Monday, 17 March 2014

Broken clay pots

"Some use for your broken clay pots", by Christoph Meierhans, at Maria Matos Theatre (Photo: Jan Lietaert)

Last week, I saw at Maria Matos Theatre “Some use for your broken clay pots” with Christoph Meierhans. Inspired by the ancient Athenian system of ostracism, where a political leader who became too powerful could be sent to exile, Meierhans wishes to propose a new system os democracy, a new constitution which, he believes, will also produce a new type of citizen.

I followed his theory with interest and he left me thinking: do we, as citizens, actually need a different system in order to ‘ostracise’ or disqualify bad or incompetent politicians? Can’t we simply, within the rights that are given to us from the current system, not vote for them? 

But we do vote for them, again and again and again. Why? Some of us are not interested enough, some feel powerless, some believe it’s beyond our control, some think they might benefit if they get attached to the powerful. I particularly thought of this last point when listening to one of the spectators passionately referring to the struggle between classes. Is this a question of classes, really? How can we explain then that people from a certain class vote for politicians representing another? Isn´t it because they are hoping to benefit, themselves and their loved ones?

What does it take to produce the active, informed, demanding citizens needed in Meierhans’ system? I believe this to be the weak point in his theory, the one concerning the citizens themselves. I think he ignored or undervalued the all too powerful human factor, the one that is not moulded by systems, the one that manages to subvert even the best of systems. Even in the ancient city of Athens, where ostracism seemed to be such a good system, the human factor ended up working against it or rather using it for personal benefits and ostracism was eventually used to get rid of political opponents. Was there a problem with the system?

We could be a different kind of citizen in the actual system, if we wished to, if we were not afraid, if we were prepared to act as a collective. Individual conscience and sense of responsibility is maybe important for each one of us to sleep better at night, but it doesn´t bring about any revolution, any real change. Power, for better or for worse, lies in the collective. Many times I thought of how proud and touched I felt when seeing the Portuguese taking the streets on September 15, 2012. It was a first for me, who had been living in the country for 17 years. But, as much as I cherished the moment, I had no illusions either. The big majority of those people went back to their usual lives on Monday morning, accepting, conniving, remaining silent in front of the things, those usual things, that had pushed them to take to the street a couple of days before. But again, when something like this happens, things can never be the same again. It might not be that visible, but something does change and the next step will be taken from there onwards. That is progress.

In the last three years we’ve witnessed moments of great social unrest in different parts of the world. And we also witnessed the emergence of a new type of citizen. Two museums, two art museums, decided to focus on the protests. “140 Characters” and “Desobedient Objects” are the titles of two exhibitions. The former closed its doors yesterday at the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art and the latter will be opening next summer at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Exhibition "140 characters" at São Paulo Museum of Modern Art (Photo: Karina Bacci)
“140 characters” brought together 140 works from the museum collection with the aim to produce an exhibition that would allow people to think about the latest social unrest in Brazil and the political mobilization through the social media (140 being the maximum number of characters that may be used for a single tweet on Twitter). I see this as the result of the wish to be relevant, a wish that resulted in a new and imaginative look through the museum’s permanent collection, allowing for a new ‘reading’ of the objects themselves in a specific, current, context.

Giant inflatable cobblestone made to be thrown at police, which will be part of the exhibition "Disobedient Objects" at the V&A (Photo taken from De Zeen magazine)
“Disobedient Objects” will be opening at the V&A Museum on 26 July. One of the exhibition’s co-curators, Gavin Grindon, explained that “Social movement cultures aren't normally collected by museums, with the exception of prints and posters. We wanted to raise the question of this absence of other kinds of disobedient objects in the museum."  The exhibition will bring together examples of art and design which were developed by countercultures to communicate political messages or to facilitate protests. The approach here is different from the one taken from the São Paulo museum. In this case, a gap is identified  in the collection and the aim is to fill this gap, not only because it might makes sense in terms of collection policy, but also because it is the nature of this collection policy that makes the museum relevant - or not - in today’s society. Shouldn’t this be the aim of every museum?

“140 characters” and “Disobedient Objects” are more than two titles contradicting the tendency of boring, descriptive, little imaginative exhibition titles. They are two exhibitions asserting what museums are really about.  They are the people behind them, artists and curators, who, together with others – writers, musicians, performers, essayists, philosophers – challenge us, intrigue us, confront us and comfort us, make us think about the type of citizens we wish to be, the type of citizens we can still be, especially when the walls seem too high and the battle totally hopeless.

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