Daniel Bejar: Going Public

Daniel Bejar is a multi-disciplinary artist whose work exemplifies a new trend that is commonly referred to as “social practice art.”  His work addresses issues that are relevant to our current political moment, and is intended to ignite renewed political engagement and activism.  With the highly anticipated midterm elections approaching in November, the site-specific installations in this exhibit invites us to reflect upon the power of language and systems of mapping and naming, and challenges us to reclaim these same structures of power to assert our own political agency.

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Rec-elections (“The Issue is Privilege”), site-specific installation, Westchester Community College, 2018

Rec-elections (2012 – ongoing)
For these large-scale posters (designed specifically for this space) the artist has appropriated slogans from historical United States Presidential campaigns and dislocated them from their original context.   By removing the images that grounded the slogans in a specific political ideology, the words assert their own forceful presence, and become receptive to alternative meanings and more nuanced interpretations.  In so doing, the artist encourages us to see the slogans in a new light, and to reflect upon their meaning in a changing political landscape.

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Daniel Bejar, Rec-elections, site-specific installation, Westchester Community College, 2018

“These are not ordinary times” is the first poster we encounter as we enter the gallery space.  It seems to speak directly to our current political moment, yet it was actually taken from Robert F. Kennedy’s announcement of his candidacy for president in 1968, a time of considerable social and political unrest.  It is sobering to think that political divisiveness is not unique to our own time.  In 1972 Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign expressed a similar sense of urgency with the slogan “Now More Than Ever,” and in 1980 Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan proclaimed “The Time is Now.”

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John L. Magee, “Southern Chivalry – Argument versus Club’s,” 1856. Lithograph depicting Preston Brooks’ attack on Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber. Image source: Digital Commonwealth, accessed September 28, 2016, https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:9880wb139.

FreemanYale historian Joanne B. Freeman has written extensively about how physical violence was a common occurrence on the floors of Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War – most famously when Representative Preston Brooks (Democrat, South Carolina) used a cane to attack Senator Charles Sumner (Republican, Massachusetts) over the issue of slavery.  Our politics, indeed, have never been peaceful:   McCarthyism in the 1950s, race riots, mass protests, and political assassinations in the 1960s, and the Watergate scandal in the 1970s are just a few examples of historical moments that might be compared to our current political reality.  Such an historical perspective might lead us to ask:   Are we witnessing an historical aberration – a time that is truly “not ordinary” — or could it be that what we are experiencing is just the normal unfolding of democracy as a form of ongoing political struggle?  I am reminded of President Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in 2008, where he described democracy as a process in which we continually strive for a “more perfect union,” suggesting that democracy, by its very definition, is not a finished product, but a work in progress.

Yet a common thread that seems to run through many of the campaign slogans in the exhibition is an appeal to a “more perfect” past that has somehow been lost.  The artist refers to this as the “weaponization of nostalgia,” referencing the way campaign slogans work to frame a current state of crisis by invoking an ideal past when America was somehow better, more unified, more at peace.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” slogan from his 1980 presidential campaign (which may sound familiar, because it was modified to the “Make America Great Again” slogan for Donald Trump’s more recent presidential campaign.)  The slogan would seem to suggest that America was once great, but is not great anymore — which begs the question:  when was America great?   Was it before the Civil War, when slavery was the law?  Was it before women gained the right to vote?  Was it before Brown v. Board of Education, when American schools were segregated, or when the Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting?   Seen in this light, we become aware of how political campaigns, regardless of party, often promote a sense of urgency by promising a return to a “more perfect union” that may never have existed, but that we feel has somehow been taken away from us.

The slogans also make us acutely aware of the partisan nature of political discourse, and of our response to it.  Take for example the slogan “Give the Presidency Back to the People.”  This was Eugene McCarthy’s campaign slogan for his primary campaign against Robert Kennedy.  After Kennedy was assassinated, McCarthy went on to run against Hubert Humphrey, and lost.  McCarthy was a Democrat, but his slogan is similar to Republican George Wallace’s 1968 primary campaign slogan “Trust the People.”  Both seem to promote democratic values no American would question.  Yet inserted into our own political moment, they take on different meanings, depending upon which party is speaking:  spoken by a Trump supporter, the words “Give the Presidency Back to the People” might sound confrontational to an opponent of his agenda; and conversely, the same words spoken by a Hillary Clinton supporter might infuriate a supporter of Donald Trump.

So where does this leave us?  The cacophony of political slogans might make us feel overwhelmed, and incapable of entering into productive political discourse.  But Daniel Bejar is a firm believer in democracy as a process of civic engagement, and ongoing political struggle.  Rather than suggesting that we be skeptical of political slogans and aspirations, he invites us to reclaim them as our own, and to re-insert them into political discourse in order to achieve a “more perfect union” that may not exist now, and may not have existed in the past, but could someday become our reality.

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Rec-elections (Let’s make America great again, Isabel González), 2016. Lenticular print mounted on sintra

A perfect example is Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” poster.  The original poster featured a black and white portrait of Reagan with his campaign slogan, while his campaign pins featured a lenticular image that showed only the campaign slogan from one angle, and the portrait would appear when viewed from another angle.  In Bejar’s version of the poster and the pin (both lenticular images), the portrait that emerges is not Ronald Reagan, but Isabel Gonzàlez, a Puerto Rican activist who helped pave the way for Puerto Rican citizenship in the United States.  For the artist (who is of Puerto Rican descent), it is people like Isabel Gonzàlez who have made America “great.”  Through this simple gesture of altering a political poster, the artist has changed the terms of the discourse, and inserted his own values into the dialogue.

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Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan giving a speech on Labor Day in 1980 from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. (AP Photo/Walt Zeboski)

Interestingly, a conservative group that calls themselves “The Becoming American Initiative” has done something quite similar.  On July 3, 2018 the group launched an ad featuring Ronald Reagan’s 1980 Labor Day speech, which he delivered from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of liberty in the background (the ad was aired on July 3 and 4 on Fox and Friends, and MSNBC’s Morning Joe).  It was a powerfully pro-immigrant speech, championing the role of immigrants in making America “great.” In one memorable passage, Reagan even recycled the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech of 1961:

“Through this Golden Door has come millions of men and women. These families came here to work. Others came to America and often harrowing conditions. They didn’t ask what this country could do for them but what they could do to make this refuge the greatest home of freedom in history. They brought with them courage and the values of family, work, and freedom. Let us pledge to each other that we can make America great again.”

This is another example of using political speech to challenge political speech, and to change the terms of the discourse.  The Becoming American Initiative has reclaimed Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan to counter the anti-immigrant policies implicit in Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, and to actively engage in the ongoing political dialogue that is the essence of democracy as a “work in progress.”

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Rec-elections (Give the Presidency back to the people.) . Site-specific intervention (Washington D.C.), protest posters, photographic documentation, 2017

And this is exactly the kind of political engagement that Daniel Bejar is seeking to promote in his Rec-elections project.  The posters are meant to be incitements to action — in fact, copies of the “Give the Presidency Back to the People” poster are arranged in a stack on the floor of the gallery, inviting visitors to take one.  It is an invitation to political engagement, and to reclaiming political speech as your own.

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Rec-elections (False Flag), site-secific installation, Westchester Community College, 2018

Rec-elections (False Flag) 2017
False Flag is a slightly different take on presidential campaign slogans.  In this work, the artist took an actual American flag, and re-arranged the stars to spell out the word “FAKE.”  The inspiration for the work was a flag that Abraham Lincoln altered for his presidential re-election campaign in 1864.  The campaign took place during the Civil War, when the issue of slavery had driven the nation to arms, and after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863.   For his campaign flag, Lincoln re-arranged 35 stars (with an extra star anticipating the addition of Nevada as a new state) to spell the word “FREE,” proclaiming his party’s opposition to slavery.  For those who opposed Lincoln’s views, the altered flag no doubt appeared to be an affront (though it was quite common to use altered flags for political campaigns in those days).  Yet in retrospect, our nation has come to embrace the concept of racial equality that the flag now represents.

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A 35-Star “free” Abraham Lincoln campaign flag, 1864. “Thirty-five stars arranged to spell “FREE” proclaim the Republican Party’s opposition to slavery during the Civil War and, with the extra star, anticipates the addition of Nevada as a new state.” George Washington University, collection of Mark and Rosalind Shenkman

Bejar’s False Flag expresses a very different sentiment.  Instead of the word FREE, the stars (this time 50 of them) spell out the word FAKE – a term that our current president claims to have invented, and that he uses frequently to discredit the news media, and facts that do not support his agenda.  The work is unapologetically critical, and as such takes its place in a long history of artists who have used the flag to express controversial points of view.  One of the most notable examples was Dread Scott’s What is the Proper Way to Display a Flag?, an installation piece that was exhibited in February 1989 when the artist was a student at the Chicago Institute of Art.  It consisted of an American flag laid out on the floor, above which were mounted pictures of flag-draped soldiers’ coffins, and a shelf with a book that invited visitors to record their thoughts about the proper way to display the flag.  However, in order to write in the book, the visitor would have to step on the flag.

What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?

Dread Scott, What is the Proper Way to Display a Flag? 1989

The work provoked protests, and eventually prompted the Chicago City Council to pass an ordinance banning flag desecration.  But the ACLU responded, and the case wound up in court.  Judge Kenneth L. Gillis ruled that the ordinance was unconstitutional because:  “when the flag is displayed in a way to convey ideas, such display is protected by the First Amendment.” He added that “[f]or every artist who paints our flag into a corner, there are others who can paint it flying high.”

As this example illustrates, artists have chosen to use the American flag to make political statements for a reason:  because it embodies the very freedoms that our nation is founded upon, and to exercise those freedoms is not only an assertion of First Amendment rights:  it is in its own way a display of patriotic pride.

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Get Lost! (NYC). Site-specific intervention, 2009 – ongoing

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Get Lost! 2012
We use maps to navigate to and from places; but who makes the maps, and who decides the place names that we need to find our way?  In this work, the artist took the familiar MTA New York City subway map, and removed all the place names and streets – restoring it to what it would have looked like before colonization, when the region was inhabited by Native American tribes whose place names and ways of navigation have long since been erased.  He then re-inserted these maps into selected locations in the New York City subway system, which undoubtedly confused many travelers who would have found the maps useless for finding their way.

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Get Lost! (Breuckelen), site-specific intervention, 2009 –

The artist also used printed stickers to restore original place names on subway signs, exposing the layers of colonization that have mapped and re-mapped the region through the ages:  Manahatta was the original Lenni Lenape name for Manhattan, meaning “land of many hills”; Brooklyn was originally Breukelen, when the Dutch established the colony of New Amsterdam; the name Bronx originated with Jonas Bronck, who established a colony in 1639, and Staten Island was originally named “Staaten Eylandt” by Henry Hudson in 1609.  The artist placed these altered place names in subway stations throughout the city, providing, as he explains, “a glimpse of the city’s layered native, colonial, and military histories.”

Political slogans are written by politicians, and maps are drawn by people in power.  But what if “we the people” appropriate political slogans for our own purposes – and what if we re-draw the maps?  There is a consistent emphasis on individual agency and activism that informs Daniel Bejar’s projects, and that grounds them in a commitment to the individual as an agent of social change.

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Daniel Bejar, RE-districting (New York State Senate District 20), (installation detail, The Drawing Center, NYC) 2017

Re-districting (New York State Senate District 20) 2017
This last piece represents a continuation of the theme of “mapping,” and brings it into the present day, where the early English and Dutch settlers have been replaced by political parties vying for dominance.  Like the native inhabitants that came before us, the artist suggests, we might feel similarly powerless over the systems of power that decide our fates.

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RE-districting (New York State Senate District 20) (screenshot of GPS data from performance imported into Google Earth), 2017

To create this work, the artist used a GPS device to record a 32-mile walk that he took following the contours of the New York State Senate District 20 in Brooklyn, where he resides.  The district has been nicknamed “The Steam Shovel District” because of its odd resemblance to a large excavating machine.

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Daniel Bejar, RE-districting (New York State Senate District 20), site-specific installation, Westchester Community College, 2018

Inspired by large scale drawings in the landscape, such as ancient Nasca lines, the artist viewed the work as a kind of “drawing” – one that could only be seen from the air – and he endeavored to approximate this “bird’s eye view” by printing the GPS map in a large scale decal attached to the gallery floor.  But the work is also intended to call attention to the highly controversial practice of “gerrymandering” (used by Republicans and Democrats alike), where voting districts are carved out for the sole purpose of winning elections.  Like the “mapping” of New York City by its early settlers, the inhabitants of these artificially constructed political districts would seem to have little say in the procedure – except Daniel Bejar believes in the power of individual agency, and his map is designed to raise awareness, and to promote change through the most democratic process available to us:  the vote.

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Zellnor Myrie, winner of the Democratic primary for New York Senate District 20

Soon after Bejar’s work was installed, the primary elections in Brooklyn were held – and the winning candidate was Zellnor Myrie, a progressive newcomer who has promised to make changes in his district.  Myrie has been compared to similar progressive newcomers like Julia Salazar and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, who represent an insurgent wave of grassroots politicians who may have the power to re-draw the maps of political power in our nation.  They are winning elections because they are reaching people who don’t usually vote.  Daniel Bejar is hoping to reach the same people, and to give them the tools to advocate for themselves.  Will you take up the challenge of helping to make “a more perfect union”?

Recommended Resources:
For more information on congressional violence and the use of flags in art, I recommend the following resources:

Anika Burgess, “Presidential Campaigns of the 1800s Involved a Surprising Amount of Flags and Throw Pillows,” Oct 26, 2016
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/presidential-campaigns-of-the-1800s-involved-a-surprising-amount-of-flags-and-throw-pillows

Joanne B. Freeman, “Opinion:  The Violence at the Heart of Our Politics,” New York Times, September 7, 2018
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/07/opinion/sunday/violence-politics-congress.html

“Desecrating the American Flag,” Art On Trial:  The Arts, the First Amendment, and the Courts, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression
https://www.tjcenter.org/ArtOnTrial/flag.html

Caroline Goldstein, “This Independence Day, See How 15 Artists Have Reinterpreted the American Flag Throughout History, July 4, 2018, Artnet news, https://news.artnet.com/art-world/american-flag-art-independence-day-1308938

Kelly Grovier, “Controversial depictions of the US flag in Art,” 31 August 2018, BBC online, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180831-controversial-depictions-of-the-us-flag-in-art

Paul Laster, “The American Flag in Contemporary Art,” July 2014, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art
https://whitehotmagazine.com/articles/american-flag-in-contemporary-art/3003

Murray White, “Stars and Stripes?  Whatever:  six times artists subverted the American flag,” 2 Dec 2016, The Guardian
https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/dec/02/artists-american-flag-jasper-johns-dread-scott

 

 

 

 

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