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The Emperor has no balls

The arts incite an exciting and participative politics in the US

Depressing as the US election may be for progressives at least it’s spawning some spirited political art from which the rest of us can learn.
For example ‘Indecline’ went viral when it erected guerrilla statues overnight of a naked Donald Trump, in several US cities. Each bore the title, ‘The Emperor has no Balls’. Though that much is clear from the works (see right).

Arts and culture grasped an immediate relevance in offering a provocative perspective on electoral politics. Less noticed, but still indicative of a desire to heal the splintered resistance, and broker the solidarity that an effective civil society must embody, is the ‘United States Department of Arts and Culture’ (USDAC). It initiated a ‘Super PAC’ for the forthcoming election.

In mainstream US politics, Super Political Action Committees (PACs) are used to funnel millions of dollars into election campaigns. These PACs can’t make direct contributions to candidate campaigns or parties. However, they can engage in unlimited political spending independently of the campaigns. They can raise funds from individuals, corporations, unions, and other groups without any legal limit on donation size.

The ‘United States Department of Arts and Culture’ (USDAC) plays with the rhetoric of a Federal agency or think tank. It is the engine room for a grassroots action network. Its work is about inciting creativity and social imagination to shape a culture of empathy, equity and belonging. It organises at local and national levels and works with artists and community members to address social issues. It seeks to promote programmes and policies that move art and culture from the margins to the centre of civil society.

USDAC aims to power democracy with mass artistic creativity. It has garnered cross-community and crossgeneration traction. Over 170 communities signed up to host events and share stories online in a collective national self-portrait. Cultural Agents are recruited to organize and host ‘Imaginings’, art-steeped community events that have included more than 3000 people. Volunteers come from a pool of 4,500 Citizen Artists. Over 10,000 people have been part of USDAC events in 40 states since late 2013.

The USDAC ‘Super PAC’ doesn’t have anything to do with the political spending of the PACs. Its ‘Super PAC’ is a Super Participatory Arts Coalition that nurtures high-impact, low-infrastructure models for building a creative community. It promotes participatory public projects that activate agency, inspire meaningful dialogue, and embody community and equity. These projects could disrupt narratives of hatred. In the midst of a hugely volatile election cycle, they serve as a reminder of what democracy looks like.

One of ten models chosen for the Super PAC came from a proposal by ‘Les Agents Provocateurs’ which choreographs flash-mobs to challenge consumerism and reclaim public space. Their plan is to create the same flash-mob performance simultaneously in twenty different cities worldwide. The performance is dancing riot police – they assemble in a public space in riot formation and break into a kind of ‘Chorus Line’ movement, something that resonates for many in our fractious world. Broadway meets the official use of force.

Another is ‘Democracy Uncut: A Hearable Dialogue on Race and Social Justice’, a filmmaking technique was used to create meaningful media channels to deal with traditionally polarising topics. This is built on the idea that democracy works best with conversation, which is preferable to riots or tank warfare. It tries to take some of the toughest topics and find ways to bridge the gap between two starkly opposing groups.

It has adopted a technique called ‘Question Bridge’ to pose questions, videoing one group at a time, and then letting the opposing group view those questions and reply on video. You take out the noise, the clutter that happens when you get two opposing groups talking at the same time. It ends up with a dialogue you can clearly hear.

Finally Sara Taliaferro’s ‘Buffalo Commons Un-Voting Fair’, again for USDAC, is a playful pop-up fair with messages for public officials, historic re-enactments, hugs, zines, and more. There is an ‘un-voting booth’ where you can talk, write, or make art about why you do or don’t vote.

The anatomy of democracy in the US has congealed and encrusted. Old mechanisms for participation and meaningful discourse are no longer available. Creativity, arts and culture are evoking new ways to engage.

Ireland should emulate.

Ed Carroll is the Blue Drum convenor