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Designing democracy: How the arts and design can help us talk politics

3 events show how creative approaches help us discuss potentially contentious politics and this election in particular

The Race performance
November 07, 2016

Politics can be contentious under the best of circumstances. That’s why the rules of polite conversation recommend avoiding the subject.

But discussing politics is a critical component of our democracy, especially in an election year. So how do we do that without descending into acrimony?

According to Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, designers and artists can help us gain perspective and maintain civil dialogue, even when we disagree with one another.

“We need the arts to help us understand this political season,” Tepper said.

“Design and art open up the possibility for story, empathy and imagination in our politics, allowing us to bypass partisanship and get beyond polls and personalities to focus on the issues that we all face during the election and beyond.”

‘What happens next?’

A case in point is “The Race,” an Election Day event that involves students, faculty, staff and community in an ongoing conversation that is part rehearsed performance, part impromptu action, part social gathering (pictured above).

By combining short skits, songs and performances with a more formal presentation in the evening — along with live election results — Michael RohdRohd is an Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute, co-founder of the Ensemble Lab at ASU and co-founder of Sojourn Theatre. is producing what he describes as “a community event with performance at the center of it.”

“My own work is about how art and theater helps make a uniquely dynamic space for civic encounter and civic thought,” Rohd said. “I feel like one of the reasons I was invited to join this community at this particular exciting time is my interest in the intersection of theater and community and civic life and an examination of how artists in a variety of ways impact public discourse.

“This project is one of my experiments over the last decade to make a space amidst the heat of political zeitgeist that allows us to be with strangers and work to consider, and even make sense of, our values and priorities.”

“This is not a show about the candidates or the election,” he clarified. “None of the performances are allowed to advocate Trump or Clinton. The show is about what America wants in a leader.”

Kyra Jackson, an MFA in performance student in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and one of 24 graduate Herberger Institute students working with Rohd to make “The Race” happen, says that in a political season “like no other before it,” one of the group’s goals as a class is “to tackle the underlying questions of our discussions: What happens next? When whatever outcome is finally (decided), how will our nation move forward?”

Ultimately, Rohd aims to provide what he calls “a civic theater event, so people have a space on Election Day to come in and have a conversation instead of watching alone. We hope for an interesting and diverse crowd. We’re just trying to make sure the event is varied and playful, a place to spend what could be a very intense day.”

“The Race” begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 8, at Galvin Playhouse, on ASU’s Tempe campus, and runs till 10 p.m. In addition to the performances, Rohd said, Galvin will be “a public civic space to watch the results come in on CNN.”

What democracy is about

Starting in 1984, artists Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese began compiling a history of presidential campaign spots, following the evolution of political advertising from its beginnings in 1952 up to the present.

Every four years, the artists re-edit the entire project, titled “Political Advertisement,” and add examples of current ads. The video is arranged chronologically and provides a timeline of key ads over the decades.

Political Advertisement

A collection of campaign ads in "Political Advertisement."

Muntadas sees “Political Advertisement” as part of an artistic tradition that dates back to the photo montages of the 1930s. Like earlier artists who worked with photography and video, Muntadas said, “We have access, we recycle, we reappropriate” the material.

 For the past nine general elections, the artists have premiered the latest version of “Political Advertisement” in a public presentation. This year, the premiere took place Nov. 1 at the ASU Art Museum. In addition to famous ads such as the anti-Goldwater “daisy” spot of the 1960s and an ad featuring Jackie Kennedy addressing viewers in Spanish, the audience watched more recent examples of political advertising from President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

“What I find interesting in this piece, this film, is the fact that people are able to see a clear line, chronological timeline, of these expressions but without a voice-over explaining or contextualizing,” said Reese. “We’re really letting the viewer look at them and judge for themselves. It allows people to look at our history in a different way.”

Reese said he was optimistic about the enterprise when he and Muntadas started it in 1984, but his view has changed somewhat: “The marketplace doesn’t necessarily offer the best place to present political ideas. That’s what democracy is about. It’s not a supermarket.”

‘Speaking out is essential’

On view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art during the election and beyond, the exhibit “Push Comes to Shove: Women and Power” aims to use art as a critical catalyst in rethinking and transforming the advancement of women.

This cross-disciplinary collaboration between Muriel Magenta, professor of intermedia in the ASU School of Art, and Sara Cochran, director and chief curator of SMoCA, features 19 women, primarily ASU faculty and alumni, in a wide-ranging show that addresses the role of women in society and politics through sculpture, photography, video, sound and installation.

Walking on Glass

"Walking on Glass," 2016, by Brooke Grucella. Acrylic latex house and spray paint on MDF, 8 by 20 feet, on view at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Grucella is an MFA graduate from ASU's School of Art who currently teaching and is a curator at the University of Arizona. It's part of the exhibit “Push Comes to Shove: Women and Power” at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art examining the role of women in society and politics.

Magenta says the purpose of the exhibit is “to bring public consciousness, in an artistic format, to the underrepresentation of women decision makers at the table in all fields.” She also points out that the show is exploring the subject of women and power at a critical historical juncture.

“The current climate is uniquely polarized from political, economic and cultural aspects,” Magenta said. “Views about women prevail in all of these categories. This is true both nationally and internationally.

“Speaking out is essential in many different formats, including art. Today it is critical that we as artists take a position on behalf of women.”

“A woman running for president during the ‘Push Comes to Shove: Women and Power’ exhibition offers an exciting dynamic,” she added.

“Just think of it: The show opened Oct. 1 in anticipation of the election, and closes after the results of the election. Viewers will be affected differently by the installation before and after the election.”

Top photo: "The Race," by Liam Kaas-Lentz/Sojourn Theatre

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