With 'America on the Brink,' ATHICA offers art a chance to speak out
Chances are you haven't heard of the U.S. Department of Art & Technology. It's pretty likely President Bush isn't too familiar with it either, even though the department's secretary, Randall M. Packer, was "nominated" by the President in 2001, shortly after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, and a speech the President "made" about the U.S. DAT notes Packer is to report directly to him.
Now, Bush might be known for blunders here and there, but in this case his lack of knowledge about the agency isn't an oversight on his part. The U.S. DAT is, instead, a pseudo, or "virtual," agency composed and documented in the work and on the Web site of Packer, a Washington, D.C.-based artist.
Packer is in Athens this week, installing his multi-media work for an exhibition opening Saturday at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art, titled "America on the Brink: A Political Exegesis Under the Aegis of the U.S. Department of Art & Technology."
If the title's a mouthful, the contents of the show (which features work by other artists, from Athens and around the country) are meant to be just that - to urge conversation about the state of our society. It's the result of what Packer notes is "the role of the artist - to enlighten people about the society we're living in."
With his political stance in art, you might suspect Packer to be a fist-thrusting activist. But instead he's amiable, articulate and knowledgeable - he comes off more as diplomat than artist, which in a way, he says, was part of the idea.
When he relocated from San Francisco to Washington in 1999, where his wife works at the National Gallery, Packer considered how his art would reflect his new home, which he notes, is in essence the "stage" of America, with its buildings and symbols, memorials and monuments.
"I was asking myself how the artist fits into this scenario," he says, adding the idea for the U.S. DAT grew from the fact that the U.S. doesn't have a cultural ministry to oversee the arts. "Because of that, we don't have a sense of the role of the artist in our society - people think of artists as 'those who make objects' or provide an aesthetic appeal rather than people who actively play an important analytical role in our culture, to dissect the cultural conditions. Traditionally, artists have been the ones to comment on different angles of issues before other people were even aware of (the issues)."
Along with commenting on the culture as an artist himself, Packer says, "I wanted to establish a relationship between art in mainstream society and the government."
After writing a letter to the president saying as much, Packer received the auto-reply that's sent to the majority of people writing the president. Refusing to accept an auto-reply, he says, he decided to establish the U.S. DAT nonetheless, as a parody of other government agencies, but at the same time, to make an artistic statement.
He says he felt a special urgency for his U.S. DAT project to take shape following 9/11: "It's then that we saw the world was divided, primarily because of cultural divisiveness. And what became the principle theme (for the work) was how the artist can become a mediator."
What's risen to the surface as Packer has explored the current state of society is fundamentalism.
Not just religious fundamentalism, but political fundamentalism, adds fellow artist John Anderson, who, along with Packer, teaches art at American University in Washington, D.C., and is in town with work to be exhibited in the ATHICA show. "This is more a critique of ... voting straight down the ticket, doing what we're told to do instead of what we feel is right," Anderson says.
Religious fundamentalism has its dangers as well, Packer notes - "The Bible was used in the 19th century to justify slavery. We can't even imagine that now."
On that subject, Packer has created a multi-media event in conjunction with the exhibit to take place in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in Athens on Oct. 31. It's one of five tour stops around the country being chronicled by Packer on his blog, www. usdat.us/secretary/archives/orf/. The project, he says, "uses the eyes of the artist to illustrate and illuminate these kinds of dynamics that I think we would all consider outrageous. But when we hold very tightly to our beliefs we become blinded," he says.
As for his work on display at ATHICA, Packer joins other artists to "honor the spirit of dissent at the heart of a healthy democracy," notes "America on the Brink" curator and ATHICA director Lizzie Zucker Saltz.
At the center of the exhibition is Packer's "America's Grave" with its headstone marking the birth of the United States of America on July 4, 1776, its death on Jan. 20, 2005, the date of Bush's inauguration for his second term. Surrounding the stone, television monitors set in the soil feature "all that's left of America, the disembodied voices" of our times, Packer notes, when the media and religion and politics function as propaganda. It's a piece so heavy in meaning, Anderson's constructed a second piece around it, gathering the cacophony of those voices and constructing a narrative around them.
"We're critiquing these fundamental aspects to show why America is on the brink ... and we hope to enlighten people about these aspects of the society in which we live. And that," Packer adds, "is the role of the artist."
'America on the Brink: A Political Exegesis Under the Aegis of the U.S. Department of Art & Technology'
When: Opening reception 7-9 p.m. Saturday; exhibit runs through Nov. 5
Where: ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art, 160 Tracy St.
Call: (706) 208-1613
Details: Opening reception will feature an incendiary musical ritual led by Davey Wrathgabar and a Eulogy for the Nation by U.S. DAT Secretary-at-Large Randall M. Packer
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 090706