Democracy is the Best Form of Democracy

Conceiving of the relationship between public space and positions of power as a hall of mirrors.

"The Nation Room" (Paulo Moreira).

Let’s say you’re a pirate and you want to design an embassy, which you would use to: a) reproduce the symbols of national sovereignty; b) while challenging ideas about public authority and the normal jurisdiction of the state; c) preen, strut, store expensive things, and maybe do a little spying with CCTV cameras?  You’d want talk to Kiluanji Kia Henda and Paulo Moreira, because they’ve just built something similar in The Nation Room – Embassy of No Land. As their title suggests, these guys have constructed a diplomatic office that doesn’t claim allegiance to a particular time or place. Instead, their embassy is offered as a rehearsal space, where the postures of governing authorities can be studied, debated, and perverted. The fact that it’s installed in a Portuguese palace from the 18th century just makes it more fun, and a bit more pointed.

Henda is an Angolan visual artist­ — we wrote about the way he uses photographs as “pliable fictions” when he turned Luanda into the launch center for Angola’s mission to the sun (here and here). Moreira is a Portuguese architect who studies urban regeneration in Luanda — his interview with the curators of the Angolan pavilion in Venice is here. Their collaboration at the Lisbon Architecture Triennale goes a long way in an otherwise largely Eurocentric meeting of the minds (full disclosure: I’m also a participant).

Within the room, a few permanent props encourage participants to consider the shortcomings of established forms of popular rule. A voting booth asks visitors to tick a box for or against democracy (and runs all the answers through a shredder); a black and white collage documents an impossible rally­­­­­­, which references fascist protagonists and post-colonial state at the same time. Beyond these props, the embassy is an assembly hall designed to give activists of varying political persuasions a new audience. Optimistically this is a public audience, but it’s also a time for activists to look at themselves.

The Nation Room conceives of the relationship between public space and positions of power as a hall of mirrors. Covered in reflective surfaces, the voting booth, high chair, and negotiating table invite monitoring, surveillance, and certain spectacles. For example, participants can only see themselves in an executive-style portrait if they stand up on the table or chair (positions which, given the context, signal great charisma, vanity, or desperation). And those that choose to sit on the table for a more friendly chat can’t see themselves as the head of a spidery mass of legs. During the opening week, when an international NGO ignored the design of the room and instead plastered the mirrored table with pamphlets on how you, a visitor to an art show, could sponsor African children and pay for their private schools, it was an instant parody of participation and engagement. Of course other residents at the embassy have been more intentional. Candidato Vieira (aka Portugal’s Stephen Colbert and wannabe frontrunner in the country’s 2011 presidential elections) reminded his audience that Democracy is the best form of Democracy, before his speech devolved into a maddening audio feedback loop.

Regardless of the participants’ behavior, the embassy passively interrogates the roles material, corporeal, psychic, and aesthetic concerns play in the political process. Some questions should be asked directly though. For example, if The Nation Room is a political act, who or what does it threaten? We’re glad that the embassy has a wing online, so that questions about representation and authority can be engaged after the performances.

I’m also interested to see what will be done about the space between audio-visual experiences in the palace, and their transition to mediated online forms. On that note, it’s worth remembering that evangelical communities have been some of the most successful adopters of digital communication technologies. Consider for example, the massively successfully Brazilian and Nigerian televangelist networks, which talk politics as they offer to heal the terminally ill through prayer. Certainly, these leaders are controversial, and their “miracles” are often described as clever editing. Yet, someone like TB Joshua is said to have more power with African leaders and publics than the President of the African Union. How would The Embassy of No Land change if religious activists were participating? And where do we have a critical conversation about the role of religion in government?

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.