Last week, City / Culture checked in on the ecstatic world of Burning Man. This week, our conversation turns towards a subject that might at first glance seem less passionate, but upon further reflection, is about the bluest of founding flames.
That subject: the U.S. Constitution, without which, who knows, there might not be an annual Black Rock City gathering.
Certainly, there wouldn’t be the project known as My Daily Constitution, the work of Los Angeles-based artist Linda Pollack. City / Culture met up recently with Pollack for a group discussion about her project’s past and future. This two-part interview, a follow-up to that gathering, has been edited for space and clarity
City/Culture: What is My Daily Constitution?
Linda Pollack: My Daily Constitution creates public dialogue about constitutional issues in everyday settings around a city––cafes, dance halls, restaurants, libraries, museums, parks. The idea is to get thought-provoking discussions out of the lecture hall, and into people’s lives. After living in Europe for over a decade, where I saw the fall-out from the war in the former Yugoslavia, in 1998 I moved back to the U.S. With a re-pat’s appreciation, I found it oddly exciting to explore the possibilities of this country––in all its messiness, flaws, and imperfections––particularly after spending so much time in homogenous northern Europe.
A few years later, when I first learned about the passage of the USA Patriot Act, I had a visceral reaction. I realized I didn’t know anything about my own Constitution and on some intuitive level, I felt that all of this potential––the whole project of a pluralistic open society, was at stake. I thought, ‘Well, if this country is going down the tubes, at least I’m going to go down fighting!’ And that was the core inspiration. The Constitution matters because, at our best, we are a nation based on citizenship (or, if you will––collective residency), as opposed to a nation based on race or religion. Every day we reinvent our identity through the way we interpret and apply our laws.
City/Culture: How does My Daily Constitution overlap, or connect with, your Habeas Lounge project, which features conversations with constitutional law experts and other folks, and are held on a custom-made, eccentrically-shaped, bright red couch?
Linda Pollack: When I was living in Europe as an artist, my initial interest in democracy was through its formal spaces, designs, and signifiers. This interest manifested itself in German Parliaments, my project that examined spaces of German plenary halls. In this project, you could literally see a progression in spatial arrangements, from the rigid rows of seating arrangements in parliament halls built shortly after WWII, to the circular arrangement in the today’s rebuilt Reichstag.
With My Daily Constitution, I broadened my concerns about democracy to examine the social engineering and dynamics that contribute or detract from collective dialogue. Originally, I created Habeas Lounge as a physical space––a signifier for events happening as part of MDC. It then it became a space for dialogue about a myriad of issues––urban planning, the LA River, Lower Manhattan, the economic crisis. The Habeas Lounge even became the site of a weekly group therapy session for people experiencing anxiety from the recession. The signature red serpentine lounge was commissioned by [the Municipal Art Gallery in] Wroclaw, Poland on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; the lounge will travel to Gdansk this December to mark 30 years of the Solidarity Movement. Ultimately, a ‘Habeas Lounge’ is created anywhere there is space for listening, exchange and dialogue. In that spirit, I am reactivating My Daily Constitution, in order to make it accessible to as many people around the country as possible.
City/Culture: I’ve heard you speak passionately about ‘civil society.’ This column is in part about work done by creative individuals and collectives that could–– depending on a person’s political beliefs––be considered work that governments should do. For you, what are the possibilities of civil society, and what are the limits?
Linda Pollack: The potential of civil society––and I’ll use a broad brush stroke here and define it as the multitude of organizations and players working outside of government institutions around shared interests, purposes and values––is the ability to anticipate and respond to needs and issues confronting a diverse population, often before government bodies are able to respond. I am thinking of the work around climate change, environmentalism, civil rights, and other movements––all anticipated by formal NGOs and less formal groups working as agents of civil society. Civil society is often the first to introduce new ideas to the public and is able to build consensus around those ideas.
A precarious situation is created when governments abandon their role and rely on these organizations by default. Governments need to step up to the plate and create solutions when a problem confronting a population is so entrenched and is recognized as a structural problem. That should not be the province of piecemeal initiatives undertaken by NGOs.
City/Culture: MDC began at an art venue, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. And the Habeas Lounge and MDC have appeared since** in other art settings such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art and in New York, L.A., and Poland. Why is what you’re doing “art” as opposed to “civics” or “political science?”
Linda Pollack: I don’t focus on MDC as an art project, but I do think about it in terms of culture––political, visual, high, popular, urban, rural, culture.
In this way, MDC raises issues concerning expectations about community dialogue, and that is why, I think, it has attracted the attention of several curators in the art world. Why is there so little thought, consideration to the physical environment when it comes to governance issues and citizens groups? Why is thoughtful design reserved either for designated political leaders and formal political dialogue, tastemakers, private houses, art museums, cultural spaces? What happens when you mix expectations of a very cool well-known music venue in the Lower East Side with a rigorous thoughtful community discussion about the Constitution? Or, when you introduce a red couch with a real ‘wow’ factor as a setting for community dialogue? Insofar as the project surprises expectations and experiences of public exchange, I believe the project has the potential to shift and re-calibrate the culture of public life.
Next week: Part two of the conversation, beginning with how Pollack thinks MDC can help American cities.
**=Disclosure: Including at Los Angeles’ Farmlab, where the City / Culture columnist once booked Pollack to lead a Public Salon.
Read past City / Culture columns here. Email the columnist at lathinktank [at] gmail [dot] org.