DEMOCRACIA (2018)

ORDER

A joint commission between A/political and Station Museum of Contemporary Art, Houston.

ORDER. Act I. Eat the Rich/Kill the poor.


ORDER Act I Eat the Rich - Kill the Poor from DEMOCRACIA on Vimeo.

ORDER. Act II. Konsumentenchor.


ORDER Act II Konsumentenchor from DEMOCRACIA on Vimeo.

ORDER. Act III. Dinner at The Dorchester.


ORDER Act III Dinner at The Dorchester from DEMOCRACIA on Vimeo.

ORDER
by Phil Howe

Conversations around Democracia’s ORDER began in 2014, their proposal was to create their own Gesamtkunstwerk (the total artwork), an opus that would comprise a tripartite operatic film and an expansive accompanying installation that would present artefacts, artworks and documentation from the opera in Democracia’s characteristically flawless style. ORDER, originally conceived as a commission that responded to the contemporary social, economic and political order, would become a savage evisceration of unjust capitalism, drawing from diverse inspirations and sources, from lived and shared experiences of the struggle against oppression, to the lyrics of punk songs and poems of the ancient Greeks.

The libretto of ORDER is inspired by Hesiod’s didactic poem Works & Days - in particular, it's telling of the Myth of The Five Ages. Believed to have been written during the ancient Greek agrarian crisis, a time of colonial expansion, debt-slavery and class war, Works & Days bears stark and pertinent correlations to our present context. In the poem, Hesiod details the ‘race of iron’, an age where ‘neither by day can men rest from labour and sorrow, nor by night, as they perish away’. An age where ‘they honor a man who does evil and praise outrage’. Democracia seize this central premise of Hesiod’s poem and transform it into a scathing and effective lyrical treatise on the ills of postmodern society.

ORDER presents in these three acts - Eat the Rich/Kill the Poor; Konsumentenchor; & Dinner at the Dorchester - not only a dramaticized analogue of our reality but carefully engineered interventions in public and private spaces. By taking the opera away from the constrictions of the theatrical medium and its habitual environment - the bourgeois high-art format of grand theatre the piece presents its message through disruption of the cultural grammar of opera.

Democracia wield this medium as a weapon with which its natural audience, the ruling classes, may be pilloried, lambasted and held to account for their actions. The work intersects the well-explored theme of class with a number of other apposite realities of our time. It goads a conflict between parties but asks the audience to understand where the battle lines are drawn.

The opera begins in an abstract moment, with the hum of distortion and near-psychedelic patterns drawn across the screen. It is, in fact, the first protagonist of the film, a Humvee stretch limousine emerging from the longest carwash in the world, where, true to its spectacular scale, there is a spectacular performance of mechanized labour, with multicoloured lights and dyed soaps and detergents that wash over this gigantic and deformed facsimile of the vehicle so popular with American ‘Patriots’. As the Limousine departs, it embarks on a journey into Downtown Houston sweeping past billowing US Flags and gigantic infrastructure projects of the last century. As the scene plays out the significance of this tour of Houston is revealed, written on either side of the limousine in large bold letters are the phrases ‘EAT THE RICH’ and ‘KILL THE POOR’, the potency of this gesture is revealed as the vehicle cruises by the most affluent locations in Houston through to the sites of its most extreme deprivation. The diametrically opposed messages on the limousine get equally extreme responses from the people of Houston, from near elation at the sight of ‘EAT THE RICH’ to visible rage at the sight of ‘KILL THE POOR’. Within the vehicle is Amanda, a character of inherited wealth who lectures musically on the virtues of work from the safety of this provocative gilded limousine. Her beautiful but offensive song emanates through a loudspeaker mounted on top of the vehicle. In her apparent hubris and inherited entitlement, she chides the poor for their inept contribution to the economic system and cheers for their eradication.

The limousine then treads outside of its natural Downtown Bourgoise habitat; the fame flips and suddenly the viewer is transported into an entirely different world. Juxtaposed with this tasteless motorcade is the mise en scene of an armed demonstration by the Huey P. Newton Gun Club of Houston, a group of African American gun rights and radical self-defence activists. This scene is meaningfully tied to recent and historical events and public discourse around statist violence against people of colour in the USA and elsewhere, the aim of the artists here is rather than simply exposing black pain and suffering as if it were somehow just an artistic material, they extrapolate another response to this ongoing injustice that, while perceived by many as polemic and controversial, allows for the manifestation of black power rather than black pain. What is so dutifully spoken here is that riding roughshod at the fringes of our society are those who are most targeted by the systemic and actual violence of the capitalist system and state: they are people of colour from poor backgrounds living in poor neighbourhoods. Democracia, interfere minimally in the activity of this group, their intervention here is the platforming of this empowered collective in the context of the work - they are organised, armed, purposeful, discontented and have distinct agency - and therefore acts as a powerful interruption to the cultural logic of not only of the artwork and its operatic medium but the dominant narratives of profit and exploitation in our society.

Act II. explores the dynamics of contemporary consumerism with its innate drives to devour and deplete in spite of all consequence, something keenly felt in the increasing cataclysm of our ecological environment. A children's choir marches single file into a Dublin shopping centre in full choral Garbe, they sing in unison of their lives as consumers describing themselves as ‘machines of desire’ built to eat the world. The soloist of the group, in the final moments of the scene, declares a new era in which we have ‘got our freedom back’ but that this is ‘the beginning of the iron age of survival’ reflecting a duality between the abundance of capital for a few and a scarcity of means for most. What is most apparent during this very public intervention is just how unmoved the surrounding public is by this disturbance. Perhaps it is the obfuscation of their messages, even the innocence of the choir’s youth, or maybe it is that a shopping spree must go on in the face of all disruption. Even digital billboards that reveal the true meaning of today’s retail therapy do not shake them from their purpose.

In the final act, we see the ultimate confrontation, between the embodiment of the ruthless purveyor of capitalism, who exposes in his celebrations the true cost of his riches, and the brave, indignant waitress who confronts her transgressors with her abject reality. The host of the feast Charles is embedded as within the party as Lisa is embedded as part of the service staff. Charles arrogantly celebrates his ruthlessness and that of his peers and pledges his undying allegiance to “Shiny pure immaterial dough”. Lisa enraged by his celebratory callousness bursts into the dinner party to denounce its founder and guests as “parasites”. She exclaims; “Your order is the chaos” and concedes ‘upon this chaos I will build my house’. Her presence and proclamations reveal the critical mass of oppression of the intersections presented in this work: being of colour, being a woman and being poor. Whereas the intervention of Act II went, fittingly, near unnoticed by its unwitting audience, this action could not be ignored. In this sense of inescapability, the final scene presents a powerful image seldom if ever seen, the white-knuckled, clenched fists of the oppressed shaking in the red faces of their supposedly untouchable oppressors.

So that we can understand the significance of this adoption of opera fully, we should consider its origins, development and meaning in our present context. The genesis of opera can be found in 16th Century Medici controlled Florence. As an art form, it initially emerged as a sort of intermission that sat between, poetic readings, jesters, musical recitals and plays. It was a pastiche of all of these forms, bringing the classical and contemporary arts of the time together in what is considered to be the first appearance of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Opera was formalised as a specific format in the late 16th Century by a group of elite and literate Florentine humanists who assembled under the moniker The Camerata. For this group of patrons the project of opera, as part of the high-renaissance, was to revive the classical Greek drama. The Camerata believed that large parts of these ancient dramas had been sung so the earliest operas are deemed, very much, to be a revival of antiquarian arts, whilst also representing part of the avant-garde of the time. Here, it is worth noting, opera shares a lot of commonalities with what we have come to know as contemporary art. As a specific art form, contemporary art is born of many disciplines and a conceptual grouping of ideas, styles and movements that develop and ratify in the spaces between other established arts.

From its beginnings in the Medici courts through to its present embodiment in lavish theatres, opera became a staple art form of royalty, aristocracy, oligarchy and the upper classes. It is not
only a high art form, however, it forms part of what we can term here as a sociological soft power, a discourse, a space and moment in which the lower classes are generally not able to participate - in many ways this is, again, no different to the majority of the contemporary art system. It reinforces dominant ideologies both in its content, in the substance of the medium and in its habitual environment.

Though not unheard of, opera is seldom used as a tool to critique power directly, perhaps bringing ORDER to a near unique rarified status. In his 1986 autobiography, stage and film director Franco Zeffirelli warned against taking opera too literally, however, did attest to its essential properties and ability to convey personal complexities in the midst of much greater social and political dramatic tapestries:“Short men in armour and large ladies in chiffon singing about ancient Egypt don’t make much sense at one level [but] they can…reveal to us the confusions of emotion and loyalty, the nature of power and pity, that could not be so movingly expressed in any other way.” This is what ORDER brings to us as an audience, not just an exposition on the misadventure of rampant late capitalism, but material insight into thrills and agonies experienced by those who suffer and prosper under it: a milieu of tragedy and farce that could not be conveyed so poignantly otherwise.

Perhaps most compelling in the work of Democracia is their unflinching efforts to speak of the oppression of marginalised groups whilst decentering themselves through the apparent anonymity of their ever expanding and contracting collectivity. Under the moniker of their group and within the auspices of contemporary art, they form together with collaborators to confront and reject the powerful, often within the comfort of their own perceived territory. Standing adrift of many socially and politically engaged artists that are so often critiqued for their closeness to the institutional establishment of the arts and to the corrupt system of capital that supports it; Democracia filter themselves adeptly between these worlds of artistic practice and political praxis.