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S/Election examined the work of 31 contemporary artists whose work addressed issues around citizenship that have been increasingly prominent leading up to the 45th presidential election. This group exhibition provided an alternative platform for artists and the public to engage in civic discourse.
The constructs of citizenship are constantly shifting, especially in conversation with politically pressing issues such as voting rights, immigration reform, education reform, identity politics, and criminal justice. S/Election responded to various inquiries around citizenship such as, what does it mean to be an active citizen or exercise your rights, what does the status of “citizen” imply to those that are disenfranchised, displaced, immigrants, or refugees, and how does identity play into the privileges and/or duties of citizenship.
Featured Artists Included: Aytaam Al Turab, James Berson, Marco Braunschweiler, Bethany Collins, Dorit Cypis, Timothy Durant, Kathie Foley-Meyer, Charles Gaines, Martin Gantman, Ramiro Gomez, Carla Jay Harris, Gelare Khoshgozaran, Olga Koumoundouros, Olga Lah, Narsiso Martinez, Jennifer Moon, Margaret Noble, Rubén Ortiz Torres, taisha paggett with WXPT, Leopoldo Peña, Linda Pollack, Jamie Powell, Neil Rivas, Andy Robert, Monica Rodriguez, Stephanie Sabo, Daniel Schwarz, Cintia Alejandra Segovia, Matt Sheridan, Jane Szabo, and Jody Zellen.
The rallying cry, “The personal is political,” originated with the second wave of the feminist movement to bring attention to the connection between everyday issues faced by women and the larger political forces that determine them. The phrase anticipates and informs our current debates on citizenship: citizenship’s boundaries, its political limits, and the status of its identity. Citizenship is a nexus where personal identity―whether defined by ethnicity, culture or gender, etc. and a civic identity defined through our governing system, laws, and policies―all intersect. S/Election looks to explore the various ways in which our identities influence and affect our ties to governance. There are a host of political issues surrounding citizenship that are expressed throughout this exhibition, including criminal justice, immigration reform, and the effects of gerrymandering.
Addressing our criminal justice system is Jennifer Moon’s photo series, Prison Relics, and accompany book, This is Where I Learned of Love. The series expounds upon her eighteen month sentence in the Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, California for attempted first degree robbery. Prison Relics features fourteen basic items that Moon was allowed to keep upon her release. In showcasing them, she demonstrates how they greatly affected her day-to-day life behind bars. Notable images include a hand drawn layout of her cell, a Valentine’s Day card from her “honey” an inmate, and her Certificate of Discharge that notes, “An ex-felon becomes eligible to vote after being discharged from parole. Mass incarceration challenges the stability of personhood and civic identity, especially within communities of color. Moon showcases these personal items in order to reclaim her personhood within a systematic machine of incarceration. Those caught within prison system lose the right to vote amidst other civic rights. However, this year, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill, AB 2466, that will allow thousands of felons to vote in the upcoming presidential election. Brown noted, “California is stronger and healthier when more people participate in the electoral process. Mass disenfranchisement for minor offenses is a tragic legacy of the Jim Crow era that disproportionately affects and diminishes the power of communities of color.”
Another area of disenfranchisement comes from the increased use of gerrymandering, that is, drawing congressional boundaries in a way that gives one political party an electoral advantage over the other, regardless of the actual make up of the popular vote. The practice has disproportionately affected communities of color. In Stephanie Sabo’s piece, The Shapes We Live With/In, the artist employs the world of interior design to consider an issue that she believes adversely affects our ability to sustain a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The issue of immigration reform is a prominent topic for debate, especially in Southern California. Neil “Clavo” Rivas, is an interdisciplinary artist whose work stems from his roles as a documentarian, educator, and activist. Using photographic imagery, collected objects, and appropriated pop-culture iconography, he is invested in aesthetic politics and the creation of tactical interventions within social, cultural, and political contexts. Rivas’s piece, Las Gran Marchas (Revisited), commemorates the ten year anniversary of two of the largest immigration reform marches to happen in Los Angeles, in March and May of 2006. Rivas’s piece, a newsstand titled Las Gran Marchas, contains newspapers he created in response to the marches. The sixteen page newspaper, created in collaboration with artist Lana Dandan, includes twenty-five photos from Rivas’s archive, and six bilingual articles written by several of the main organizers of the historic marches and by youth who participated, including Angelica Salas, David Huerta, Pedro Trujillo, Kimi Lee, Liz Sunwoo, and Xiomara Corpeño. Through this, on the anniversary date, and for several weeks after, thousands of copies of the newspaper were made available to the public.
Monica Rodriguez, also captures the essence of the immigration reform march in March 2006 in her piece, We Are America. Rodriguez, whose videos, performances and installations explore the relationship between art and politics, focuses on the records, narratives, and means by which historical events are disseminated and represented. We Are America addresses social and political issues concerning immigrants’ rights in the United States. The work consists of thirteen American flags that have various slogans printed on them. The slogans printed on the flags are a selection of the slogans people chanted and had printed on placards and banners during the March 25, 2006 protest that took place in downtown Los Angeles over the proposed changes to U.S. immigration policies. Rodriguez, who is originally from Puerto Rico, also examines the relationship between the United States and its various territories, in considering the lack of rights and access those citizens have.
The use of the silhouette in the exhibition ties to the ongoing fragility and invisibility of oppressed communities throughout the nation who battle with the fully realized status of citizenship. Ramiro Gomez’s, Cut Outs likens to a sprawling David Hockney dreamland, embodying the saturated structures of luxury that house the Los Angeles elite. Upon closer inspection, it is indicated with precision that all of the humans have been intentionally cut out of the landscapes creating a stark disruption to the framework that defines the “American Dream”. Gomez, the child of Mexican-immigrant parents, became a live-in nanny in West Hollywood after a brief stint at the California Institute of the Arts. His occupation as a nanny deeply informed his practice in noting the blaring invisibility of the predominantly Latino laborers whose daily occupation consisted of caretaking for the families and infrastructures of these immaculate homes.
Within this sentiment he also noted the complex relationships, fueled by structures of class hierarchy and disparity, that arose between the home owners and the laborers whose connections proved both intimate yet fleeting in moments of distrust. Gomez’s utilization of the silhouette highlights the labor force that is often unseen and unappreciated; the caretakers of luxury.
Marco Braunschweiler’s utilization of the silhouette considers an ongoing dialogue around communities that, through the continued misuse of policy, have always felt like second-class citizens. Braunschweiler’s, James Baldwin #1 – #5 is a compilation of interviews from 1963-1986 of the prolific writer and critic James Baldwin. Baldwin, whose continued social critique of Westernized governance, was a critical voice of the African Diaspora and for those who sought racial, sexual and class equality amidst the Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin was so disillusioned with the systematic injustices towards oppressed people in America, that he became an expatriate at the age of twenty four, spending the rest of his life in various parts of France. Braunschweiler invokes Baldwin’s silhouette through the animation technique of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping, which was originally created for animators to replicate live subjects frame-by-frame is recontextualized to speak towards transcendence in intellect and historical timeframes. Baldwin’s likeness is restructured into a stark white form that speaks with precision and wit while jumping across a jet black background. Unless the viewer is familiar with Baldwin’s voice, there is no other implication of who is speaking, therefore stripping his identity of race and further pre-conceived subjugation. This practice of disembodiment allows Baldwin’s thoughts of racism and class structures to transcend a historical framework in noting that decades later, nothing has been resolved.
The practice of embossing plays a critical role in examining the structured formatting of legal documents that bind us to our government. Bethany Collins, whose practice is rooted in uncovering dual realities, multiple meanings, and the disruption of the seemingly binary through racial identity and language, revisits the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2014 report on Ferguson, Missouri’s police department. Collin’s piece, A Study for a Pattern or Practice, showcases the Table of Contents from a larger ninety one page report on the Ferguson Police Department and its participation in the murder of eighteen years old St. Louis resident, Michael Brown. Michael Brown, an unarmed, young black man, was shot to death on August 9, 2014 by police officer, Darren Wilson after being accused of stealing from a nearby convenient store. Brown was shot several times and his body was then neglectfully left lying on the pavement hours after his death. His murder became a nation-wide outrage that led to mass protests in considering the systematic violence towards Black people in America. Collins employs the technique of blind embossing, which is when the text or image on a document is raised but not layered in ink, creating a subtle and elegant impression. The historical implications of embossing arose from the 15th century when printing processes became accessible and affordable, allowing people to personalize their legal documents for the first time. Collins integrates this historical narrative into her work by using this technique to humanize a seemingly apathetic document.
Gelare Khoshgozaran’s piece, eye five eight nine: application for asylum and for withholding of removal, utilizes embossing in featuring Khoshgozaran’s own application form for asylum in the U.S. Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for the Witholding of Removal, is a form designated by the Department of Homeland Security that allows people who are physically in the U.S. but not a U.S. citizen to apply for asylum. Khoshgozaran was born and raised in Tehran, the capital city of Iran, and moved to the United States in 2009 as a graduate student. In her application she notes, “I file this declaration in support of my application for asylum in the United States. I am a lesbian and I live as an openly queer artist, and political activist in Los Angeles. As a lesbian, political activist and an outspoken critic of the politics and human rights abuses of the Iranian regime, I fear that if I return to Iran, I will be persecuted, flogged, imprisoned, tortured or executed.” Khoshgozaran also integrates the historical narrative of embossing to illuminate the intimate urgency of her needs against the backdrop of formulaic document and to highlight the failure to document a queer, political subject.
S/Election embodies the basic ideologies of America: democracy, citizenship, freedom, but provides critical reflection on the how these ideas, are in fact, unstable and shift in moments of historical and political influence. As personal identity seeks to define an individual, civic identity seeks to bind us to our governing bodies. At times, these two forms of identity clash providing a deeper examination of the our judicial system, governing bodies and their contemporary infrastructure.
Image slider artwork captions
Bethany Collins, Study for a Pattern or Practice, 2015. courtesy of the artist
Jennifer Moon, Prison Relics from Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This is Where I Learned Of Love, 2012. courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth & Council
Timothy Durant, Natural, 2014. courtesy of the artist
Kathie Foley-Meyer, March, 2016. courtesy of the artist
Jamie Crooke Powell, You’ve Been Noticed, 2016. courtesy of the artist
Jody Zellen, News Wheel, 2015. courtesy of the artist
Monica Rodriguez, We Are America, 2011. courtesy of the artist
Leopoldo Peña, Unheeded: Luchador, 2016. courtesy of the artist
Marco Kane Braunschweiler, james Baldwin #1 – #5, 2014. courtesy of the artist
Narsiso Martinez, Fujisaki III, 2016. courtesy of the artist
Ramiro Gomez, Cut-Outs, 2015. courtesy of the artist and Charlie James Gallery
Rubén Ortiz Torres, 1% y 99%, 2012. courtesy of the Judith Stuart Spence collection
James Berson, Peaceful Protest Helmet, 2016. courtesy of the artist
Mara Lonner, Privacy Burnout, 2014. courtesy of the artist
Olga Koumoundouros, Ice Box, 2013. courtesy of the artist