What if we re-activated active participation in public life? Edgar Endress of Floating Lab Collective discusses a new role for art in the age of post-democracy.
Born in Santiago, Chile, Edgar Endress first started exploring art when a friend gave him a camera at university. Initially enrolled as an Economics major, he spent more and more time exploring life from behind the lens and amongst Santiago’s vibrant artist expat community. He earned a Bachelors of Art of Communications from Institute ARCOS in Santiago. Inspired by works such as Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen, he eventually went on to study at Carnegie Mellon University through an exchange program and earned an MFA degree from Syracuse University. Endress is the creator of the New Media Experimental Lab at George Mason University and heads the Floating Lab Collective, a group of artists from the Washington, D.C. area that works nationally and internationally in the public sphere with issues of representation, participation, inclusion, and empowerment. Much of his work is still guided by a deep interest in macro and microeconomic movements. We sat down one morning in the new arts building on campus to discuss his motivations as an artist.
CS: What inspired you to become an artist?
EE: I grew up under the Pinochet regime. I was 19 when the regime fell, so my formative years were shaped by my experiences growing up under a dictator. My family was fairly political and spoke their mind at home, so everyday life was about trying to make sense of what was public and what was secret. I learned early on that public space was the battleground. One time, my mother came home with beta max videotapes, which were banned under the regime. She was doing a very risky thing, but people took these kinds of risks regularly. Our neighbors would illegally tune into Chilean expat news from Russia using short-wave radios. Others participated in guerilla protests by cutting power cables in certain parts of the city. These were all examples of secret economies circulating through the neighborhood as a result of resistance to political oppression. I think my interest in political activism came from a deep need to resist.
CS: Do you consider yourself a political artist?
EE: The problem with a term like political art or social change in today’s world, is that they mimic pastel on paper – smudged and softened in a kind of post-democracy entertainment. Even the supposed Millennial resurgence in social responsibility feels a bit watered down. People in the West almost seem to take freedom for granted, as if they don’t know what it means to survive an ordeal. They are becoming numb to struggle, and even numb to democracy without a need to fight for it.
CS: Can you explain what you mean by post-democracy?
EE: Post-democracy presents democracy and its institutions as a formal shell. The ultimate act of unity - Democracy - has been relocated into the market, where the experience of consumption is the ultimate manifestation of choice and freedom. We have been slowly displaced as active citizens engaged in civil activities and social transformations into experienced consumers - disengaged - but in a global and ubiquitous hedonism. For this reason, I want to reactivate a sense of active participation. Thankfully, I see signs that art and life are coming together in interesting ways to make this happen. Art is no longer confined to a separate field within white cubes, detached from everyday life.
CS: How does your work directly engage with public life?
EE: Our work at the Floating Lab Collective responds to social issues by using mobile vehicles, sculptures, and alternative forms of display and engagement. We move into neighborhoods and engage directly with the people to articulate a social discourse about the consumption of and relationship to arts and culture, suggesting an alternative role for art institutions in their communities. We think art can provide new ways of discovery and processing information… of subtle resistance.
CS: Can you provide an example?
EE: In 2010 we were invited by a group in Medellin, Columbia to do a public art project. We had been floating an idea for a project in the States but couldn’t attract the right funding. So we brought it to Medellin. It is called the Collective White House. The piece was installed in a public space to function as a peoples’ embassy– a collective platform and gathering place for discussion and participation on the role and influence of US politics. The goal was to create an open source institution that re-imagines the balance of power, reconstructing a transnational symbol of dominance through active community imagination and participation. It gave power to people to redefine the role of the United States in their daily existence and attempted to transform the current system of one center and many peripheries into a system of several centers and no periphery.
CS: Your work is very collaborative. Do you consider your subjects co-creators in your work?
EE: I am interested in the human experience. I want to empower people to use their own experiences to engage and propose. As I learned in my childhood, the most innovative and creative ideas seem to come from community members in search of resistance. They are the way in to exposing those hidden power mechanisms and invisible human systems, patterns, behaviors, and migrations. While in Colombia, for example, I noticed that street vendors don’t just sell stuff. They create systems of affection. My art tries to do the same thing - create systems of affection with my subjects so we can reveal and re-stitch the social fabric together.
CS: When you speak about your work in this way, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs. Do you think your projects could offer insights to urban planners or community developers?
EE: I understand my work borders on artistic research, but I am hesitant about collaborating directly with local governments. A group of consultants for public art working for a large city approached me once about creating a project like M.E.T. M.E.T was modeled on the NASA Modular Equipment Transporter, which used cameras and geological tools to document the surface of the moon. Our version contained tools to explore psycho-geographical mapping and informal human topographies. In other words, we were interested in tracking inhabitants’ social interactions with the landscape. We ultimately rejected the collaboration, because they were unwilling to offer the autonomy and flexibility needed to engage this kind of research.
CS: This seems to demonstrate an inherent conflict between applied research and artistic freedom in the cultural sphere.
EE: Yes. Any time art reveals an uncomfortable aspect of culture we shut it down. In most instances, we push discourses of discontent into the background. Or, we distract ourselves with technologies that encourage passive consumption rather than critical and active engagement. My hope is art can still awaken, even if it remains in the cultural sphere.
CS: What are you working on now?
EE: We just started the Cordel Project, an artistic collaboration with immigrant communities outside of Washington, D.C. There are many minority groups along the Highway 29 Corridor from GMU to Greensboro, as well as a number of young people who can no longer afford living in large cities. The project is inspired by hand carved wooden block printed booklets called Cordels from migrant communities in South America. They exhibit a unique aesthetic, mixing occidental influences with indigenous features to tell noisy and colorful stories of folk and urban lore. Cordels were eventually subsumed and evolved into a strain of pop culture in urban environments, contradicting the main form of taste but without the negative connotation. We turned our Floating Lab Collective van into a mobile Cordel publishing house and started printing similar booklets with communities along the Corridor, exploring whether aesthetics can act as a form of resistance in these minority groups.
CS: Your work is very inspiring. Despite your misgivings, I wonder if an independent institution could help translate artistic engagement into relevant research for public decision-making.
EE: Perhaps it could work. As long is it allows the artist to experiment freely and move unconditionally within public life.
Photo Credit: edgar/Endress; Floating Lab Collective