events at the Convergence Center will entail many components, Thompson identifies three broad tendencies among the participants in this vast, biennale-scale undertaking: those who address present-day politics, those who offer historical views of politics and democracy, and those for whom the form of the work is democratic. Or participatory: For example, Neurotransmitter, a collective formed by artists Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere, has created an online radio station of nothing but protest songs. They'll also venture into parks to lead protest karaoke. At the Armory, Pia Lindman will lead a Soapbox Event, in which she provides a soapbox and one minute of "free speech" to anyone who wants it.
Some of the strangest pieces will come from artists who take a historical approach to politics. A giant hobbyhorse, for example, will greet visitors at the Armory's Veterans' Room. Inspired by Civil War battle re-enactors, the artist, Allison Smith, first used the oversized replica of a 19th-century rocking horse in one of her performances, in which she dressed in a Civil War uniform and sang a song—with references to Iraq and the war on terror—to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." By making adults feel the size of children, the horse is intended to get people thinking about the connection between childhood and adult war games while also evoking equestrian war monuments. In a similar vein, sculptor Duke Riley will contribute his gourd-shaped, full-scale replica of a Revolutionary War–era submarine. While sailing it up the East River in the summer of 2007, the artist was arrested for violating the security zone around the Queen Mary II.
Artist Mark Tribe will present videos of the ongoing Port Huron Project, recitations of radical political speeches from the '60s and early '70s staged where they were first heard. On August 2, for instance, an actor read a 1969 speech by Black Panther Angela Davis in Oakland. The project came about when Tribe began teaching at his alma mater, Brown University. He noticed that students no longer erected shantytowns or took part in sit-ins or other protests, as they did against South African apartheid when he was there in the '80s. "My students weren't apathetic," he says. "They just didn't believe that large, national protest movements could work. They were interested in local issues—micropolitics." The speeches began as a way to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of history: "These speeches, about Vietnam and such, have incredible resonance today," he points out.
Of course, many included at the Convergence Center employ a more head-butting approach to politics. Critical Art Ensemble will fill the Armory's Colonels' Room with trash left by the FBI when they investigated the home of one of the collective's founding members, Steve Kurtz, on suspicion of bioterrorism. "The FBI agents were in his house for a week," says Thompson, "and when Kurtz came back, it had been ransacked: They left pizza boxes, Gatorade bottles, and gas masks. It was like a bioterror frat party."
During the Convergence Center events, it will be the police who are under surveillance—by the Tactical Ice Cream Unit. A project by a group calling itself the Center for Tactical Magic, the TICU is an ice-cream truck that travels the country giving out free ice cream—Bomb Pops as well as vegan flavors—and community-based propaganda, like information on urban gardening, the Patriot Act, and anarchism. According to co-founder Aaron Gach, the TICU is outfitted with "16 channels of surveillance video both inside and outside the vehicle. The police have a mobile command unit; we thought the citizenry should have their own." In addition to keeping an eye on the cops, they also "operate as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, have a rooftop stage, and supply a number of different protest supplies. So if you were to come upon a civil uprising and you forgot a few key items—like drinking water or a first-aid kit or a poncho or a gas mask or leather gloves for lobbing tear-gas canisters back at the police—then you could come over to the TICU and get them free of charge." The TICU has had a number of run-ins with the police, "but most of the time, they just want ice cream." Every once in a while, however, the police come around and "get jealous, thinking our mobile command unit is a little bit more pimped-out than their mobile command units."
In addition to the artists and tactical magicians, political speakers—chosen by the Nation Institute—will also take the podium at the Convergence Center. The Nation has asked Al Sharpton to speak about the Sean Bell case, and author Naomi Klein might talk about disaster capitalism. "I hope," says Thompson, "that by bringing these political speakers in who aren't arty at all, there can be a dialogue between what's considered a more traditionally political discourse and the very powerful skill sets that artists bring to the table today. Getting a little more adept at the skill sets of cultural production is something that the political community could certainly use."
Still, though artists may have the skills, they have not been politically loud during the last eight years. By bringing so many voices together, Thompson is shooting for a high decibel level. "I think people want to know there is a political community out there. I want to bring them together, to say: 'You're not alone.' " By gathering so many voices, he might just help the left break its sound barrier.
Convergence Center at Park Avenue Armory, September 21–27, 643 Park Avenue, creativetime.org, 212-206-6674.