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Armory Show Explores 'Democracy in America'

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Democracy in America" — it's a big agenda and it's also the title of a show up this week at the Park Avenue Armory. There's work from more than 40 artists — taking on the political issues of our time. WNYC's Siddhartha Mitter checked it out and has this report.

REPORTER: For his contribution, artist Mark Tribe filmed reenactments of political speeches from the 60s and 70s. He had them delivered by actors in the same location as the originals — such as this one by Angela Davis.

FILM CLIP

REPORTER: Tribe films from a distance, so that what we see on the two huge video screens is not so much the speaker as people at the edge of the audience. Some are listening carefully, but others chat or fiddle with cellphones.

The effect is subtle but unnerving. That's true of several of the most effective pieces in this show. Another is a film by San Francisco-based artist Chris Sollars, who puts his personal struggle on screen.

FILM CLIP

REPORTER: Sollars decides he has to go to Washington to interrogate his sister and find out why she works for the Bush administration.

FILM CLIP

REPORTER: What he finds out is as much about family as it is about politics.

With a theme as vast as "Democracy in America," the specific topics in the show are varied, and so are the results. There's an installation based on guerrilla theater at the Denver and St. Paul conventions. There's art that raises issues of torture, secrecy and covert military operations.

There's also playful stuff like the Tactical Ice Cream Unit, which is a truck that travels the country handing out ice cream and critical ideas. And there are soapboxes that you can stand on and speak your own views to whomever walks by.

It's all a bit helter-skelter, but the show's curator Nato Thompson says he sees a shared sense of urgency.

THOMPSON: The works are much more critical, direct and I think aggressive — and not necessarily cynical, but very worried and very pointed in their critiques.

REPORTER: They're also a refreshing reminder in this election season that political art isn't just campaign imagery. It can still be about ideas. For WNYC I'm Siddhartha Mitter.

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