“Democracy is messy. Everyday my life is messy. But if you want everything to be quiet and orderly and allow, you know, just things to proceed without vigorous debate, that is not what democracy is about.” Bernie Sanders, May 2016.
In a recent experiment at the University of Central Lancashire a group of students took over creative control of the Hanover Project space, deciding what work to show and how to use the gallery. Entering on the penultimate day of Messy Democracy, I was struck by the unorthodox nature of the show. The usual conventions of ‘fine art exhibitions’ such as neat presentation and a final selection of work were largely discarded in favour of an unfinished feel, highly appropriate to the principle of ‘ongoing collaboration’ upon which the project was based.
This theme of continuous development was the driving aspect of Messy Democracy, and grew out of a series of student workshops held over the course of April 2018. The strongest example of this reflected within the exhibition itself was probably the large roll of cartridge paper hanging on the wall opposite the entrance (the first thing to catch my attention in the crowded space) with the message: “IT’S OKAY TO BE HONEST. TELL ME WHY YOU ARE ANGRY.”
The presumption of anger on the part of the viewer was evidently a highly effective device for soliciting interesting responses. By the time I saw it, there was a spectrum of grievances ranging from the off-beat: “Because everyone else is so angry. Including myself,” to the shockingly blunt, but hopelessly vague: “Because we’re all fucked if things don’t change soon.”
There were even – perhaps inevitably – points at which dialogue emerged between the different ‘entries’. One person wrote: “’cause everybody likes moaning and not doing owt,” and another responded by drawing an arrow pointing to their original comment and writing: “how do you know? you’re writing on here as well!”
Could this piece have been a subtle statement intended to hold up a mirror to the audience and reveal the absurdity of their grievances when subject to analysis? Or was it simply a device for engaging the viewers on a personal and emotional level? Though the answer was unclear, the original question seemed to achieve both. In the end, what each viewer took from the piece was as personal and contingent as what they may have added.
One person wrote: “What you say and what you do are two different things. I’m not angry, you make me furious.” For me, this raised the question: ‘Is there anybody of whom this is not true?’
In front of this wall of anger and reflection was another piece which – it would seem – worked in much the same way, just in a different medium. An assortment of copper pipes dangling from a wooden frame functioned as a make-shift musical instrument with an additional piece to be used as a stick for playing it. Just as the viewers expressed themselves in words with the large roll of cartridge paper, they could engage, perhaps in a more direct way, with this piece – contributing to the show with pure sound.
As a whole, Messy Democracy was evidence of an extremely democratic process. Although it may have lacked a coherent structure by traditional standards, this was perhaps its most important, fundamental statement. A democratic process is unlikely to be clean and tidy but is – ultimately – the only way to faithfully reflect the feelings of any diverse group of people.