Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Democratic Muse: Invoking the Future

Invocation Democracy, a virtual exhibition Curated by Monet Clark for Pro Arts Commons in Oakland California. October 30, 2020 - January 20, 2021

Featured artists in this exhibition:
April Bey • Monet Clark • Karen Finley • Edgar Fabián Frías • Frightwig and Timothy Crandle • Guillermo Gómez-Peña • John DiLeva Halpern • Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds • Jamil Hellu • Dale Hoyt • Merritt Johnson • Facing West Shadows / Lydia Greer and Caryl Kientz • Minnette Lehmann • Sang Chi Liu • Jennifer Locke • Darrin Martin • Ann McCoy • Lady Monster • Linda Montano • Shalo P • Charles Schneider • Christine Shields • John Sims • Mariee Sioux and Kacey Johansing • Penny Slinger • Emily Harris and Dano Wall • Liz Walsh


“Art provides us with a liminal space wherein momentary suspensions from our patterned thoughts and identities can be experienced, allowing for us to align with new states of awareness.” – Monet Clark, curator.

I have to say, as a culture critic who writes about visual art in all its manifestations, whether painted, photographed, filmed or performed, this curatorial definition of what an artifact is or might be strikes me as being among the most prescient I’ve encountered. It brings to mind one of Hannah Arendt’s insights into the nature of the art making process and its objects. It is central to what Arendt referred to as “The Life of the Mind”: “What are we ‘doing’ when we do nothing but think? Where are we when we, normally always surrounded by our fellow men, are together with no one but ourselves? It is more than likely that men, if they were ever to lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions, would lose ... the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art ... ”

All of the compelling artists in this exhibition’s timely roster, each in their own unique way, and all of the intriguing art works (thought-things) they produced in response to the theme, were caught up in the same unusual situation we all find ourselves in: the in-between zone of epidemic-mania which renders us all immobile flâneurs, and the peculiar political season we occupy hovering between madness and deliverance. Some have chosen to reflect upon the nature of our sheltering in place while others on the oddly threatening vulnerability of those revelations of fantasy and phantom that politics have devolved into. Each one also addresses the basic and integral aspect of the art object as a breakthrough threshold experience, one that is both luminous and mysterious at the same time.

But either way, democracy itself is the muse they welcomed into their art practice as a guiding principle for their deliberations upon what it means to participate in a kind of secular invocation. Originally an invocation is the act or process of petitioning for help or support, a calling upon some authority or justification, and even the act of calling upon a deity or spirit for aid and protection. It can be the summoning of the supernatural, or of mystical powers in the form of an incantation to bring about desired results. Such a notion of the invocation of democracy, itself perhaps even a mythological condition we aspire to rather than fully occupy, is clearly a marvelous emblem for the process of casting a political ballot for the representative of your own free choice, if indeed we can insure its historical survival.

Curator Monet Clark has amply clarified this social drama both through the choices of artist participants sharing a vision and also through her clearly articulated summary of the mission statement: “Art can reveal cultural biases and their impacts and function as a catalyst for change. As we nationally and globally navigate through this time of political, social, environmental and social crises, the voice of the artist is needed now more than ever.”

The curator further elucidates the current condition we occupy, not necessarily just those social or health or political conditions that are most obvious to all of us, but also the underlying existential condition that prevails during these precarious times. She does so by identifying an integrated approach which she refers to as holistic intersectionality: a political and mystical conversation which unfolds in the virtual space of a non-physical museum, almost a museum of dreams:

Through the synergy of the sum of its parts, Invocation Democracy provides a virtual space to reflect on and envision the preservation and repair of our democracy. Joining together painters, performance, video, interdisciplinary and recording artists from across the nation, Invocation Democracy provides an interstice of grief, a necessary step for action, and suggests that all our intentions, actions and our votes matter, especially during this time of transitioning power structures.

Most importantly, when it comes to preservation and repair, Clark also emphasizes that a healthy democracy not only cares for and protects all the people within its borders but also the land itself, through hoped-for policies which encourage proper nature resource stewardship, which, in keeping with her origins as an Indigenous artist, includes protecting the animal kingdom and cherishing both local and global ecosystems. Indeed, among the chief concerns for many artists such as her is the crucial realization of the very sentience of nature itself, which is too often disregarded by dismissive empires solely concerned with power and its maintenance. “Invocation democracy contemplates the impacts on our ailing democracy, and just what it may take to transform it,” she has observed.

Each of the very diverse group of contributing artists offers us a distinctly different but shared encounter with the perilous dilemmas facing our contemporary era. They are each uniquely purveyors of thresholds: the interstitial zones between solitary and social, individual and collective, human and animal, waking and dreaming, survival or submission. And almost as crucial as the independently conjured images and ideas of the artists in their own mediums and styles, one must remember to acknowledge the virtual artistry of the designers of a sequence of 3-D viewing chambers allowing the visitors to move about a dynamic space from one station to the next. Too numerous to be featured visually in this overview, the content is accessible worldwide through multiple mobile 3-D galleries embedded within the Pro Arts Commons Website.

John Sims, Date With Fear/A Self Portrait, digital image. (Pro Arts)

Many pieces spoke to me in a clear strong voice, almost as if they were dialects in a common language. John Sims, a Detroit native and currently artist-in-residence at the Ringling Museum (he was formerly the Coordinator of Mathematics at Ringling College of Art and Design), is a conceptual artist working at the collision points of visual art, activism and mathematics who focuses on the drastically interdisciplinary realms of installation, performance, text, music, film and large-scale activism. His masked self-portrait, surrounded by vegetable-scaled bacterial spores, confronts the viewer with a powerful encounter between intimacy and alienation.

Lydia Greer and Caryl Kientz, The Endless End (documentation from Facing West Shadows: Extinction/Survival), painting/light/installation. (Pro Arts)

Lydia Greer and Caryl Kientz are installation artists whose video Extinction/Survival (using animation, cast shadows and found footage) forms part of work in progress called Facing West Shadows. They are the artistic director and theatrical director and work with a collective of artists, puppeteers, filmmakers and musicians to create a hybridized art form based on what they refer to as “magical acts of rebellion.” Their compelling work offers glimpses of a cataclysmic environment under perpetual threat.  

Jennifer Locke, Spells III (Tree, Candle, Levitation, Moonstone), performance/video. (Pro Arts)

Jennifer Locke’s intense video of bodily interactions with nature was created specifically for Invocation Democracy and is part of a series of Spell performances focusing on duration, sculptural actions, ritual and the construction of meaning. She frequently utilizes reconfigured viewing formats that explore inter-subjectivity, spectatorship, hierarchy and physicality which often draw on her personal and professional experiences as a dominatrix, wrestler and artists model. She’s a kind of archetypal avatar.

Darrin Martin, Summer Solitude Outside in (Breathe Diptych), photograph/installation. (Pro Arts)

Darrin Martin’s Breathe series translates his personal experience of his lockdown conditions in his home of Oakland in a way that reveals his awareness of the privilege that has been exposed by the pandemic: “[s]ocial injustices, systemic racism and economic disparities . . . and misinformed social media posts that attempt to demonize victims and validate their oppressors. Take Breath is Breath (Breathe) is an ongoing project of both still and moving images that places myself inside a literal bubble in the perceived safety of my backyard and studio.” Sequestering as knowing.

Monet Clark, Colonial Climate, still photo from video/performance, with music by Mia Kaneen (Pro Arts).

Monet Clark’s video/performance piece Colonial Climate, The Great Unraveling (with music by Mia Kaneen) was created specifically for this virtual exhibition. It tracks the consequences of the colonial roots of earth’s exploitation and the gross imbalances within our biosphere that mirror indigenous culture’s marginalization and the overall dismissal of the feminine aspects of reality: “Floating in 2020’s Northern California air quality index of 600 toxic smoke, a Yogini and her consorts, and their California condor animal familiars, explore internalized misogyny challenge the status quo which isn’t moving fast enough to solve climate change.”

Ann McCoy, The Dream of the Invisible College, coloured pencil on canvas. (Pro Arts)

Ann McCoy’s haunting work hovers like a dream materializing before us.  Contemplating the question, “What if we could learns as much from inner visions as from texts?,” she drew Dream of the Invisible College, an image which seems to emerge from the deep collective unconscious to which we all have access: “This inner world as a source of knowledge has always been an obsession of mine.” Her large image, executed in coloured pencil on paper and canvas, originated in a illustration of the same title by Theophilus Schweightgardt in 1618 and is linked to alchemists such as Robert Fludd and John Dee. “I liked the idea,” the artist observed, “of a College that studied numinosum, invisible forces, alchemical imagination and dreams.”

Merritt Johnson, Mother’s Love/Ista Konaronkwa, photograph. (Pro Arts)

Merrit Johnson’s sculptural piece Mother’s Love (whose subtitle translates as “Mom, I love you”) presents a life-size hand-knit kevlar (the material used in bullet-proof vests) infant cap with rabbit fur, ribbons and beading details. As hybrid as her own powerful works, she is a mix of Blackfoot, Irish, Swedish and Jamaican but proudly declares herself not to be a citizen of any of the nations from which she descends. As the artist qualifies it: “Mother’s Love takes many forms, and in this way it is often unseen, misunderstood, judged or punished. In this form a mother’s love is not soft, it is unflinching and responsive. It is an extension of love, joy and strength, made to face the world as it is.”

Indeed, facing the world as it is, as well as what it might yet become, is at the very heart of the collaborative venture between curator Clark, her fellow artist partners, and the community arts organization with which she cooperated to bring Invocation Democracy to fruition, Pro Arts Commons. It is closed until further notice due to the pandemic, one of the limbo-like conditions being explored by this virtue show along with the democratic limbo of being between two radically different kinds of political parties. Pro Arts has been embedded in the Oakland community since 1974.

As an artist-run collective, the organization provides alternative models for the manifestation of cultural activities:

Our latest organizing work and configuration of Pro Arts revolves around the question: ‘How can we build a truly inclusive, resilient, self-sustaining, and based in fair labor practice community, using the vehicle of art?’ The result is Pro Arts Gallery & COMMONS, and the introduction of a new sustainable and collaborative art economy model, based in the democratic self-organization and ethic of stewardship and mutualism, found in the establishment and endurance of community commons.

We see our role in our community to be that of a first responder – providing community care and advocating for justice and equity through art. We are part of a larger movement towards the creation of solidarity creative economy. We hold community meet-ups at the gallery, during which we discuss strategies for reframing the value of the independent art scene in a future, collaborative society. We use social media and printed collateral to publicize widely our programs and events. In addition, we print readers, journals, critical essays, art books, and zines that are also available as free downloads on the Pro Arts website.

Through the programs we co-create at Pro Arts Gallery &COMMONS, we transgress power systems of injustice and inequality. We collaborate with independent artists who wish to mutualize their labor and production, co-creating new relationships with their peers and the public, and thereby dispersing the power associated with their skill, knowledge, experience and position in the art world, in the name of empowering others. As we continue to experiment with the ways in which Pro Arts Gallery & COMMONS organizes and operates within the context of a solidarity economy, we are also focusing on building a participatory platform for artistic knowledge production and exchange.

This participatory platform has taken the shape of a string of workshops, political education, and peer-to-peer collaboratives, facilitated by artists and cultural activists. The common thread among these activities lies in their aim to deconstruct the contemporary relationship between the independent art space, the organization of labor and value production, and the distribution of capital, while all along imagining a post-capitalist art world in which the distribution of power and wealth is valued as most generative, when sustaining and nurturing a bottom-up surge of other commons-centric formations. We are interested in questions such as: “Who produced value in art?” “Who assigns value to art?” “Who controls value in art?” and finally, “Who controls art production and subsequently its value?”

The answers to these clearly rhetorical questions are found in the remarkable works created by the artists participating in Clark’s Invocation Democracy exhibition. And one of the artists, Penny Slinger, in addition to the visual work she produced, tilted Nurtura, a digital collage from her Dakini Oracle series, also offered a poem in her bio section which  definitely seems to me to summarize or embody the working spirit and principle of this show. Here’s a pertinent portion of it that resonates in the way it addresses our shared ‘time out’:

Time to think about
A reawakening.
This time out
Is space opened up
To self-reflect
And collectively.
The role of the artist
Is as shaman
Reawakening her viewers
To their own inner knowing
The artist shaman
Mixes a potion
To help us recall
This dream of life In its pure essence
Reawakening us
To who we really are
Reminding our hearts
That we care
About every single particle
As living consciousness
As part of us
As we are part of all that is

Something else it resonates with for me is an observation about her own work by a favorite American poet of mine Ann Waldman, co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Waldman stated: "I want my poetry to be the experience .... a sustained experience, a voyage, a magnificent dream, something that would take you in myriad directions simultaneously, and you could draw on all of these other voices and you could pay homage to ancestors and other languages – a poem that would include everything and yet dwell in the interstices of imagination and action."

Including everything and yet dwelling in the interstices of imagination and action, where every artist is an activist in a spiritual campaign to help create a better reality for the rest of us. That is exactly what this Invocation Democracy exhibition is all about. And it is also precisely why you should visit the virtual space of Pro Arts Commons to see for yourself. 

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.




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