The Art of Democracy

What an urban art festival in Panama City can teach Americans about freedom of speech, memory, and art in the public realm.

Because I’m interested in the way the physical character of cities reflects politics and culture, this past April I found myself covering an arts festival in Panama City. I would have preferred to be in Baghdad at the time, but design magazines, reasonably enough, rarely do stories on buildings being blown up. I knew precisely two things about Panama: there was a canal there, and about fifteen years ago it had been subject to the interventionist impulses of another era, when the United States invaded and arrested the country’s dictator, Manuel Noriega, for reasons having something to do with cocaine trafficking or money-laundering.

As a government-sponsored public festival celebrating the centennial of Panama’s independence, CiudadMúltiple, or “Multiple City,” could easily have fallen prey to any of three or four categories of tedium. It could have been turned into a sort of cloying nationalistic parade with politicians on hand to cut ribbons for monuments; it could have been used as a pretense for activists to solicit regret from the United States for its century-long occupation; it could have taken a tragically earnest position in relation to its own social inequality; or, perhaps worst of all, it could have altogether avoided politics and showcased kitschy handicrafts, or imported work popular in the Chelsea gallery scene in an effort to appear cosmopolitan.

As it happens, instead of whitewashing Panama’s history, curators Adrienne Samos, director of Fundación Arte Panama, and Gerardo Mosquera, a Havana-based curator for the New Museum of Contemporary Art, accomplished a brilliant feat: they encouraged artists to actively engage the urban environment of Panama City in a way that revealed the city’s character in all of its moral, political, and physical complexity. But what’s even more impressive for a country that emerged from dictatorship a little more than a decade ago, the festival was politically challenging in a way that seems inconceivable in New York—or in the United States generally.

The two big public art events of the past few years in New York were a large dog-shaped bush by Jeff Koons and a bunch of painted cows. Occasionally the city parks department allows something officially designated as art to be displayed for the public’s edification—Christo’s upcoming Gates Project in Central Park, for instance—but otherwise we have to content ourselves with the one percent of municipal construction budgets set aside for something pretty. A few years ago a smoke-blowing hole above the Virgin Records in Union Square was the Public Art Fund’s solution to the quandary of how to put a strip mall at the historic site of labor demonstrations in New York.

By contrast, I found CiudadMúltiple’s attentiveness to the material realities of the city and sense of political commitment incredibly refreshing. Some of the festival’s events were caustic, like Mexican artist Gustavo Artigas’s Intervention at the Museum of History, which he essentially set on fire for theatrical effect. Burning tires on the roof spewed thick black smoke and fog machines poured mist out of windows, while firefighters in on the gag doused the building with water. Other events were more optimistic, reclaiming parts of the city normally taken for granted: Cuban artist Juan Andrés Milanés, for instance, paved a seaside terrace of the old Spanish colonial fort with blocks of ice to create a skating rink for children. Nearly every event in some way introduced elements of the uncanny into everyday experience. During a tour of the Casco Viejo, I strayed behind the pack of critics and casually observed to another writer how curious it was that the trash bins in Cathedral Square were all upholstered in pink velour, not realizing that they were a part of the festival.

In a spectacular action organized by Manchester-based Panamanian artist Humberto Vélez, a popular marching band paraded through symbolic sites such as the Bridge of the Americas—the only link across the canal since its opening in 1914, and usually off-limits to pedestrians. Outfitted in white leather knee-boots, short skirts, and wide-brimmed hats—drums twirling and bugles blaring—La Banda de Hogar advanced on the city marching in choreographed rhythm to Latin beats. It was as if the improvisational architecture of the indigenous Kuna squatters across the bridge in Gamboa had joined forces with Caribbean night-club dancers from the idyllic coastal village of Portobelo to invade the homogenous commercialism of Panama City, challenging it to defy convention.

Amazingly, the only project that had significant difficulties with authorities was a series of billboards conceived by Cairo-born, New York—based painter Ghada Amer and installed in strategic sites around the city—some highlighting the quotidian sprawl of highways, strip malls, and high-rise apartment buildings, others more directly political. No one meddled with the billboard in front of the former American administration building in the Canal Zone—the five-mile stretch occupied by the United States for most of the twentieth century—that read “Occupy the Higher Ground to Exercise Control.” But another installation in front of the government’s finance building bearing the phrase “Money Will Silence Truth” was unceremoniously removed, presumably on behalf of a corrupt politician whose office was situated nearby—but who in any case was not being directly criticized.

The most telling action, though, was the screening of a video by Panamanian painter-turned-video-artist Brooke Alfaro, produced in collaboration with two rival gangs in Barraza, the city’s most feared slum, located not far from the scene of the 1989 invasion. Two projectors set up in front of a crumbling assemblage of wood shacks beamed dual images of the gangs onto a ten-story housing project as the inhabitants of the barrio formed a crowd in the middle of the road. The two gangs faced off on screen, performing a Latin gangster rap song as the crowd cheered and sang along. For a brief instant, the dilapidated street was transformed into a public square and the gang members into cultural heroes.

A few days later I overheard a critic from Parkett comment that she “read” the piece as “problematizing” Alfaro’s relation to the social world he had inadvertently glorified. It was as if art criticism lacked the means to speak about buildings and streets and forms of social organization as elements of an unruly total work of art. Once it had allowed art to sneak out of the gallery into the streets, it had to cling to the artist for safety in the midst of the chaos of class and small arms.

The best public art is anonymous: it’s not about an artist’s subjective point of view but about the experience of place. It reveals essential things about the structure of the city, helps form communities, and challenges the laws that regulate the social and physical environment. It’s implicitly political even when it’s not out to make political statements. Most of it is illegal and not for sale in galleries, but it plays an indispensable role in the life of cities and nations.

A few years ago, an artist from Serbia was shocked when I told him that I had been handcuffed and put in a paddywagon for posting a sticker on the Williamsburg Bridge, something he had been doing quite freely under the Milosevic dictatorship for over a decade. The great fear both locally and internationally seems to be that the United States is becoming a sort of dictatorship run by corporate cabal and that citizens no longer have the capacity to influence public policy. I don’t think that’s true, but it’s tragic how little space is available for public expression. The work sponsored by government agencies tends to be trivial, and activist parades of the anti-globalization and anti-war variety are so ham-fisted, devoid of aesthetic interest, and politically confused—quite apart from being controlled by police barricades—that they end up being dispiriting.

The crisis of secular faith that we find ourselves in currently can only be made more desperate by a memorial to the World Trade Center attacks—to take the most pressing example—that fails to redeem the values of freedom of expression, self-determination, and even free trade. What was attacked nearly two years ago was not an individual who had the terrifying misfortune to be working on a certain floor of an emblematic building on a certain day; it was the collective values of a democratic society. Paradoxically, the attacks exposed our failure to honor those values internationally. The most fitting memorial would be to cultivate an atmosphere similar to the one that pervaded Union Square in the weeks and months following the attacks and Panama City in April: one in which the public expresses its grief and optimism through whatever objects, images, and performative impulses it brings into the space.

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