Interview with Marisa Olson : Co-curator of "OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding" Discusses Exhibition

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Rhizome's Curator-at-Large and Staff Writer Marisa Olson recently curated the online segment of the exhibition "OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding," which is currently on view in New York City at Parsons' Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center. The exhibition, on a whole, looks at how democracy has become situated as a consumer brand in order to disseminate American values worldwide. The online portion of the show specifically examines subversive strategies emergent from network culture, and how these methods may produce and disseminate ideas that may work against the sway of branding. In light of the recent success of Barack Obama's campaign for presidency, largely due to Web-based grassroots organizing, the scope of "OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding" seems to take on a whole new significance. Given this backdrop, I wanted to speak with Marisa about some of the fundamental questions asked by the exhibition. - Ceci Moss

Many of the projects in the online portion of "OURS: Democracy in the Age of Branding" are a direct response to the troublesome policies of the Bush Administration, whether it be the divisive rhetoric of "Us" vs. "Them" as seen in Steve Lambert's WhyTheyHate.US or war propaganda as in Joseph DeLappe's Dead-In-Iraq. Now that Obama has been elected president, do you think the tone of politically minded art will change? Working on this show, do you have any sense of what that change might be?

It's funny, a lot of people have been asking me this. One person asked me if there's no longer a need for activist art. Of course there is! I think there's a sense of relief and excitement about Obama's election, but I think things will only gain momentum. What's interesting is that activism doesn't always have to be about saying no. Sometimes it can be about saying yes -- speaking in the affirmative, either to amplify the awfulness of the status quo or to point your target in the right direction. That would be the torque behind the "power of positive thinking." If anything, I believe that Obama has sold people on the fantasy that he will listen to them -- "especially when we disagree," as he so often said in his campaign speeches. A project like this week's NY Times Special Edition (while in the works for several months prior to his election) speaks to this belief and in fact I believe that's why they decided to release the paper after the election, rather than before it, as they'd originally planned. But now that someone in power seems to be listening, activists have all the more reason to speak up and ask for what we want. Truth be told, while the nightmare of the last eight years are coming to an end, it will take a long time to implement the changes we need. And we need to keep asking for these changes. But yes, it will be interesting to see how people's creative and rhetorical strategies shift in this new climate.

Can you flesh-out the way in which you are using the word "branding" in the show?

Carin Kuoni first came up with the idea for the show and then asked if I'd like to curate an online component. I agreed because I thought it was important to address the branding of democracy, particularly during election cycles. I once made a video comparing presidential elections to the "Pepsi Challenge." They tend to feel like a non-choice: one's red, one's blue, but they both taste about the same, and they're both pretty bad for you. Their only difference is that they are branded differently. In prior elections, the concept of democracy had seemed more like a fantasy that one buys into, rather than a reality. For this reason, I particularly liked the first word in the show's title: "Ours." For me, it raises this question of the possibility of voters having ownership over the democratic process (of "having a purchase" on it), vs. the sensation that votes can be bought, or the constant state of slippage in which consumption and investment move from something you do to keep yourself healthy to something you're lured into doing in alignment with an ideological fantasy.

"I Approve This Message while bicycling" from the Unconvention's "I Approve This Message"

In an article from Wired Magazine last week, political consultant Ralph Benko described the success of Obama's campaign as largely due to a "peer-to-peer, bottom-up, open source kind of ethos." Projects in your exhibition, such as Rebranding Acts by Wooloo Productions and I Approve This Message from the Unconvention, fall in line with that kind of practice. With Obama's campaign, this sort of approach has undoubtedly entered mainstream politics in a major way. What will that mean for the "branding" of democracy? How will it redefine it? Are there any art projects from the show that touch on this?

While the show was largely organized around the US Presidential elections, Carin and I both wanted to explore the ways in which democracy (as a brand or product) is exported, and what its currency is online -- the specific means by which it is traded. Given the sorts of content and activity that are popular online, it's particularly relevant to explore the fantasy of participatory media. In my opinion, this context absolutely butts up against the paradox of politics in network culture. It's a platform for collaboration and increased political participation, but one could also argue that it's brought us more things to protest. I think there is a danger in that some of the same network conditions that encourage participatory media discourage political participation by giving people a diminished sense of both authority and responsibility. Network culture is a culture marked by an era in which our rights to free speech and access to transparent governance have been stripped down again and again -- manifesting itself as much in illegal wiretapping and online censorship as unprecedented rigorous copyright laws in which those seeking to share in ways that were the cornerstone of earlier oral cultures are now told that they have no rights, no ownership. The ownership questions and subsequent authority-wielding that manifest at YouTube are a perfect example of the ways in which participation are elided by consumerism at the expense of the user/participant/consumer's agency. But I tried to select works for this show that are either completely forthright about the fantastical state of this scenario, à la Les Liens Invisibles or the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, or that peer into the eyes of the problem and offer more optimistic solutions. This was the case with I Approve This Message, where there was a sense that the messages would in fact be heard, and with all of Wooloo's projects, which masterfully circumvent the anonymity that often comes with participatory media to give artists a named voice and a platform for distributing their work and ideas. My hope, in the context of the recent election, is that we can rebrand democracy in the same way that these artists rebrand participatory media -- so that individuals can feel that their needs are being met while they feel excited about being part of a larger body politic, rather than feeling lost in the crowd.

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Image: Institute for Infinitely Small Things, Transferring Patriotism 2008, ongoing

A quick glance through Obama and Biden's websites "Change.gov" and "barackobama.com" and it becomes clear that Obama has lifted the possessive forms already ubiquitous on the net -- think myspace and youtube -- and transferred them to his public persona. His administration is unquestionably aware of the weight and use of the possessive within contemporary culture, and its orientation alongside an older model of customer service and consumerism. With that awareness, one could say that Obama markets himself as the first ever "mypresident". As the show's title itself indicates, possessive claims are significant in determining one's placement within democracy and ownership over that claim. What import do possessive forms bear on expectation and gratification? How do artists deal with possessive forms? How do they undermine them?

Great question. I think the slogan "Yes We Can" totally exemplifies this and as an aside, it was interesting to see, at Obama's acceptance speech, that he corrected those who were chanting "Yes We Did," to say "Yes We Can," and keep things looking forward in the future tense. I mean, of course, it's totally about tapping into the popular preconscious and the memes that have kept people engaged, and much more so, it's a way of tapping a demographic of young internet users who are sympathetic to a call for change but had not previously participated in the electoral system. Overall, it's a further way of recruiting people's participation, faith, and responsibility. Saying "We" gets us all to buy in, while also making us all culpable for what happens to our country. This is hugely important. So it's a smart move and an exciting turn in a country that came to feel as if it had gone to the dogs.