Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Physical Bar Charts in Declining Democracy, Florence

My Physical Bar Charts installation is currently at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, part of the group exhibition Declining Democracy at the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea, open until January 2012. This is thoughtful exhibition exploring different means by which publics give voice or shape to their concerns.

Other pieces include Francis Alys' When Faith Moves Mountains, a video which documents a process in which the artist involved around 500 volunteers in moving a large sand-dune close to a slum in Peru in 2002. This shocking piece asks the visitor to consider how "social" purposes take shape and are acted on. The apparently pointless act of moving of the sand-dune reveals how people are captured and engaged by ideas and then contribute to making things happen. Roger Cremers' photographs show different people are involved in a hobby of re-enacting aspects of World War 2. Michael Bielicky & Kamila B. Richter created a digital installation called Garden of Error and Decay in which data from Twitter and stock markets leads to a changing animated landscape.

In some ways Declining Democracy picks up and develops themes from the 2005 show Making Things Public at ZKM Karlsruhe, but where that was a monster exhibition involving many academics as well as artists, designers and others, this is a smaller, tighter exhibit which carefully constructs a way of thinking about how people make present their questions, criticisms and concerns about the world we live in - how we engage and to what effect.
Declining Democracy also subtly interacts with the exhibition upstairs at the Palazzo Strozzi. Entitled Money and Beauty: Bankers, Boticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities, it uses a mixture of paintings, historic artefacts and documents to trace connections between the development of international finance in Renaissance Florence and the emerging mercantile class and signifiers of wealth such as paintings. See the review by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. All relevant to today in the current economic, financial and cultural crisis.

For this version of the Physical Bar Charts, the question posed next to the installation is "What did you do last week that made you a citizen?" in Italian and English. Badges in English and Italian in eight tubes offer ways to answer this question. People can take as many badges as they want.

When I left Florence the night after the very busy opening, the badges which had become most popular (ie approximately 200-300 people had taken them) were, in order:
  • I said what I believe (most popular)
  • I did nothing
  • I broke the law
  • I raised issues
  • I used public services
  • I helped someone
  • I kept myself informed
  • I obeyed the law (least popular).

The Physical Bar Charts do not purport to constitute "real" research that is statistically valid or reliable. But somehow the piece tells us something about a predominantly Italian audience at a time when Italy's democratic institutions are being questioned. The aesthetic qualities of the tubes and badges draw people in, adding a qualitative dimension to the typically dull routine of filling in a questionnaire or other data-gathering interfaces.

But they do more than this too, since when people start wearing the badges, this triggers new connections and engagement. A Dutch journalist at the opening told me he had selected, worn and then taken off the badge saying "I broke the law" because he didn't want people to start asking him the circumstances. As a device the bar charts represent a low-tech way for people to reflect on their own participation in public questions and see how others do too. They make us public and potentially accountable too.

Photo credits: Martino Margheri, CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze