Art, Systems, Critique: A Conversation with For Freedoms Super PAC

2016 JSG24 For Freedoms (install view) HR (7)

The brainchild of creative agents and political cognoscenti Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, For Freedoms has been heralded as the first artist-run super PAC, an intriguing and very timely organization aimed at not merely endorsing or promoting political candidates, but also at spreading awareness about some of the many less-than-apparent facets of the democratic process in the US.

The super PAC has been headquartered at Jack Shainman Gallery for the past few weeks, where their ‘offices’ are also an active simulacra of sorts in that they’re doubling as an exhibition, For Freedoms, featuring a range of artworks donated to the super PAC by dozens of member artists, including Mickalene Thomas, Trevor Paglen, Fred Tomaselli, Dread Scott, Carrie Mae Weems and Rashid Johnson, to name but a few.

I checked in with Hank and Eric to inquire about the ideas and structure behind this most compelling take on the super PAC paradigm, and to find out a bit about what they’ll be up to during their forthcoming ‘campaign booth’ event at The Brooklyn Museum.

Among other things, they’d like to tell you that our democracy is working just fine, but that there are many reasons to believe that it could work much better—by including more and more voices, for instance, and perhaps by deploying artists as critical communicators. Read on for much more.

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How imperiled is our democracy? How culpable are the politicians and legislators that have either endorsed or not disallowed the infiltration of moneyed interests into discourse-shaping campaign financing?

Hank: Actually, I think our democracy is functioning at its very best. More people than ever are empowered and having their voices heard. But democracy always has certain problems involved, and it’s always a work in progress.

Eric: Citizenship and art-making entail freedoms, such as the freedom to speak out about problems. But freedom can be impeded in many ways. In a way, money is speech, so not having money can be a way of having a limited voice. Democracy is endangered when voices are not heard, so we as artists should work to promote voices.

Going back to the idea of culpability, how culpable are we, as citizens? How might an arts-oriented super PAC address this?

Hank: It really depends on how we define ‘we.’ The “We the people” of the constitution means a very different thing in the 21st century than it did many generations ago. ‘We’ as citizens are culpable if we put material interests over fellow human beings. In terms of the ‘we’ as artists, we circulate ideas in many ways and can work to circulate more. Some artists participate passively in the political process, some more actively. We’re trying to create a greater conversation about the limitations of political action and discourse.

Eric: What’s really interesting to us is the idea of being part of a system while remaining critical of it. This is important, and there’s a way of talking about the ‘system’ of art as a democratic system, given its relationship with critique. To actively participate in the democratic process is to also have an admission ticket to critiquing it. A Grace Lee Boggs quote comes to mind: “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it and responsible for changing it.”

What administrative components or conceptual facets of super PACs have you incorporated into the structure of For Freedoms? How is this super PAC more than just a fund-raising entity and advertising machine?

Eric: Well, we actually are a super PAC. We’re real and registered as one. We did a lot of research into how they work and talked with many lawyers about it. We’ve even looked into putting forth a candidate and what that would entail. One of the things that we learned about super PACs in creating our own is that much of how they’re organized and administered is shrouded in mystery.

Hank: It’s more than just an art project. In a Duchampian sense, our super PAC is our ready-made.

2016 JSG24 For Freedoms (install view) HR (5)

Your aim is to endorse those candidates who are truly devoted to exchanging ideas, listening to their constituents, and crafting platforms and legislation “as a form of civic service,” as you’ve said. Are there any candidates out there, presidential or further down the electoral line, whose lucidity, sincerity, candor and civic commitment even come close to those ideals, whose platforms and service records you find agreeable?

Eric: We’re less interested in endorsing specific candidates right now than in expanding the conversation about candidates. We will have to do some endorsing at some point according to super PAC rules, but we’re not at that stage yet.

Hank: In the long term, we’re hoping to broaden the discussion by broadening the track, by creating new rules for how to judge winners.

Eric: This is just coming to me now, but an example of broadening how we think about all of this could even include running a positive campaign for a candidate we don’t support, or a negative campaign for a candidate we do support. How could that work? In what ways could it be helpful?

How were you able to get so many artists on board? Was your proposal to them less about being in full agreement politically, and more about agreeing to do something to positively affect political discourse?

Eric: We reached out to people we know and admire. Other people reached out to us when they heard about what we’re doing. At this point we’ve had even more interest than we can handle. One of the things the artists were agreeing to by working with us is to allow us to use their artworks in advertising campaigns later this year.

Tell us about the ‘campaign booth’ and ‘yard sign’ event you have coming up at the Brooklyn Museum. Whom do you hope to attract to the event? And why Brooklyn? Why the Brooklyn Museum?

Hank: The Brooklyn Museum’s Agitprop exhibition has caused various sorts of demonstrations, so in a way there already is a real, functional critical platform there for discussing politics. We’ve planned our event to be around the 4th of July and to coincide with the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays event this month, since that will draw a bigger, more inclusive crowd.

Eric: We’re playing with a lot of politics-related words in what we do, even including the word ‘politics.’ One word we want people to really think about is ‘freedom,’ especially in the plural, ‘freedoms.’ They can make their own buttons and signs that answer the following questions: What kinds of freedoms can we talk about? What freedoms are important? They’ll be able to take these things home with them, and we’ll install some of them in the Brooklyn Museum. We want to encourage visitors to think about the freedoms that exist, and how they define these freedoms for themselves.

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You can learn more about For Freedoms by visiting the website, or by stopping by Jack Shainman Gallery while the super PAC is headquartered there. You can also take note of a For Freedoms event that will be hosted by Smack Mellon on July 20th, a panel discussion assembled in collaboration with an organization called Art & Law.

[Images courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery and For Freedoms.]

Paul D’Agostino is @postuccio on Instagram and Twitter.

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