Juan Manuel Echavarría, Bocas de Ceniza / Mouths of Ash, 2003-04, Video stills, 5 songs, Courtesy the artist.

Artur Zmijewski , Democracies, 2009, Video still, 20 single channel video, 2h 26,’’ the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw.

Democracy, Contradictions, Paradoxes, and Its Changing Nature

Francis Alÿs, When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, In collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega, Courtesy the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, © the artist

Buuuuuuuuu. One-Minute Smile against Berlusconi.

Thomas Klipper, Installation view at CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze, Photo: Martino Margheri.

Cesare Pietroiusti e Matteo Fraterno, Body Politics – The Walls of Ahens, Performance, II Athens Biennale, 09-10/09/2009.

Thomas Feuerstein, PARLAMENT, 2009, Glass Myxomyceten vitrine and base, 170 x 85 x 75 cm, Courtesy Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman, Innsbruck.

Roger Cremers, from the series Reenactment, 2010-2011, C-print, Dibond, 80 x 80 cm each, Courtesy the artist.

Roger Cremers, from the series Reenactment, 2010-2011, C-print, Dibond, 80 x 80 cm each, Courtesy the artist.

Roger Cremers, from the series Reenactment, 2010-2011, C-print, Dibond, 80 x 80 cm each, Courtesy the artist.

Francis Alÿs, When Faith Moves Mountains, 2002, In collaboration with Cuauhtémoc Medina and Rafael Ortega, Courtesy the artist, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, © the artist

Juan Manuel Echavarría, Bocas de Ceniza / Mouths of Ash, 2003-04, Video stills, 5 songs, Courtesy the artist.

Thomas Kilpper, John Heartfield and Silvio Berlusconi, 2009, Lino cut, print on fabric, Collection Kadist Art Foundation, Courtesy Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, London.

Lucy Kimball, Physical Bar Charts, 2005, Plastic tubes and badges, 150 x 150 cm, Day to Day Data, Angel Row, Gallery, Nottingham, 2005, Courtesy Lucy Kimbell.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Installation view at CCC Strozzina, Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze, Photo: Martino Margheri.

Michael Bielicky and Kamila Bielicka Richter, Garden of Error and Decay, 2010, Installation view, Courtesy the artists.

Michael Bielicky and Kamila Bielicka Richter, Garden of Error and Decay, 2010, Installation view, Courtesy the artists.

Thomas Feuerstein, installation view from Swarovski Insbruck, Feuerstein drew inspiration for his three cohesive pieces in his installation from the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster). Superfly is a naturalistic study of the drosophila at 500 times magnification. Phantom zooms in on the insect’s body and reproduces the abstract head of the fruit fly. Pars Pro Toto, which literally means “one part stands for the whole," spans two floors and stylizes a pair of eyes that react to the movements and shapes in the room. The highly complex structure of the world is broken down into countless facets in the eyes of the fly, so visitors don’t just see the fly, they also see themselves.


Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina  
Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi 
piazza Strozzi
+ 39 055 2645155
Declining Democracy
Seotenber 23, 2011-January 22, 2012

The exhibition Declining Democracy proposes a critical reflection on the concept of democracy. Through works by international contemporary artists, the exhibition explores the contradictions and paradoxes of democracy, and its changing nature in our troubled world. They provide a reflection on the values and the inconsistencies that typify today’s society. They investigate such themes as the clash between the individual and the community, the growing gap between the man in the street and the political classes, the power and influence of economic lobbies and of the mass media, and the problem of immigration and the sharing or refusal of civic and political rights. At the same time, they explore the possible forms of democratic participation enabled by innovations in communication technologies, which have given people new tools with which to share opinions. This has led to a new interpretation of the notion of political and social participation and of the principle of the right to an opinion. 

The word “democracy” is often held to be synonymous with an open and modern society. Yet the concept has within its core a very close tie with the development of capitalism and a series of inconsistencies regarding the notions of the individual and the community, freedom, and participation. The social and political ideal of democracy, thought to be so stable that it embodied “the end of history,” should be interpreted as a process of ongoing negotiation. It is in fact a complex, intrinsically imperfect concept that has been subject to change throughout its history. 

In keeping with the CCCS’s mission to reflect events in contemporary society, Declining Democracy aims to create a platform for critical reflection and debate, without seeking once-and-for-all answers or definitive solutions. 

Declining Democracy is a project devised by CCCS with the scholarly contribution of Piroschka Dossi (curator and author), Gerald Nestler (researcher and artist), Christiane Feser (curator and artist) and Franziska Nori (director of the CCCS).

Artists in the exhibition include:

Francis Alÿs (1959, Antwerp, BE; lives and works in Mexico City, MX) creates works that encompass many media often involving the participation and presence of the artist. These performed events are documented in video, photographs, writing, painting and animation. He studied architectural history at the Institute of Architecture in Tournai (1978-83) and engineering at the Istituto di Architettura in Venice (1983-6) before moving to Mexico City in 1986, where he arrived as part of a French assistance program after an earthquake. He soon started practicing as a visual artist. Alÿs’ work has been shown in many international institutions, including the Wiels, Bruxelles (2010- 2011); Tate Modern, London (2010); AiM Biennale (Arts in Marrakech International Biennale); The Renaissance Society, Chicago (2008); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2007); Portikus, Frankfurt; MALBA, Buenos Aires (2006); Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg; Musée d’Art Contemporain, Avignon (2004); Centro Nazionale per le Arti Contemporanee, Rome — travelled to Kunsthaus Zürich and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid — (2003); MoMA, New York (2002, 2011); and Or Gallery, Vancouver, Canada (1998). His travelling show of portraits of Saint Fabiola has travelled to London, New York, and LAMCA. Alÿs participated in the Venice Biennial in 1999, 2001 and 2007 and the Carnegie International in 2004.

Being a “wanderer”, a traveller exploring society by putting the emphasis on its values and contradictions is fundamental in the artistic development of Francis Alÿs. He always offers a perspective that is other in respect to the official and canonical one, maintaining a coherence between his artistic projects and his own life conditions.

When Faith Moves Mountains is one of the most famous outcomes of his investigation. Starting from the idea of providing an “epic response, at once futile and heroic, absurd and urgent” to the bad Peruvian economic situation, on the 11th of April 2002, Francis Alÿs asked five-hundred volunteers to dig and move the sand of an almost two-hundred meters wide dune in Ventanilla, an area near Lima, where nearly seventy thousand people are living in huts. The purpose of the action is to move the dune by approximately ten centimetres from its original position, forming a long line at its foot and using only shovels. As Alÿs often puts it, his intention was to create a “social allegory”. The coral act of these people is a metaphor for the potentialities of a participative action taking on even mythical and religious features in its confronting the monumentality of nature, altered by human intervention. The greatness and the spectacularity of the project testifies how people when united can achieve things that would be unthinkable and impossible for the single individual, letting the power of collectivity emerge. At the same time this action represents an ephemeral and paradoxically senseless gesture. The effort to move ten centimetres of a dune that is two hundred meters wide is not perceivable in reality and, even if it was, it remains without purpose. The photographic and video documentation of the action captures the peoples’ act, not the real result, impossible to document. Francis Alÿs himself endorsed an extensive documentation of the action, encouraging the spreading of its fame and of images that would exalt also the aesthetical strength of the contrast between this large group of people and the sand dune.

Alÿs’ allegory is close to the concept of the myth, a narration that, although not real, becomes exemplary while its memory gets handed down. The title manages to point out the real value of the intervention: when faith moves mountains. It testifies the belief in the unity of people, even if there is no real response able to change the world or the way we look at it. Like Francis Alÿs himself puts it: “Sometimes, to make something is really to make nothing; and paradoxically, sometimes to make nothing is to make something.” Francis Alÿs’ artistic and at the same time political practice can be summed up by the title of another one of his works: Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic (2005), a video documentary of a journey during which he painted a green line along the border of the State of Israel the way it was after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The word game between “politic” and “poetic” becomes emblematic of Alÿs’ inquiry, always aimed at stimulating “site-specific”political reflections relating to certain contexts, using local forms and instruments and carried out directly within the public space.

Michael Bielicky (1954, Prague, CZ; lives and works in Karlsruhe, DE) has been student of Nam June Paik’s master class in Düsseldorf. Founder in 1991 and until 2006 Professor of the New Media Class at the Art Academy of Prague, since 2006 he has been Professor at the HfG Karlsruhe for Digital Media. Over the past twenty-five years he has participated in many international exhibitions, festivals and symposia, presenting projects that experiment with navigation, videocommunication, virtual reality and data visualization technologies, developed in collaboration with such institutions as ZKM Karlsruhe, Ars Electronica Linz, High Tech Center Berlin-Babelsberg. He exhibited in Centre Pompidou, Paris, MoMA, New York, National Gallery, Prague, Kunsthaus, Zurich.

Kamila Bielicka Richter (1976, Olomouc, CZ; lives and works in Karlsruhe, DE) operates as an artist in public spaces by means of print media and interactive urban screenings. Since 1999 she has been participating in many national and international exhibitions, with urban screenings in cooperation with Michael Bielicky and with independent anonymous projects in public spaces (Zlin, Prague, Dresden, Berlin). In 2001 she earned her Master of Fine Art (MFA) at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and between 2000 and 2002 she lived in the Republic of South Africa where she studied at Technikon Natal Durban and developed the Visual Simulation of the South African Future Social Evolution. She won the PhD of Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 2010.

Michael Bielicky and Kamila B. Richter’s Garden of Error and Decay is a multimedia installation in which the spectator becomes the direct protagonist, called to interact with the constantly changing images generated by the work.

The aesthetics of the graphic elements seems to refer to a fairy-tale imaginary world, while at closer inspection the pictographs inhabiting the digital landscape of the work are symbols for a variety of events like natural catastrophes, terrorist acts, ecological disasters, wars, financial crises, plane crashes, health damages, social riots, poverty, hunger. The artist has used several negative events as a point of departure for an archive of pictographs. With their richness in detail, the large-scale projections reconnect to the traditional aesthetics of the politically themed murals of the Twenties, while the title refers to the famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch.

Bielicky describes his work as a “data-driven-narrative game” or an interactive film generated in real time, whose storyline is continuously reconfigured through additional generators or narrators, introduced as new inseparable elements into the non-linear flow of the plot, influencing not only the evolution of narration itself, but also the interaction between actor and narration.

Twitter feeds and stock exchange data are introduced in real time into the piece, modifying the events and interfering with the images. Each time a piece of news on a dramatic event is reported on Twitter, a corresponding graphic element appears within the digital landscape, fed by the text fragments of the constant global flow of comments. The more a theme is popular on Twitter, the more often the corresponding pictograph will appear.

Using a joystick placed in the exhibition space, the viewer can shoot at the symbols like in a videogame. For each hit, the corresponding tweet and its author are pointed out. At the same time, the stock quote index is shown in real time.

To the viewer, the interaction via joystick suggests the impression of being able to cancel single elements from the image and to intervene in the events. In reality, though, the effect of the shooting is determined by the current state of the financial markets. If the stock exchange indexes rise, the shot fired by the participating viewer will eliminate the negative news, consequently “freeing” the world from this calamity. On the contrary, if the stock exchange indexes fall, the shot fired by the visitor will cause a spread of the negative event.

This way, the act of shooting and hitting becomes a metaphor for the attempt by the individual to exert an influence on the events, whose actual course is yet determined by a series of external factors that lie outside of the sphere of influence of a single human being.

The piece problematizes the relationship between the individual and global events. Garden of Error and Decay• functions as an allegory of the impotence of the citizen when confronted with superordinate facts, which have reached such a degree of abstraction that they are not comprehensible or modifiable anymore, although they are real and determine everyone’s life.

Buuuuuuuuu is a collective artistic action open to proposals and participation to create new forms of political protest. Buuuuuuuuu was started by:

Pablo Chiereghin (Adria, 1977 – www.pablochiereghin.com) works with non conventional photography, actions and performance. His research is inspired by daily-life curiosity and by social and political dynamics. His practice is conceived in dialog with the public and plays with the interferences between medium and significance.

Gianmaria Gava (Venice, 1978 – www.gianmariagava.com). After his studies in political sciences he started working as a freelance photographer for several international magazines. His personal research is expressed in photographic and video projects and reportages around the topics of collective behaviour, social questions and ecological problems. His works reflect on the issues and fractures produced by a solely market driven economy and society.

Aldo Giannotti (Genoa, 1977 – www.aldogiannotti.com). In his performative projects Aldo Giannotti explores the economics of art outside common institutional boundaries and creates new artistic alternatives. Questions around the notions of family structures, socio-political conflicts, religion and relations of power are often the core of his research and practice.

The Buuuuuuuuu group is composed of three Italian artists, who have been living in Vienna for some years now. Their collaboration is motivated by the common interest in exerting their influence on the political events taking place in their country through art. As they declare on their webpage, the goal is to collect “ideas and projects against the authoritarian democracies”, to contribute to “the fall of Berlusconi’s Government” and to use “the internet to create an international network of people sharing their artistic actions and using alternative channels of language and communication”.

On the website buuuuuuuuu.net, the collective has created an archive for declaredly political contemporary art, like Santiago Sierra’s famous •No• or Ai Weiwei’s series of photographs in which the artist points his middle finger at symbols of power. The idea is to allow the users to trace parallels or repeat similar actions contextualizing them in their own everyday life.   Buuuuuuuuu uses the web as a connection tool for people who share ideas about politically committed art and on actionism on an international level. Already with their motto that stands out on the main page of their website, the artists declare the intention of their project: to urge the users to engage in actions, to “get their hands dirty” and to voice their own dissent. The collective launches participative initiatives, publishing brief instructions for actions that the users are encouraged to autonomously carry out and document. Each action is extremely easy to put into practice, using simple tools such as mobile phones or portable cassette players.   
They are simple, often ironic actions, which sometimes are reminiscent of performative art actions like Erwin Wurm’s One minute sculptures and rely on the participation of the audience becoming the protagonist. The projects are almost always based on an action carried out individually, in some cases in public spaces and in others in the intimacy of one’s own private sphere. They are small acts, like that of remaining silent while smiling for the time of one minute, recording the action using the video function of the mobile phone in sign of protest against the Italian premier; or like organizing a public demonstration all alone, but equipped with an audio player blasting the sound of an uprising crowd, generating for the passers-by a sense of melancholic and absurd contrast between what they see and what they hear.

It is fundamental to the three artists to interact on a same level with the online community. The Buuuuuuuuu group puts its website at everyone’s disposal, inviting collaboration from whoever wants to, presenting their own projects and transforming the digital platform into a space for aggregation, a virtual place to express oneself and to testify one’s own dissent.

Roger Cremers (1972, Bingelrade, NL). After a study of Aeronautical Engineering, in 1995 Roger Cremers started the study of photography at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. As an intern he photographed for the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad and he assisted the portrait photographer Sander Veeneman. Since 1998 Cremers is working as a freelance photojournalist for various national and international newspapers and magazines. He published in NRC Handelsblad, The Sunday Times Magazine, El Pais, The Economist, The Guardian, Esquire, De Morgen, NRC Next and Intermediair. From 2001 up to now the artist is working on several personal projects in Central Europe, Poland, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. His latest trips were to China and South-Africa for his project about mining all over the world. He has won the first prize Stories in the category Arts and Entertainment at the World Press Photo contest in 2009 with a reportage about Auschwitz.

In his photographic projects, Roger Cremers looks at the culture of remembering related to certain events of the Second World War within modern western societies. He focuses mainly on the tension between two extremes: today’s organization of leisure time and the past miseries of war.

Cremers is particularly interested in the feelings revealed by individuals observing and reconstructing historical events. In 2008, for example, he documented the visitors of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum memorial in Poland, showing the paradoxical condition of those who visit one of the most tragic sites of recent history as a place to spend a day away from home.

For his series Reenactment, Cremers went further: here he is not only observing people going to visit places in which historical crimes where perpetrated, but directs the camera at those who willingly dedicate their spare time to actively re-enact them. Cremers reflects on the relationship between citizens and collective history, portraying these representations of historical events occurred during the Second World War and experienced with the most possible authenticity thanks to period costumes and actions as realistically as possible. The people involved re-elaborate these dramatic events they have not lived in an incongruous and paradoxical way, presented to us through the photographer’s viewpoint.

The artist is fascinated by the meticulousness with which the so-called re-enactors get inside their roles as soldiers, nurses or prisoners. The groups of re-enactors meet to define every detail of the characters and the scenes inspired by actual historical event, generating an entire subculture. As a participating observer, Roger Cremers tries to gain insight into the phenomenon and to understand what drives these people to dedicate so much time to this activity, gathering information on site with an almost anthropological attitude. Based on his experiences with the re-eanactors, the artist excludes that these could be followers of right-wing political groups. They are rather attempting to relive the past – often that of their own nation — through role games, in order to gain closeness to an otherwise abstract historiography.

The re-enactment of historical events has become an internationally widespread phenomenon, a cultural practice that seems to reveal a strong desire – if not a profound necessity — to remember and relive events of the past. Conceived in part as playful acts, while some groups also read ideological purposes into them, these re-enactments are attempts at reading history anew, through a mimesis with single episodes and through a first-hand, collective experience that is at the same time physical, sensorial, emotional and psychological.
Despite the efforts of the re-enactors, with his photographs Cremers records the discrepancy between the individuals living in present times and the historical role they play, underlining the ambiguous character of these actions.

Democracia is a collective formed by the Spanish artists Pablo España and Iván López, whose strong interest for socially and politically relevant themes leads not only to artistic interventions, but also to editorial productions and curatorial projects.

For their most recent work, the three-channel video-installation Ser y Durar (To exist and to persist), Democracia has collaborated with a group of young traceurs, asked to perform their discipline, the parkour, inside the Civil Cemetery in Madrid. The parkour was initiated in the 1980s by David Belle in France, within the subculture of the Parisian banlieues (the name is an adaptation of the French term parcours, which means “course”), on the basis of Georges Hébert’s so-called “Natural Method”, a military drilling focusing on overcoming natural obstacles. The traceurs challenge each other on a course traced after an accurate study of the urban architecture, to be executed with the highest precision, elegance and agility, overtaking any architectonic barrier only by means of the human body. A barrier is perceived not as a hindrance or an obstacle, but as an element that can be used to allow for a certain movement to be carried out, running and creating veritable acrobatics, with only one rule to follow: never stop and never give up. In the parkour motivation does not derive from competition, but from the elaboration of a solution as the expression of a collective intelligence: project and execution are individual tasks, while the group carries out the coordination.

The site of the action of Ser y Durar is the Civil Cemetery in Madrid, built in 1884 to lay those to rest who were not members of the Catholic Church. Political personalities, intellectuals, various protagonists of Spanish history and founders of the country’s democratic society in the pre-Franco era, like the presidents of the First Republic Estanislao Figueras, Francisco Pi y Margall and Nicolás Salmerón, the communist leader Dolores Ibarruri and the founder of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party Pablo Iglesias are buried there.   The video work creates a tension between the mobility of the parkourpractice and the motionlessness of the necropolis, between the epitaphs on the tombstones and this absolutely contemporary pop-cultural practice. The epitaphs (like, for example, “Love, freedom and Socialism” or “Freedom and reason will make you stronger”) create a narration that is defined by the movements of the traceurs. However, even if their action takes place in this location devoted to collective memory, full of deep symbolical, historical and political meanings, the nature itself of the parkour keeps the traceurs from becoming interested in these meanings, of which they remain, in fact, unaware.

These youngsters impose their own individual ego, indifferent to the function or the ideological content of the elements they get in contact with. The urban landscape is seen as a structure without a past, a system of recombinable elements that changes with each session, following a principle comparable to the so-called “psychogeography” of the Situationists, according to which the citizen, instead of being a prisoner of the daily routine, should look at and live urbanity in a radically new way. We can interpret theparkour groups like a sort of urban guerrilla providing a critical experience of the city, refusing values and canonical spacial-temporal modes of the capitalist world of today.

In Ser y Durar the artists use visual communication codes that are typical to the parkour: hiding the faces of some of the traceurs at the beginning of the video, the use of the subjective camera or of wide pan shots, the slow motion and the so-called matrix effect, to emphasize the acrobatic sequences. Trying to enter the communication and the exchange between the members of this community, the artists appropriate the stylistic elements and narrative tools typical to this juvenile phenomenon that has become an international subculture, more and more interconnected via digital media.

Democracia has created a kind of negative monument: they present a practice critical of urban culture in a context in which the memory of those who have contributed to the history of individual emancipation emerges, but where also many of the egalitarian and revolutionary aspirations of Spanish history, towards which the modern society has become increasingly indifferent and unaware, lay buried. On the one hand, the identity of the traceur is epitomized by the slogan “To exist and to persist”, but on the other, one of the epitaphs of the cemetery reads: “After death there is nothing.”

Juan Manuel Echavarria had been a writer for three decades, when he realized that he was “drowning in words” while Colombia was overrun by violent conflicts between the army, guerillas and paramilitaries. He turned to photography and began to explore the political reality of his home country and the metaphorical possibilities of images by focusing his camera on the blind spots in the social fabric of Colombia.

In his work he unveils 50 years of civil war in an officially democratic society. Tens of thousands of people in rural areas have been killed in the massacres along Colombia’s Caribbean coast perpetrated by paramilitary groups or by the FARC guerrillas and millions have been displaced. Echavarria calls it “la guerra que no hemos visto”, the war which we have not seen, as the war zone in the middle of society has been officially ignored.

Using photography and video as artistic media Echavarria collects the stories of those who are voiceless and remain unheard. In his video Bocas de Ceniza Echavarria gives them a voice. Seven Afro-Colombian peasants tell their stories in songs rooted in the oral tradition of the Pacific region in Colombia. They sing about what they cannot put into spoken words. They express terrifying experiences and relate individual humiliation and suffering with the history of abandonment, displacement, plundering and murder of citizens in Colombia. The simple recitatives, which were composed by the singers themselves, are more than songs: they are prayers for redemption from the traumas endured.

Echavarria’s video-close-ups do not allow any distancing. For the length of each song the viewer is face to face with a full-screen-portrait of the singer, without any distraction. For Echavarria “the main concept was the eyes as the mirror of the soul”. Looking at these faces, listening to the tone of these sometimes monotonous, sometimes trembling voices the artist confronts the viewer directly with the naked human existence and its violation. Echavarria confronts. He insists: look! Listen! Echavarria does not simply show – he makes us feel. He does so without contributing to sensationalism, and without exhibiting violence.

The title Bocas de Ceniza refers to the name given to a point of access to the Magdalena River, where the Spanish army entered Colombia during an Ash Wednesday. The art critic Ana Tiscornia states that “penitence and resurrection have forever marked this geographical point. Today, the Magdalena River’s current takes and provides a way out for the bodies of many Colombians killed in these interminable episodes of violence. Colombians that die and are never resurrected”.

Bocas de Ceniza is, as Echavarria puts it, “a journey into the evil that has crept in to the soul of Colombia” alongside daily life. It is also a reflection on the power of words for those who have been violated and silenced by the deliberate ignorance of society.

Thomas Feuerstein (1968, Innsbruck, AU; where he lives and works) works as artist and author in the fields of fine art and media art. He studied philosophy and history at the University of Innsbruck, where he won a doctorate in 1995. From 1992 to 1994 he was co-editor with Klaus Strickner of the magazine Medien.Kunst.Passagen. In 1992 he founded the office for intermedia communication transfer and the association medien.kunst.tirol. His works and projects comprise installations, environments, objects, drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographies, videos, radio plays and net art. Recent solo shows include: (2011) Poem, 401contemporary, Berlin; (2010) Manifest, Kunstraum Bernsteiner, Wien; Where Deathless Horses Weep, Galerie Elisabeth & Klaus Thoman, Innsbruck; (2009) Daimon, Kunstverain Ausburg. Recent collective shows include: (2011) 4th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art; Kunstforum Montafon, Schruns; VERBALE II, Kabelwerk, Wien; Familien-Erb-Teil, Kunstraum Engländerbau, Vaduz; (2010) Eat Art, Kunstmuseum Stuttgart; original/funktional, Wiener Art Foundation, Wien; N.U.M.B. und du auch, Kunstraum Innsbruck; Malerei: Prozess und Expansion, MUMOK, Wien; Austria la vista, baby, TAF, Athens; (2009) Eating the Universe, Kunsthalle Düsseldorf; CELLA, Complesso Monumentale di San Michele a Ripa, Rome.

The fundamental themes Thomas Feuerstein’s research is based on are the modes of the structuring of society and the interactions between the individual and collectivity, tracing connections and analogies between art and science, sociology and biology. The Austrian artist defines his works as a “conceptual narration”, aiming at making the principles of social systems visible.

Parlament translates the interest of the artist for the analysis of forms of social organization into biological metaphors. The piece consists of a sort of  bioreactor made of glass and composed of a central chamber connected by six pipes to an equal amount of ampoules at the basis of the object. The ampoules contain six different strains of cultures of the slime mold species Physarum (belonging to the group of the myxomycetes), a particular life form that cannot be counted among neither animals nor plants or bacteria. It reaches a length of approximately hundred and twenty centimetres and looks like a yellowy substance that is able to move at one to two centimetres per hour. During the time of the exhibition, these cells will move through the pipes to reach the upper chamber, which holds a nourishing substance. The myxomycetes will be able to choose whether to remain split or to merge into a single organism called plasmodium, which, even presenting different distinct nuclei, can become a single giant cell (that can reach a size of several square meters of surface). The plasmodium, the meta-cell joining together all the different original parts in a single “biological body”, can consequently be seen as the symbol for human social organisation, for a single “social body”.

Feuerstein uses an instrument taken from a scientific lab to create a metaphor illustrating some principles of coexistence of living beings. Among the possible implicit references, the model developed in 1943 by the American psychologist Abraham Maslow stands out, the so-called “Hierarchy of Needs”, with which he tried to explain the mechanics that regulate the interdependence between organisms and environment. What moves living beings to actively relate to their own environment is the fulfilment of their needs, at first the primary, the physiological ones, followed by more and more abstract ones like the need for security, for social belonging, the individual needs and finally those related to self-fulfilment. According to Maslow’s model, also human beings follow this logic that makes more abstract needs become impellent only when those connected to the body have already been satisfied.

The piece is completed by a series of prints referencing the individuals’ need to organize themselves in social forms and state structures, underlining the parallel proposed by Feuerstein between socio-political organization and biological processes. Slogans like “E Pluribus Unum”, “Work on Social Flesh”, “Solitary/Solidary Cell”, “Empire Builder” or “Common Cell” emphasize the analogy between the process of “democratic” merging of the plasmodium and the functioning of a real democracy, referring to political positions or mottos. The phrase “In P.O.P. We Trust” (that plays with the typically American “In God We Trust” and in which the acronym P.O.P. stands for “Point of Presence”, a term that indicates a point of access to the internet shared by a specific group of users, and also for “Plasmodium Organism Politics”) becomes the slogan for the artist’s reflection, fluctuating between science, art and politics.

*Thomas Hirschhorn’s work is a politically committed artistic reflection on contemporary reality, always using a wide range of techniques and media like sculpture, video and installation, but also employing material taken from everyday life, like adhesive tape, cardboard, plastic, paper and the imagery of our media society, making his style unique and immediately recognizable.

The eight booklets composing the piece Where Do I Stand? What Do I Want? Can be considered a radical manifesto of the artist’s purposes and ideas. By means of an extremely personal artistic production, Hirschhorn puts together texts, drawings and collages, making the inspirations, aspirations and motivations that guide his work emerge. Excerpts from Joseph Beuys, Alexandre Costanzo, Andy Warhol or Che Guevara are combined with drawings, photographs and symbols taken from diverse sources, and are complemented with notes and underlinings by the artist himself.

Where Do I Stand? What Do I Want? offers a glimpse at the personality of an artist whose prolific production is an attempt not only to define his role in the world, but also to “call at arms” those who still do not consider themselves fully and actively involved in politics. To Hirschhorn, the art piece is a weapon: his creations represent statements and aggressions against the capitalistic system that heavily influences the social and cultural life of each individual. His clear and frequently declared points of reference are philosophers like Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille, Antonio Gramsci and especially Michel Foucault, whose thought is however interpreted from a perspective that Hirschhorn would define humanistic: “As an artist I do not need philosophy because I do not use philosophy to make my work – I need philosophy as a man, as a human being.”  
As an artist, Hirschhorn asks himself: “How can I take a position? How can I shape this position? How can this form create a universally shareable truth, beyond political, aesthetical and cultural customs?”

The answer he provides is an overwhelming but rational new elaboration of cues and ideas, according to an always inclusive and anti-hierarchical aesthetical and theoretical approach that combines together politics, aesthetics, philosophy and life: “I don’t work against chaos: I want to work within the chaos of the world.” And further: “I want to work with the precarious and in the precarious. This is to be understood as the ‘political’. The political is to understand the precarious not as a concept, but to understand it as a condition. A condition that is a matter of accepting – frenetically and in awareness.”

Hirschhorn creates works that are charged with social and political critique, always starting – as the artist points out – from an individual perspective leading to the construction of models and systems that allow us to come to universal truths. To Hirschhorn it is of central importance not to loose sight off the social – and therefore universal – intention of his work: “I can only reach the universal if I risk conflict with my inner self. ‘The personal’ doesn’t interest me because it’s not resistant in itself, it is always an explanation – if not an excuse. My work can only have effect if it has the capacity of transgressing the boundaries of the personal, of the academic, of the imaginary, of the circumstantial, of the context and of the contemplation.”

“Today there is great confusion about the question concerning what "Political" and "political" are. I am only interested in what is really political, the ‘Political’ with a capital P, the political that implicates: where do I stand? Where does the other stand? What do I want? What does the other want? The "political" with a small p, the opinions and forging of majorities, does not interest, and has never interested me. For I am concerned with‘making my art politically’.”

Thomas Kilpper’s artistic practice is characterized by a strong social and political engagement expressed through sculptural works, drawings and installations, often produced in public spaces. His work aims at developing a social dialogue between people, where voices, places and human histories often hidden or excluded from public debate take on a central role.

Kilpper’s intervention for the exhibition Declining Democracy comprises works that deal with migration and document aspects of his own experiences in Lampedusa. Starting in 2008, Kilpper has been working on the project A Lighthouse for Lampedusa, for which he lived on the island for some time, with the ultimate intention of creating a lighthouse partially built out of fragments of boats used to transport migrants to this place. The lighthouse was conceived as an effectively working structure, able to send out light signals as a reference point for navigators. At its basis there will be a sort of art lab, created in collaboration with architects, artists and inhabitants of Lampedusa, which will host concerts, meetings, conferences and exhibitions.

The artist approaches the theme of immigration focusing on the specific case of the Italian island, which is situated only eighty nautical miles from the African continent, from where 20.000 refugees cross over every year. Most of them arrive on board of small boats, overcrowded beyond all measure. Often the “journey of hope” turns into a tragedy: the humanitarian organizations estimate that one in ten refugees dies during the dangerous crossing. Within the exhibition, we can see large-scale prints on fabric created by Kilpper, tracing out his engravings on the floor of public buildings, in which he has reprocessed diverse images of the media world: the landing of the migrants on Lampedusa, a neo-Nazi aggression towards Asians in Berlin and a homage to the political photo-collages of the dadaist artist John Heartfield, portrayed as Silvio Berlusconi’s aggressor.

In the video work A Lighthouse for Lampedusa, Kilpper documents moments of his stay on the Sicilian island through shots of the landings as well as of everyday life, integrating his own artistic project with real interviews with migrants, the local authorities and the citizens of Lampedusa, whom witness what has been defined a state of emergency of immigration and are directly involved in it. With the drawing A Lighthouse for Lampedusa (Mapping Diary), the artist creates a topography of the main sites of the island: the harbour, the stores, the local radio station, the police post, but also the spots of the landings of the migrants, the collective accommodations, the enormous black smoke column of the fire set to a centre for identification and expulsion in 2009, the boat cemetery, the military base. Kilpper also adds fragments of facts, conversations and reports to the description of the sites, leaving traces of his direct experience on the island by means of this mapping activity.

For the migrants Lampedusa is one of Europe’s outposts, a place that holds the promise of a better life and safety from political persecution or from poverty. However, the old continent proves to be incapable of finding possible answers in the new geopolitical and economical but first and foremost ethical and humanitarian equilibrium. For today’s Europe, developing a way to confront migration represents an issue that profoundly involves its identity: between the image of a “European fortress” and that of multiculturalism and integration within the limits of a democratic system.

Lucy Kimbell (1966, Pembury, UK; lives and works in London) is an artist, designer, researcher and educator. She has taught an MBA elective on design at Said Business School, University of Oxford, since 2005. She originally studied engineering design and appropriate technology, then took a master degree in digital media and she is now completing doctoral work at the University of Lancaster. In addition to working through her consultancy studio Fieldstudio, she is an associate at TaylorHaig (London) and The Policy Lab (Boston), both working to innovate in public service design. Recent keynotes include the Service Design Network (2010), Design Management Institute (2010) and Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (2008). She publishes in peer-reviewed journals as well as trying to find ways to make academic work more digestible to wider publics. Her work has been shown internationally including in the interdisciplinary exhibition Making Things Public (2005) curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel and TEDGlobal (2011).

Physical Bar Charts is a participative project developed by the designer Lucy Kimbell in collaboration with the sociologist Andrew Barry, starting in 2008 and reproposed within different exhibitions, trying to respond to the distinct and specific nature of places and contexts.

In the new production conceived for CCC Strozzina, the work comprises eight two-meter tall transparent pipes. Each pipe contains coloured buttons with different messages, often referring to everyday and ordinary actions, expressed through a first person singular “I”. Visitors are invited to take out and wear those buttons that correspond to their individual answer to the question: what did you do last week that made you a citizen?

During the course of the exhibition, the pipes become a kind of histogram, a bar graph that displays the degree of social activism of the participants. Day after day, Physical Bar Charts visualizes the behaviour of the visitors of the exhibition like a polling agency graph that shows the political and social tendencies of the population.

Contrary to professional statistical studies on voting behaviour, always based on data whose sources remain anonymous, the piece traces a visual connection between the individuals wearing the buttons and their recent behaviour, allowing for a public demonstration of their actions and decisions. This way, the experience proposed by the work provides the opportunity to reflect on a basic element of democracy: the public assertion of one’s own position.

The so-called “badges” are objects that have belonged to the culture of mankind for centuries. Made out of different materials, since the Middle Ages they have been used as public signs of membership, recognition and identification by single individuals or groups.

Later came the “buttons”, simple metal disks with a pin to be attached to garments as an expression of North American pop culture. In 1789, they were used for the first time in a political context during George Washington’s first public appearance as president in New York, which was the capital of the United States at the time. He and his backers wore buttons reading “G.W. – Long Live the President” at his first official speech. From that occasion they are part of popular culture, especially that of younger people, and are used to express not only political beliefs, but also musical tastes and fashion trends.

The individual involvement and the collective demonstration of the action proposed by Kimbell, together with the strongly concrete and ordinary dimension of the phrases that the people chose to wear, also triggers a reflection on the distance between politics and everyday life. The growing separation of the citizens from official politics is a crucial element of the history of contemporary democracy, as proven by recent episodes occurred in all Western countries. Kimbell offers an answer to a more and more urgent request for involvement, calling the individuals to expose themselves in first person and affirm their role as citizens, bringing politics back to a concrete dimension of facts and actions of everyday life

Cesare Pietroiusti (1955, Rome, IT) is a visual artist. He has founded and runs several research centres, projects and art meetings. Since 1977 he has been exhibiting in public and private spaces, both dedicated and not, in Italy and abroad. Being a psychiatrist, Pietroiusti has always had a specific interest for paradoxical or apparently irrational situations, which commonly are not taken into consideration or are “considered too trivial to be analysed or represented”. He has been part of the founding group of the Centro Studi Jartrakor in Rome and of Rivista di Psicologia dell’Arte. In 1997 he was among the initiators of the Oreste project. He has been invited to the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999. He has exhibited in the section Aperto at the 1990 Venice Biennale, at the Serpentine Gallery, London, in 1992, at the Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk, in 1996, at Art in General, New York, in 2001. In the last years he has been focusing on the subject of exchange and on paradoxes which can arise in the dark corners of economical systems and orders. In 2007 he has founded, in cooperation with the collective Space from Bratislava, “Evolution de l’Art”, the first contemporary art gallery selling only immaterial works.

The Polish artist Artur Zmijewski focuses in his work on the integrity and sovereignty of the individual. He is an active member of the Polish political movement Krytyka Politycznaand the art director of the magazine Krytyka Polityczna, both founded by a circle of Polish left-wing intellectuals whose intent is to lay the foundations for alternative political movements based on the ideal of a social civil society. The aim of Krytyka Polityczna is to create a common impact of the social sciences, the arts and politics on society.

As an artist Zmijewski claims to broaden the range of scientific knowledge through methods of dreams, imagination, repetition, responsibility and risk. For many of his projects he created laboratory-type situations exploring human behaviour, societal conditioning and physical handicaps. With these staged experiments, Zmijewski produced empirical knowledge about the human condition and its social manifestations.

For his work Democracies Zmijewski departs from his established strategy of re-enactment and uses instead a purely documentary approach. Democracies is a series of eleven short films documenting various collective declarations in public spaces, which are parallely shown.

Travelling across Europe for over a year’s time, Zmijewski recorded diverse mass events, which have in common that they exhibit basic democratic principles such as freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and equality. Zmijewski confronts the viewer with an encyclopaedic range of political and non-political opinions and claims, and various forms of their collective presentation: demonstrations of union members for higher wages, of women for the right to abortion, a Polish military parade, the burial of the Austrian politician Jörg Haider, drunk German football fans, drumming activists at the Gaza strip. What we see is a basic democratic mechanism at work: the practice of free expression in public. Zmijewski observes without judging: “The message of these people and these events should not be obliterated by any personal intervention or artistic strategy. I just wanted to present this ‘direct speech’, the free expression of these people.” Zmijewski simply wants to keep these public claims alive: be it the feministic claim for equal rights, the call for higher wages, the wish for a life in peace, not in war.

Do we like what is expressed? Do we agree? Or disagree? Do we find connections among these diverse attempts to have ones voice heard? The videos may provoke both our consent and dissent, ultimately inviting us to participate in the public discourse by defining and expressing our own position as the indispensable prerequisite of a functioning democracy.

Zmijewski’s video-installation presents “an intriguing narrative about political activity and freedom of expression, about crowd psychology, representation and acting” as the art critic Axel Lapp writes, and unveil “unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated events”. In contrasting a wide range of “democracies” Zmijewski not only thematizes form, structure and pattern of mass mobilization and its propagandistic power, ultimately he also sets up an experiment about the controversy of opinions involving the viewer and his own convictions.

Thomas Hirschhorn, Where Do I Stand? What Do I Want?, 2007, Spiral notebooks and paper, 42,5 x 29,7 each notebook, Collection de Bruin-Heijn, Courtesy Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris.

Democracia, Ser y Durar, 2011, Video stills, 3-channel video installation, 18’ 30”, (La Almudena Civil Cemetery, Madrid), Still photo credit: Ximo Michavila, Courtesy Democracia.