A space constructed with the intention to hold and analyze art must be planned with wandering viewers in mind. A museum is just this; a theatre for the visual, where a painting, sculpture, or other piece may perform it’s play in an uninterrupted place. With careful architecture and interior design many exhibitions are placed in proximity to each other and manage to stay separate. They can coexist without intermingling meanings. The lines between are clear cut and definable: here is a modern wing, over there baroque, and in another location a film show.
What happens when a space is unsuccessful in retaining the individual forms of it’s exhibits? Naturally, the mind begins to see ties between them. It compares and contrasts the elements it experiences as together. It constructs a story that may never have been imagined by the individual displays alone.
And so it is at the Dox museum. The show I was intending to see was Modes of Democracy, an examination of the multiple forms and plethora of content that Democracy has evolved into since the ancient greeks first coined the term and developed the idea contained within it. The exhibit itself is split into eight different sections, each entering the subject at a unique angle: from environmental issues to internet voting.
Another exhibit up at the time, of interest but not the intended focus, was about the satirical magazine: Charlie Hebdo, aptly named Journal (Ir)Responsible. Most of the world is aware of the massacre that took place at their editing office early in 2015. It sparked an internet wildfire, the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie or, #IAmCharlie. All around the globe solidarity meetings were staged and love sent to Paris. The exhibit at Dox displays the controversial covers and articles printed from the magazine’s inception in the late 60’s to the straw that broke the camels back. Images of Muhammad saying uninspiring bits of text instigated the murders by Muslim extremists of several of the magazine’s staff and a receptionist of their building.
Walking in and immediately being searched by two armed security guards. I feel secure but somehow stunted. Of course, it’s only expected: after what happened in Paris it makes sense to have guards positioned at the entrance and throughout the museum, bags thoroughly looked through, and bodies felt for contraband. But what does that do to a sense of freedom? Knowing that you’re being watched changes your behavior, the Observation effect on a grand scale. Past the entrance fee and coatcheck there are gray arrows painted on the walls; this way to Modes of Democracy, that way to Journal (Ir)Responsible. They point in the same direction. Following the arrows I arrive first in a space dedicated to discussing the surveillance state.
Foucault’s design for a prison is present. Wherein omnipotent guards, or even more inscrutable and objective eyes, those of cameras, may watch every inmate all day every day with maximum ease and effect. Laura Poitras, the publisher of the Snowden interviews, which illuminates the availability of supposedly private information to the United State’s National Security Agency, is also present in this section. The questions come, drifting from the ether of art into the matter of mind: does surveillance limit one’s free speech? One’s freedom of action? Are these not cornerstones of Democracy? How is it possible to call a nation democratic if it’s citizens minds and bodies are not free to roam in their own self-propelled direction?
My own self-propelled direction takes me next to the Icelandic Constitution, a few rooms and followed arrows away from Foucault and Poitras. Here, I meet almost all of Iceland’s constituents by reading their, mostly unanimous and utterly revolutionary, re-vision of their country. A large room with a dull pink rectangle taking up most of two walls and a projection being played on a third. The fourth is left blank: a space for pondering, a place for eyes to rest after reading a text so unfamiliar and astounding. Curvy black script sprawls across the pink -the words of a new wave of humanity, the video shows the people of Iceland singing their national anthem – the music included in the wave.
Coming from America, I was surprised, even at the Czech example of Vaclav Havel. A poet-playwrite-politician-president? Impossible! It’s arguable that even in it’s beginning, American Democracy was a sham. The Declaration of Independance and the Constitution did not apply to a large number of people: africans were imported as a product, native americans slaughtered, and women shamed. The Czech Republic, however, had to start their democracy fresh. From scratch. With a vision saturated by centuries of outside oppression. Finally free to begin an earnest attempt at creating their own order, perhaps their sense of approaching ideals like freedom and liberty can catch things American eyes easily glide over.
Coming from America, to a country whose favorite president is more than a few of my favorite things, to this crowdsourced constitution stands in direct contradiction my understanding of democracy in practice. Compared to that, this proposed constitution is a poem in and of itself. Article Seven, all shall inherit the right to life at birth. Article Twelve, a child shall be guaranteed the right to express its opinions in all instances concerning it. Natural resources are public property. It goes on. It’s entirely is unimagined in America, the self-proclaimed “protector” of democracy. Although the crowdsourced constitution failed, it’s inception at all is inspiring. Leaving the room, a swell of pride and gratitude for humanity washes the bad taste of surveillance from my tongue.
But again, questions, always questions. Why didn’t this inclusive and genuinely kind attempt to better the world fail? Is it because democracy has been corrupted everywhere? Or is this kind of optimism truly not in the reach of modern society to actualize? Is violence and war, as many authors and intellectuals (including Havel) suggest, the necessary pain required for transcendence? How can that be true if certain individuals bear the weight of the majority of that suffering? Is this what democracy should be?
Meandering through the rest of the exhibits and one question comes up again and again. Which arrow points where? Am I being guided through this labyrinth or am I to guide myself? Finally the answer is made clearer when I arrive at a wide ramp and am again searched for weapons. I don’t know where I’m going but I go and I find at the top a room filled with Charlie Hebdo covers. The end of the entrance message from the Dox team reads, “The intent of this exhibit is to allow the Czech public to form it’s own opinion of the magazine, it’s attitudes, ideas, and humor.”
They are not easy to read. Nothing is sacred, nothing inviolable. Everything up for humiliation, for critique that goes beyond constructive and verges into cruel. Je ne suis pas Charlie. Maybe I understand their attempts at loosening the world’s grip on outdated and destructive organized religion, and certainly this does not merit a death sentence. But there is not an ounce of respect. There is not an iota of compassion for anyone, anything, or any situation. If you hate everyone equally, there can be no -ism attached to the hatred. No racism, sexism, ableism.
Neither the French nor the Czech language has a phrase or tense for, “should.” But going through this exhibit, watching the heartfelt beliefs of millions of people being mocked, I think, “this should not be.” And maybe in the world that Charlie Hebdo is trying to create there would, indeed, be no reason for such insulting commentary. I do not know the answer but I do know (some of) the questions:
When free speech turns into hate speech, what is the best way to respond?
When democratic ideologies become caricatures of their former selves, why hold on to them anymore than the religions they persecute?
Was it the intention of the curators of the Dox museum to send their viewers through a maze so that these questions of tolerance, respect, and freedom are almost impossible to arrive at? This is the true importance of Democracy, a fearlessness in questioning. Charlie Hebdo was not questioning but stating and outright ridiculing sacred laws and stories. Modes of Democracy examines the ways in which Democracy can go very right and very wrong. Taken together, as a whole, it forms an energized picture of the state of mind my world lives in: schizophrenic and struggling towards (or away from) peace. Taken together, as an individual entity of art, it gives life to necessary questions that must be asked by all who live in this world and wish to see an era of true prosperity and genuine happiness for humankind and our environment.
Love From Prague,