Delphine Desane
NR Magazine, Vol. 12

Delphine Desane began painting three years ago whilst on maternity leave from her career working as a fashion stylist. As she describes below, becoming a mother had a profound effect on Delphine – that much is evident from a painting of hers of a mother, stood, undeterred, her infant child positioned on her hip. That piece was, as it happens, a Dior editorial of sorts for Vogue Italia’s January issue. Look closely and you can feel the tulle of the sheer dress that hangs elegantly off of Delphine’s subject; the floral embroidery is beautifully replicated, capturing the essence of femininity that Maria Grazia Chiuri has become synonymous with. And it’s the small details in Delphine’s portraits that make them so special – take Georgia, Mother of Three (2020), for example, in which a translucent, gold hoop earring hugs the character’s ear; an understated marker of who Georgia, as Delphine christens her, is. Ultimately, however, Georgia is much more than a single, definable character. She is, as Delphine explained in an interview earlier this year with the CFHILL gallery in Stockholm, ‘a black woman, she is a mother, she has children but also she has identified herself as a woman and not just a mother.’ The characters that Delphine paints are a coalescence of memories, experiences and photographs – never placeable in a space or moment in time (except, perhaps, for the tell-tale signs of that Dior SS20 dress in Motherhood), but rather, entirely timeless. Her use of striking, bold colours as backdrops are a deliberate tactic to focus attention on each character’s expressions – the simple features that are signature of Delphine’s style managing to convey strong, powerful emotions. Though, it’s worth noting too, that Oaxaca is a place Delphine describes as having a massive influence on her work. Since a friend moved there five years ago, she’s visited the Mexican city several times. ‘There is so much creativity and beauty in this town, indigenous, ancestral and modern at the same time. The places I visit are usually the starting point of my creative process – it helps me create a fictional story around it, and place a character into it.’

Growing up in Paris, to Haitian-born parents, and now based in Brooklyn, Delphine’s portraits are gorgeous depictions of black womanhood that are rarely found in a large-scale, mainstream way. Speaking to CFHILL (Georgia and two other paintings were included in the gallery’s group show Black Voices / Black Microcosm), she remarked that, ‘As an artist, you should try to highlight what you want society to see through your eyes.’ Through her painting, Delphine has found the space to create loving works that present an honest narrative to her experiences as a black mother, a black woman and as the immigrant child of immigrants themselves. Following Vogue Italia’s Sustainability Issue in January, for which Delphine was commissioned alongside six other artists to create an illustrated cover of the magazine as a statement against the environmental impact of photoshoots, she appeared, herself, on the magazine’s September Issue. ‘Hope’, it was called, with 100 covers of 100 people, telling 100 stories; Delphine was number 58. Of the many reasons that 2020 will be remembered, the inventive and creative ways in which magazines have responded to sustainability, coronavirus, Black Lives Matter and so on, will be one of the positives. And to see Delphine, a painter whose career transformed almost overnight following that first magazine cover, be recognised as an emerging artist is certainly another positive to come from this year too. ‘We’ve been under quarantine for half of the year. My work has been shown for the first time this year in January, my first group show at CFHILL was in February, and most people haven’t even seen my work in real life but still, the majority relate to it.’ Letting the work speak for itself has always been her goal, however. As the year draws to a close, Delphine finds herself working on her first solo show at the Luce Gallery in Turin, scheduled to open in December.

What inspired you to begin painting? Is it something you had a background in already?

Becoming a mother really inspired me to start painting. There is a big switch that happens when you become a parent – you have to experience it to really understand what I mean. You are no longer alone, you become responsible for another human being. And, as a mother specifically, a new life physically comes out of your body. My life changed drastically after the birth of my son; finding a new purpose in life. What truly fulfilled me became my priority, and it turns out, painting came naturally. 

I don’t have a background in painting; I attended a fashion school in Paris called Le Studio Berçot which operates more like an atelier than a class school. There wasn’t a grading system, for example. And believe it or not, I was not good at drawing – at all. I had never taken an anatomy class, and was better at making things with my hands like knitting, weaving, embroidering and collage. Most of all, I enjoyed storytelling which is what led me to going on to work in the editorial side of fashion. My mother sewed and knitted a lot at home – I don’t have a memory of her not working on something, and I learned how to sew with her at home before my studies.

Has your background working in fashion influenced your art?

Absolutely: I have worked in the industry for 10+ years and I have had the chance to work with amazing artists, before I could even call myself one. My photographic eyes and strength for composition comes from these intense, formative years – watching and working with artists like Rineke Dijkstra, Gillian Wearing and Viviane Sassen was really inspiring. I have an extensive collection of photographs and books that I have collected over the years that are a great resource for me now and I use them differently across my practice.

Your paintings feature characters with their own back stories – who are they based on?

There’s a mix of real and fictional characters which I connect to my personal experience. Most of the time, I will have a dream that will inform the next work – as if I am seeing the moving image in my dream, and I am trying to make a still out of it on a canvas. That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard for me to sketch, so I prefer to paint directly onto the surface. These characters are sometimes a version of me or someone who I have encountered at some point in my life. 

There’s an expressiveness to your characters that captures their inner-emotion; do you think viewers can understand them without having a back story?

I believe so. People have related to my work and my characters without knowing who I was, or what I was trying to achieve. You don’t have to know someone’s background story to say that, “this person has a lot of personality” – it’s just right there in front of you, right? It’s the same for them. Of course, their background brings another layer to the understanding of my work, but I like to keep the conversation open about them, too.

How was your experience painting a cover for Vogue Italia’s Sustainability Issue back in January?

It was a really unique and amazing experience. I feel very lucky to have been chosen to create the first illustrated issue of Vogue Italia – and it was in 2020, a year to remember. It definitely started a trend and influenced a lot of publications to commission artists for their covers, which is a good thing. If anyone told me that I would be on a magazine cover in 2020 – not once, but twice (appearing on Vogue Italia’s September Hope Issue) – a few years ago, I would have had to laugh. But we are! Some people thought that I may have known the Vogue Italia team from my previous experience working in fashion, and the answer is no. I only had 300 followers of my ‘art’ page, but that was enough to catch the eye of the Creative Director, Ferdinando Verderi.

November 2020
Chela Mitchell
NR Magazine, Vol. 12

Ever since she was a child, the New York-based art advisor Chela Mitchell has loved beautiful things. ‘I just was in awe of the world,’ she tells me over a video call. Growing up in Washington DC, her exposure to art came via the Smithsonian Museums and there, it was the large-scale works she was, and still is, drawn to; ‘I have a very strong and dominate personality and I love things that make me feel small.’ Vast artworks, towering architecture and huge fashion gowns are what catches Chela’s eye; ‘the drama, the theatrics – everything – that’s where my love for art stems from.’ Art, in whatever form it takes, is a ‘supreme form of self-expression; one of the most important things we get to exercise and experience. You can put something on and tell people who you are without saying a word – and that’s art.’

Chela has been an art advisor for the past two and a half years, launching her company, Chela Mitchell Art, in August 2018, after a career change from luxury e-commerce. It seems quite a leap, but it’s not the first time she’s taken a big decision on a bit of a whim. A couple of years ago, Chela had been working as a personal stylist in her hometown, DC, a city far better known as the bedrock of American politics than a fashion hub. She was styling local politicians and high-level executives, but it lacked the drama and the theatrics that she craved. But when it came to making the shift to more editorial styling, Chela found that she wasn’t getting call backs. ‘I did some research and was like, “Oh – I need to intern!” And I don’t think I’ve ever shared this before,’ she explains: ‘I did the craziest thing ever, and I took an internship in New York for three days, and then had a part-time job at the mall for four days, and I would travel back and forth from DC to New York weekly.’ This continued for a year – a year she remembers well for the B&Bs she’d stay in and crying, a lot.

She persevered. ‘I just really don’t believe in the word no. “No” might mean “not right now,” or “not this way,” but it doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to do this.’ Chela says this with the confidence of someone whose sheer determination to break through into a notoriously difficult industry paid off – securing an internship with Vogue Japan under the stylist, Giovanna Battaglia’s first assistant, Mecca James-Williams. That led to a promotion as second assistant, before she later moved on to work at Net-A-Porter for two years. Looking back on that period, Chela exclaims that it gives her a headache just thinking about; ‘I was 27, you know, it’s pretty old to be interning’.

Why make the transition from styling into art advisory, after all the hard work it took to get to a coveted position that many can only dream of? To Chela, it was simple; ‘You know, when the universe wants you to change, it makes you uncomfortable – and that happened to me.’ She was feeling marginalised, underappreciated and was being subjected to racism at work. ‘Every day was a battle, and I just decided it was a battle I didn’t want to fight.’ The industry revealed its true self, and as Chela succinctly puts it, Black women are on the moodboard, but not in the boardroom.

And so, she did something crazy – again – resigning from her job, with nothing lined up other than the belief that she’d work it out. ‘I just kind of jump and figure out the parachute as I’m falling,’ Chela explains. Two days later, she was offered a freelance styling gig out of the blue, enabling her to continue supporting herself and her family. At the time, she had a dream to open a gallery space – an idea that a friend dissuaded her from, suggesting instead to make use of the connections she’d built up in the fashion industry and start off in art advising. ‘That was a Thursday; I had the logo and my website up by the Sunday.

Taking the decision to launch Chela Mitchell Art was, without a doubt, the right one – but it hasn’t always been easy. Chela found herself experiencing imposter syndrome, and questioning who would take her seriously as an art advisor. People don’t listen to Black women, and ‘people don’t listen to dark-skinned Black women, especially.’ In the early days of CMA, when she hadn’t yet gained any clients, Chela was able to appreciate her time as a stylist with a fresh perspective. Where she’d felt so uncomfortable and unwelcome in the fashion industry, she now knew that being in the art world really was where she was supposed to be. And so, when it came down to it, her approach was thus; ‘I had to put myself out there, which was hard for me but like, you don’t want to be the advisor that no one’s ever heard of.’

In the two years since the launch of CMA, Chela’s built up a clientele of artists and collectors; clients whose identities she’s very protective of. She tells me of a famous actor that she met at an art event who, after hearing about CMA, asked to use her services; my introduction to Chela came via an Instagram comment left on the feed of a luxury brand, noting that it was through her that the client collected art. I daren’t ask and she’d never divulge, but this much is clear: she’s now had enough exposure to the ins and outs, ups and downs, of the art world and market to sniff out its bullshit.  

Central to her practice is transparency; it’s important that everyone’s needs are being met. ‘I have to make sure that artists aren’t being taken advantage of, and to make sure collectors aren’t being taken advantage of as well.’ There’s the risk that a collector’s net worth is only a Google, and a potential price gouge, away – or that a collector may ask for heavy discounts from an artist. Either way, Chela finds it disrespectful, and attributes her maternal instinct to ensuring nobody gets short-changed. In an episode of the Cerebral Women Art Talks Podcast in early 2020, she mentioned not being driven by the money side of the art market; but isn’t the art world more driven by the financial worth of a piece than its artistic value? ‘Now listen,’ she tells me, ‘I like beautiful things. I like luxury and I think it’s very important to know what my ancestors didn’t have, so I’m very honoured to know what it’s like to travel, to eat the best, to wear the best.’ But she’s not driven by money to the point of fucking people over. ‘It’s not my currency at all.’

By virtue of working with emerging artists, as an art advisor, selling is part of the territory. A lot of advisors get into the business to sell one piece for, say, $40 million and call it quits. ‘I think it’s very disgusting and that shit repulses me – I feel good when I know an artist has a wire transfer coming their way’. Especially when that’s a Black artist or an artist of colour – even more so when they’re breaking into the art world without the support, or understanding, of the people around them. ‘There are a lot of artists whose families don’t believe in their practice or what they’re doing and so, when they’re paid for it, they’re validated.’ To those who think being an artist is not a “real job”, Chela has only one thing to say; ‘it’s a real job, I’ve seen the funds, okay, it’s a real thing. They’re living, they’re sustaining themselves, and what they’re doing is important.’

My call with Chela happened in early August, when the reverberations of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and globally, were still being felt. And the genuine heartfelt anguish that was being vocalised and shared throughout the world was met, in various instances, by individuals, institutions and corporations across the art and fashion industry who sought to deflect responsibility by jumping through a series of damage control media campaigns. How did Chela feel to watch the reaction in the art world? ‘I haven’t heard the conversations per se, where people were scared – I don’t think I’d be privy to that information – but I can feel it.’ Or, see it happen in real time: ‘You know, to wake up one day and 30 white women in the art world are following you – are you glad, or are you confused? The number of apologies I’ve received via DM from people I work with is another thing like, should I be happy or am I confused? Even though George Floyd died this year – guys, where have you been? Where were you when Trayvon Martin died? This has been going on since the inception of slavery!’

There is uncertainty in the art world – that much, Chela is sure of – and it’s a good thing. ‘I’ve really been enjoying watching the art world have to rethink the way that it operates and ask some uncomfortable questions and explore uncomfortable truths.’ Now, she thinks people feel safe enough to speak out against a gallerist or an institution for being racist or discriminatory in a way that, even a year ago, they’d fear for their career or the threat of being blacklisted. She’s pragmatic though; ‘if it took years and years to build this behaviour, it’s going to take a long time to dismantle it – but we’re starting.’ Chela believes that the real change comes from within ourselves.

If you want to be treated fairly, make sure you’re treating people fairy every day; if you want to be respected, make sure you respect people every day.’ It’s a matter of re-evaluating the way we look at art, and artists – and acknowledging the fact that art is treated as a commodity the same way that Black people were, and are to this day, through the prison-industrial complex. With mass-incarceration, comes free labour. ‘When you sell art at auction, do people think about the fact that 400 years ago, Black bodies were sold at auction?’

Chela’s found one way to challenge the stability of the gilded cage that the art world has built for itself – or rather, it found her. As a female, Black art advisor, she’s regularly contacted by young people on Instagram who want to get into the profession. How does that feel? ‘I did not anticipate that, and it just feels wonderful.’ It’s an honour, she says, that people feel comfortable to reach out to her and for that, she’s especially grateful, considering she didn’t have anyone there to guide her into the space she now occupies. One thing she’s keen to address is the mentality that there is only ever enough room for one Black person operating in a space at any time. That’s something she’s witnessed as an art advisor – and she deconstructs the absurdity of that concept by likening in to the ice cream aisle in a shop. No matter how many varieties and brands of ice creams there are in one freezer at any given time, they all have something valuable to offer; ‘Ben & Jerry’s ain’t worried about Häagen Dazs! We’re all put on this world to give something different, in a different way.’

A short profile on Chela and her art advisory was featured in Forbes at the end of last year. In it, she mentions reading an article in the New York Times on the history of a small, but dedicated number of Black art dealers and gallerists who’ve been pushing back against the toxically-white art world for the past 50 or so years. Their contributions to the art community are important, but still, not much has changed; Chela herself only knows around five Black advisors. The article includes an anecdote in which art dealer, Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, recalls attending an industry dinner where the daughter of a well-known collector presumed she was an artist – the palatable (or profitable?) role that a person of colour can have in the art world. “Art dealer” was her fourth and final guess, compounded by confusion and, perhaps, a tremor of fear.

Earlier this year, Chela launched Komuna House, an art club for people of colour that is everything that membership clubs like The Wing are not. The millennial pink, Instagram-friendly inclusivity espoused by The Wing has, in recent years, been exposed as a distraction from the regular racist, classist and discriminatory conduct that its employees and, alas, many of its paying members, are subject to. ‘I just wanted to create a place where we wouldn’t have to deal with that,’ Chela explains – the programme of events is centred around artists and collectors of colour, and though anyone’s able to join, she wants to be ‘very, very clear’ that Komuna House will exclude the white gaze. She hopes to use the platform to build a community, to foster professional networks between artists and buyers, and ultimately, to ‘weaponise’ members with the knowledge and power necessary to transform the art world for good. Komuna House launched in March, and so it predates George Floyd’s murder; ‘I didn’t know the importance of what I was doing – I mean, I did – but I now understand it differently as the year has progressed.’

To Chela, the artist of our era whose work embodies the powerful potential that art can have is the painter Kerry James Marshall. She describes his work as being ‘brilliant beyond measure,’ in terms of its technical and cultural significance. She recalls walking around his 2017 retrospective, Mastry, with her mouth wide upon, unable to speak the whole time. ‘I’m from south-east DC, and there’s so much shame from being from there’. Through Marshall’s work, marginalised and impoverished communities, like the one Chela grew up around, are given agency. The projects are often depicted as scary places where drugs use, crime and violence are rife; and while Chela contends that those things may be true, there’s a sense of community that’s hard to find elsewhere – communities that come together with all they’ve got to make it work for everyone.

Chela’s original plan to open a gallery is something she still dreams about every day, and she knows exactly how the space would look. Of course, 2020 has thrown any short-term plans up in the air for the foreseeable future – but that’s no bad thing. She hopes to have conversations with artists, to get a real understanding of what an ideal gallery should be. As she points out, ‘if I open a gallery with the industry’s current business model, how am I creating change?’ What she does know, is that it will be a space for everybody, free from the fear of judgement. There are only so many times you can walk into a ‘very well-known gallery’ for an exhibition of a Black artist, ask for the price list and be made to feel like you’re crazy. At Chela’s gallery, you can be, and do, what you want. ‘And I think that’s why I have to make a space because that’s the kind of energy we need now more than ever.’

November 2020

Women of the Bauhaus: Beyond the Warp and Weft
Decorating Dissidence, Bauhaus Legacies

With 2019 marking the centenary of the Bauhaus, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius, there has been ample opportunity to revisit and re-examine the impact and legacy of the school. Built on Gropius’ vision for a radical place of learning for art, design, and later, architecture, the school has had a profound impact on twentieth and twenty-first design. Through its association with the design of many iconic cantilever chairs, the use of block colour and sans-serif typography, the Bauhaus embodies the essence of modern design. Likewise, individuals associated with the school, such as Kandinsky, Breuer, Mies and Moholy-Nagy have become so ingrained in design theory and everyday life that their full names need no mention.

Lesser known and celebrated, however, is the output of many of the Bauhaus’ female staff and students. Though Gropius’ vision for the Bauhaus was supposedly based on arts education for all, this was not the case: women, he believed, were better suited to the decorative arts according to their inability to think in three dimensions like men. Just as the women of the Bauhaus were relegated to the more ‘feminine’ arts of weaving, ceramics and toy making, they have been noticeably absent from the ways in which the school’s legacy has been historicised, despite the fact their work within the weaving workshop and beyond, was transformative and fundamental to the school’s success.

There has been a noticeable shift, more recently, to recognise the women of the Bauhaus and to provide the space to critically engage with their production, as last year’s Anni Albers retrospective at the Tate Modern did, and as the Bauhaus 100 celebrations this year have consciously sought to do. New perspectives have emerged that recognise the value, the skill, and the complexities involved in weaving as a mode of production – so it remains to be asked, how did the work of the weaving workshop get left behind in the story of the Bauhaus? For, in many ways, it would seem as though the diaphanous qualities that can often be found in weaving have justified the threadbare histories that have been told of the Bauhaus women.

Crucial to the retelling of the Bauhaus women’s story is the fact that many students arrived at the school with expectations far beyond the decorative arts. When Gertrud Arndt, who had worked as an architect’s apprentice, enrolled at the Bauhaus in 1923, she hoped to further pursue her interest in architecture. On finding that the subject was not then offered, Arndt was moved into the weaving workshop, with other avenues closed off. Had architecture been available at that time, Arndt’s situation would not have been much different; when architecture was later introduced in 1927, female students needed not apply.

Yet, Arndt thrived at her trade and her work was recognised at the time; a photograph of Gropius’ office in Dessau taken by Lucia Moholy, for instance, shows a rug designed by Arndt adorning the school Director’s floor. Of course, however radical the Bauhaus espoused to be, it was nonetheless a product of a period in time that, particularly in the aftermath of war and national economic devastation, was attached to a traditional understanding of gender roles – despite the proliferation of the sexually-liberated, unconstrained and professional figure of the Neue Frau who ran rife throughout the German press in the 1920s. Nonetheless, situating the gender politics of the Bauhaus within wider contemporary confusion over liberation and equality in Weimar Germany does not justify Gropius’ reluctance to value the skills of female students. Rather, it highlights further contradiction between attitudes to women’s roles at the school.

It is possible to pinpoint a defining moment in the contrasting histories of Bauhaus men and women by looking back to the ways in which the legacy of the Bauhaus was shaped. The school’s iconic status has been projected through photography. This is not without deliberate consideration: the continued influence of the Bauhaus on art, design and architecture owes itself to Gropius’ own careful preservation of the school’s image through iconic photography. The Bauhaus 1919-1928 exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in December 1938 – January 1939 was instrumental in both forging and, subsequently, sustaining and furthering, the school’s international renown. It was through photography that the Bauhaus was brought to an American and English-speaking audience.

Yet, credits attributed to the photographer responsible for many of the images on show, Lucia Moholy, were omitted; nor was Moholy aware, at that time, that the glass photographic negatives she presumed lost to the flight from fascism had been taken without permission by Gropius. Though Moholy would later receive recognition for her work as one of the instrumental photographers of the Bauhaus, many of her glass negatives were smashed due to the nature of their fragility.* Gropius’ actions reflect his disregard for women at the Bauhaus. The materiality of Moholy’s craft bears an uncanny resemblance to the stories of female students and staff at the Bauhaus, and the ways in which their roles at the school have been (un)documented over the past century. Along with Moholy’s missing negatives, the impact of the Bauhaus women was lost to history, whilst photographs of iconic design pieces remained and saturated design culture. 

The industrial production of high quality design for a mass audience was one of the guiding principles of the Bauhaus. Incidentally, it was in the weaving workshop that the Bauhaus was able to achieve this goal; fusing creativity, innovation, and, most importantly, profitability, through the production of their designs and labour. The technical possibilities of weaving with synthetic materials were also advanced by the weaving workshop; by Anni Albers who, as part of her diploma project in 1929, incorporated cellophane into fabric in order to craft an acoustic-proof wall covering for the Bundesschule Auditorium in Bernau, Germany; by Gunta Stölzl who innovated investigations in dyeing processes and increased weaving’s viability as master and, later, director of the weaving workshop; and by Otti Berger, who undertook experiments that challenged the limits of fabric design and achieved considerable industrial success. Perhaps tellingly, many of the Bauhaus weavers found success after the closure of the school and, therefore, outside of the fabric of the story of the Bauhaus’ legacy. Both Stölzl and Benita Koche-Otte led successful careers within the textile industry, whilst Albers’ collaborative work for Knoll Textiles demonstrates a successful synthesis of the Bauhaus vision for mass-produced high quality design.

And yet, over the last century, the far-reaching and long-lasting innovation and production of the Bauhaus weavers has come second to legendary status of the school, despite the fact its doors closed for good in 1933. Though the stories of many of these women have disappeared with almost no trace, there is a resilience and subversiveness to the Bauhaus weavings that extended far beyond Gropius’ vision of the ‘beautiful sex’ as decorators and decorations. Beyond the surface, the Bauhaus weavers’ work crafted resilient and subversive masks, both figuratively and literally. In the series Maskenselbstporträts, Arndt photographs herself in a series of disguises, using mesh, lace and other fabrics to transform herself into different versions of ‘woman’. Through their manipulation of material and textile production, the Bauhaus weavers were able to utilise the Bauhaus to their benefit. To paraphrase Anni Albers, it’s not ‘just these threads’, after all.

*See Robin Schuldenfrei, ‘Images in Exile: Lucia Moholy’s Bauhaus Negatives and the Construction of the Bauhaus Legacy’, in History of Photography, 37.2 (2013), pp. 182-203.

January 2020

For Freedoms
NR Magazine, Vol. 7

By definition, a super PAC is a political action committee that is able to raise an unlimited amount of money to influence the outcome of political elections in the United States. Yet, For Freedoms, a super PAC registered back in January 2016, is somewhat unconventional in its intentions and approach. As the first artist-led super PAC, For Freedoms was created by Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas to encourage greater political engagement through art – and to engage people in complex conversations that have become simplified into binary concepts. For Freedoms has made an impression on both the world of politics and art since it was registered. In 2016, the super PAC opened their ‘headquarters’ at the Jack Shainman Gallery for a takeover exhibition there – and have since been hosted by MoMA PS1 for an artist residency in 2017 to coincide with the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Their exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery provoked a national discussion about police brutality after Dread Scott hung a flag at the exhibition headquarters, whilst their ‘Make America Great Again’ billboard in Pearl, Mississippi caused controversy for its depiction of Trump’s election catchphrase imposed on an image from the Bloody Sunday march of 1965. Through their use of advertising as a super PAC, their background as artists, and their commitment to creating change, this project by Gottesman and Willis Thomas hopes to open up necessary political and cultural conversations. Speaking over the phone, Eric Gottesman talks through the motives of For Freedoms, the role of advertising, art and propaganda, and why we should come together, regardless of political agenda.

NR MAGAZINE: Where did the idea of forming a super PAC originate?

ERIC GOTTESMAN: Over the course of several years, my friend Hank [Willis Thomas] and I, had these conversations about art and politics. Both of us are artists, we both address politics through our work in various ways - I should say, other people talk about the politics of our work. But both of us are interested in the overlap of art and society, and so over the course of those conversations, we often talked about doing something that directly engaged with systems of politics. We talked about maybe having an artist run for office, but eventually, decided to start the super PAC in the fall of 2015, after talking to a number of lawyers about how to do go about it – so we did really before the 2016 election started in earnest.

NR: Something I was actually going to ask is whether the political climate in the run up to the election was a factor in forming the super PAC.

EG: No, not really - it came before that. It was less about any specific candidate or campaign, than it was about the way political discourse happens in the United States. The oversimplification of complicated situations and political solutions often leads to the factionalization, and people retreat to notions of nationalism that are extremely simple but not necessarily the best. So we wanted to see if we could expand the political discourse to encourage or allow people to talk with more nuance about complex issues.

NR: Do you think that the culture of politics today reflects advertising, because of this simplification?

EG: Very much so. This was something we were very interested in, as a super PAC is basically a political advertising agency. We decided to take on the most egregious part of the problem – which is that money filters through organisations and into our politics, in order to create extremely simplified forms of advertising that is supposed to shape how to think and how to vote. We wanted to shift that up and play with that idea.

NR: By buying advertising space for billboards, newspaper, and online, can your political advertising be interpreted as a form of propaganda?

EG: I think it can be, it usually is. Advertising has got much more complex and savvy – often times, you’re being advertised to without knowing it. It doesn’t just take the form of propaganda; it now also takes on the form of ‘culture’ in certain ways. But I also think there’s a pedagogical difference between propaganda and art. Propaganda works behind an argument, whilst art offers dialogue. Propaganda has a certain kind of insistence that advertising also has, as opposed to art’s openness.

NR: How can For Freedoms stimulate critical engagement when political discourse is reduced to this culture of advertising?

EG: That’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out! So far, this has involved trying to merge artistic and political discourse, bringing political content and conversations into art spaces, using our access to these spaces as artists – and vice versa: we’re trying to find ways to bring content out into the public, that we produce as artists. So, we’re bringing politics into art and art into politics through various means. We are also holding a series of town hall meetings and conversations, often in conjunction with exhibitions that we curate. And then, for next year, we’ve got our 50 state initiative, where we’re going to have a presence in all 50 states in the lead up to the 2018 election.

NR: The idea of town hall-style meetings, feels as if it is taking communication back to a pre-internet era, back to before everyone interacted online, to having that physical meeting with your community. In that sense, are you trying to bring people back together?

EG: That’s an interesting point, I hadn’t really thought about it like that. One of the things we thought a lot about was to try to ‘make dialogue great again’. I don’t think we’re doing it out of nostalgia, but we are trying to inject a form of humanism into the modes of dialogue that we use now. I think the way in which we communicate on social media is fantastic, as we are much more connected in a certain way – but the trade-off is that it demands that we use short hand to encapsulate messages and conversations we want to have.  There’s nothing wrong with that form necessarily, but I do think that we need to be able to have deeper, broader conversations about things that go beyond 140 characters.

NR: And there is the danger of communicating with only those who share what you want to see.

EG: That too - and we see that a lot right now, which is one of the things we’re really trying to work on. The art world also has that echo chamber effect, so we’re trying to figure out how to access all parts of society. How do we reach a wide range of people that might be interested in helping us build a movement around building a better political conversation, even if we don’t share the same political agenda?

NR: What is the incentive for people to come together in public spaces despite opposing views, in the interest of shaping the future?

EG: We already do this: we’re consuming the same culture, and as a result of that culture, we form our (political) identities. I think there’s this notion that, only certain people will be interested in art, and only certain people will come to a museum and participate in something like what we’re doing. The assumption is that cultural production only lends itself to one set of opinions – that you agree/disagree, you’re a democrat/a republication, etc. A lot of these binary concepts are much more complicated, so when you ask why somebody with a different set of ideals would want to have that dialogue, I think it would be because we want to better understand, and hopefully to encourage an atmosphere that allows people to appreciate those different views.

NR: Whilst we’re consuming the same culture, places like art institutions can be off-putting to people who feel alienated from them. If there is a way to make these places appeal to a broader range of people, can that instigate better dialogue and a sense of community between different groups of people?

EG: Absolutely. I’m one of those people that feels very alienated by art, and I do think For Freedoms is as much a rebuke of the art culture and the art world, as it is to the world of politics. Art institutions are already political: they make decisions about who they include and exclude. In order to address that, we need to insert conversations about who’s included, and who’s excluded. These are essentially political questions that are at the centre of our political structure. If we insert these questions into the museum, hopefully we can shift what is defined as art, and what is not – and change who is defined as the art viewer.

NR: Do you think the problems with the financing of super PACs in a political context, are issues that also need to be addressed within the art world?

EG: As an artist, I look at the art world as being this enormous archive of capital that determines what has social value in our culture and so, there are two ways to respond to that. The first, which is how I have responded for much of my career, is to think: “fuck that! I don’t care about that, and I don’t care about those rich people! I’m just gonna do my thing and work in my way, and hopefully at some point after I die somebody will recognise my brilliance and that will change the world.” That’s one way, and the other way would be what we’ve done with For Freedoms, which is pretty new to me to be honest. The way we have done it with our super PAC is to confront the art world, and to claim a space by participating in this world of extreme wealth that governs and shapes how art is valued. For me, the real issue is figuring out how to shift the system so that wealth doesn’t necessarily determine culture, and so that artists are recognised for their power, and are able to utilise the power they possess. Art is used in every society, whether it’s through propaganda or commercial wealth, and so what we’re trying to push for is for our society to value the role that artists play in shaping, not just culture, but how our society works.

March 2018