Democracia is a Madrid-based open-end collective forming around Iván López & Pablo España, who base their artistic practice on the research of collectivity and discourse, dissensus and conflict. Since 2006 the collective has worked with different artists and nonartists to reflect on the crucial socio-political problems of our times, especially focusing on the fight against the Spanish state. Their main influence being the Situationist International, anarchist movements, and Neue Slowenische Kunst, they define themselves as both activists and artists and not one or the other. I visited Democracia’s latest exhibition in Mataro, a small coastal town next to Barcelona. Set in the first Spanish panoptikon shaped prison dating back to 1851, it now hosts MAC Mataro, a local centre for contemporary art. The exhibition curated by Becky Haghpanah-Shirwan, the Director of a/political, who produced the project, presents Democracia’s ‘Order’, an opera in three acts.
Before going after Order, let us touch your earlier work and talk about where everything started. In one of your projects you republished the banned book ‘Against Democracy’. Since you describe yourself as anarchists, what is your position on democracy?
We understand democracy as the most sophisticated system of domination ever developed.
Does the group name come from an actual Graeberian stance and wish for a new direct democracy or is it rather a cynical critique of said system? Furthermore, can you describe how Democracia started and what are the basic premises of your practice?
When we first decided to use the name Democracia, our intention was to create a kind of “brand”. We considered Democracia a word that had been emptied, a meaningless signifier, in whose name anything could be justified, even its opposite. We could say that it responds to a cynical use of the word to the same extent that the term is cynically used by power. On one hand, our own name states a course of action, which implies a reflection on power. If we can somehow go to the core of what Democracy is, we would say that our work is that of agitation and propaganda, a propaganda against the hegemonic propaganda that constitutes a definite and unified vision of the world. Democracia started right after the El Perro collective split. El Perro ended due to individual differences that interfered negatively with the collective process. Whereas El Perro was a collective that closed itself off to other members, Democracia is way more open. Characterized by a purely functional division of roles, it allows everyone plenty of individual freedom.
Would you abolish the NSK State in Time too?
The NSK is precisely a tool to question the state from the very moment when its citizens freely adhere to it. Having a dual Spanish-NSK nationality, we can tell you that today the Spanish state is much more harmful to our lives than the NSK. But of course, once all the other states are abolished, we can culminate in the abolition of the NSK, even if it is only for a purely formal matter.
Order, your latest piece, is an opera in three acts. Your ouvre spans over various forms of performance, text and other media with inconsistent aesthetics. Why such a wide span? What leads you to a choice of the form of presentation of an idea? And if we dare to dig even deeper into Mcluhan’s thought “The medium is the message”, why did you choose the medium of art in your activism at all? Where do you see the border between art and activism?
Our practice has always been multidisciplinary, formalization is always subordinated to the idea. Usually, this variety of means is associated with projects that involve some type of action that is recorded, in those cases we show the documentation of the action (filmed and photographed) and the tools related to the development of the action. McLuhan began by saying “The Medium Is The Message” but ended up saying “The Medium Is The Massage”, maybe there’s the answer. Our practice has also always been aimed at occupying spaces other than those of art and was always influenced by other aspects of life that are not art. So, the question of borders for us has always been a question to problematize. Sometimes we are on the side of art and other times we are on the side of activism by engaging with social movements.
Another important question would be to make the difference between politically themed art and politically produced art. Art with a political theme is fully accepted by the art system within the idea of freedom of expression, but in non-market contexts, political art is more powerful, as it is produced in a context of wider struggles that seek to be transformative.
The specificity of your opera is that it is performed in public/private space in which it intervenes unexpectedly. We can see some reactions of the affected crowds, but what were the reactions we can’t see on the video? Did you get any aggressive reactions while driving around Houston and how did the dinner crowd react when faced with the fact they were recorded?
Those reactions remain in the moment of the action. For us, an action reaches its full meaning in the moment of its creation. Its filming, although it has an audiovisual narration, is not more than a mere document of something that happened. There were aggressive reactions too. As for the dinner crowd reaction, guests already knew they were going to be recorded although they did not know what was going to happen. Reactions varied from surprise, acceptance to disappointment and neat rejection. We haven’t had any legal problems so far. We believe some of the guests have seen it already although we haven’t seen most of them again and consequently do not have their feedback.
The opera’s libretto was written by Ivan’s father and is based on Hesiod’s didactic poem ‘Work and Days’. Do you usually work with appropriation? Are “Eat the Rich” and “Kill the Poor” appropriated slogans too?
This is not really a clear example of appropriation. The libretto was written specifically for Order and the reference to Hesiod ‘Works and Days’ is only an inspiration inside the writer’s head when writing. However, on other occasions we do use appropriation, as a tool, after all art is a toolbox. For example, without going any further, ‘Against Democracy’, which you mentioned, is nothing more than the appropriation of a banned book, or the project ‘All the Dead’, which consists of a public exhibition of a collection of historical anarchist flags. “Eat the Rich”, is basically a shortened meaning of Rousseau’s words “When the people shall have no more to eat, they will eat the rich.“ and in popular culture, “Eat the Rich” is the title of a Motorhead song and “Kill the poor” comes from the famous Dead Kennedys song.
We see New Black Panthers protesting bearing posters with your slogans in the first act of Order, a children’s choir in the second – one is perceived as a hate group, the other a group of innocent children. How do you choose the people or groups you work with on specific projects – is there any limits? Do you feel your collective expands for each project with guest collaborators?
Maybe that’s why we’re interested in art as a medium, because it’s always pushing the boundaries. The collective does expand, yes. Every time a new project is developed there are new people who are integrated in one way or another in the processes of Democracia.
Do you think you created a real Gesamtkunstwerk?
If we have created it, we are not aware of it, nor was it our intention.
What are your future plans?
To Enjoy The Collapse.