From the moment the Republican National Committee chose to coronate its 2008 presidential candidate in St. Paul, hundreds of strands of people mobilized to have a presence. Republican Party officials populate one of the spectrum; on the other, the broad swath of individuals and interest groups driven to protest the convention. Somewhere in between are the minds behind The UnConvention, a wash of art and alternative media hoping to make a public splash through the run over the Republican convention, September 1–4.
The Walker is both a sponsor and active agent, collaborating with lead partner Intermedia Arts, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota’s Institute for New Media Studies and The UpTake.org, an online citizen video site focusing on politics and the 2008 election. Together, they hope to present “ a counterpoint to the highly scripted and predetermined nature of the contemporary presidential nomination process and convention.” Artists are at the heart of this counterpoint, with most projects conceived for broad public participation.
“ We’re working with artists who are very adept at creating powerful messages that encourage people to get involved and think differently,” says Steve Dietz, a founder of The UnConvention. The founding director of new media initiatives at the Walker, Dietz now directs YProductions, which works with museums to build digital cultural programming, and Northern Lights, the entity he formed to drive The UnConvention.
“ The goal is not to sort of streak naked across the convention floor during a speech. It’s not direct action in that sense,” he says. “ But in an idea level, we’d like to crack the coverage open a little bit so participatory democracy (goes) beyond holding up a sign that says four more years.’ We’re interested in how the average citizen can use these new tools (of technology) to participate in a civic discourse about the direction of this country.”
Activities through the Walker began in the spring, through Insights series lectures exploring how design intersects with democracy. This summer, the Walker’s Summer Music and Movies in the Park centers on films portraying American democracy and political folly. Target Free Thursday Nights, the Walker’s weekly evening for adult education and free programming, is featuring artist talks, lectures and workshops related to themes of art and the political process.
Intermedia Arts is transforming into “ what I’m calling the UnConventional Gathering Space,” says Marlina Gonzales, programs manager at Intermedia and program director for The UnConvention, who describes that space as “ a cross between an alternative artist press center and an exhibition center.” Intermedia is opening its media suite to anyone working on convention-related videos. Its galleries will show digital media work and documentation of events related to The UnConvention. Its theater will host related performances, and muralists are coating the outside walls with UnConventional art. Intermedia will also host discussion groups, classes, a parade, and other public events.
“ It’s all about participatory democracy, which involves mobilizing our freedom of expression and encouraging people to think creatively in their methods of expression,” Gonzales says. “ We’re doing that by putting artists and community members together.”
Through the guidance and resources of Walker, people will create videos addressing the scripted nature of political party conventions. The Walker will host submissions on its YouTube channel. In a project in partnership with mnartists.org, artists and other inspired citizens are creating visual distractions from traditional political endorsement signs by creating and uploading their own yard sign designs. The best of them, as determined in online voting, will be available for personal printing and mass distribution.
In another project, in partnership with mnartists.org, artists and other inspired citizens are invited to declare My Yard Our Message by designing their own yard signs–to counter or distract from the traditional political endorsement signs staked into American lawns. The best of these signs, as determined in online voting, will be available for personal printing and mass distribution. Individual artists have already been tapped for specific projects. At both conventions, Sharon Hayes of New York and 100 local queer community activists will recite a speech developed by Hayes in a public demonstration of the relationship between love and politics. This project is presented by Creative Time, with the Walker and the UnConvention, as part of a national public art initiative called Democracy in America, which is being organized by Creative Time. Also, look for video artwork created and exhibited on the fly by artist Jon Winet, a new media artist and art professor at the University of Iowa, exploring the upcoming presidential election and democratic practice in America. In 2002, the Walker co-commissioned Winet’s Democracy–Last Campaign.
The UpTake, partnering with the Walker on I Approve This Message, plans to train and arm 100 “ citizen journalists” with video cameras to cover protests, community outreach, art projects, marches, and other elements related to the Republican National Convention (the UpTake is heading a similar effort for the Democratic National Convention in Denver). To help budding videographers participate, the UpTake is leading videomaking workshops at the Walker on Target Free Thursday Nights. “ We don’t want to have the stiff journalistic storytelling mode,” says Jason Barnett, executive director of the UpTake. “ Working with the Walker will help with that.”
Technological advances continue to play roles for both the political parties and the people countering and commenting on them. An example: the UpTake organizers have built their own social networking foundation and are aiming for live coverage through cell phones. But Dietz sees technology as simply providing tools to fulfill a larger mission. “ It’s more about taking advantage of what’s easily available and doing really creative things with it–to bring a format that makes the content more interesting,” he says. “ I’m not so interested in the newest technology as I am in how the average citizen can use these new tools to participate in a civic discourse about the direction of this country. That’s when really profound changes become possible.”
“ It’s more about taking advantage about what’s easily available and doing really creative things with it–to bring a format that makes the content more interesting,” he says. “ I’m not so interested in the newest technology as when technology becomes commodified and available on a very widespread basis. That’s when really profound changes become possible.”