Interview: ‘Democracy’ by Sara Rees

 

The original intention for Sara Rees’ latest conceptual installation, ‘Democracy’, was to stage it in a closed shop. There were going to be no lights on and just a pile of placards on the floor, reminders of revolutions and demonstrations past, because according to Rees, as far as democracy goes ‘we are shutting up shop’. Ironically, when circumstances dictated that she host the event in Cardiff’s Queens Arcade shopping centre rather than on Roath’s downmarket City Road, the lights came on figuratively as well as literally.

The caveat for the presence of ‘Democracy’ in the midst of the marketplace – a throwback, as Rees reminds me, to the Athenian origins of the concept – was that the shop be open for business. At first, Rees admits to ‘sulking’: ‘I thought this just ruins my idea – it’s not the same metaphor.’ But soon necessity became the mother of invention and ‘Democracy’ began to subvert the language of consumerism in a much more inventive way.

When I arrived at the shop a few days before meeting Rees, I was greeted by a young volunteer in a black t-shirt, the simple word ‘Democracy’ emblazoned across it in bold white letters, matching the simple branding above the door. ‘Are you happy with your current Democracy provider?’ she asked. It is an important, timely question, but asked in the manner of the many product-and-service-botherers who block your path on any busy city centre pedestrianised thoroughfare, it also becomes banal. No wonder many of the project’s approachees gave Rees and her volunteers a wide berth.

‘Democracy’ by Sara Rees

But this is no shallow art-prank. By tapping into the language of the mobile phone shop, Rees hopes to show how the worlds of politics and consumerism have become blurred. ‘A provider,’ she says, ‘is totally antithetical to the idea of Democracy. In Western liberal democracies, the consumer is inculcated in us. We have been sold the idea that democracy and capitalism, with its consumer culture, goes together like horse and carriage. It is our mode of being.’

Rees confides that having spent nine days in the ‘rarefied atmosphere of a shopping centre’ is ‘terrifying.’ Part of the terror is just witnessing ‘the consumer on a mission, in full zombie mode.’ By branding themselves, the ‘Democracy’ team faced the constant assumption that they were trying to sell something, and time and again, when confronting shoppers about their attitudes to democracy, faced an attitude of ‘Hey, I’m shopping… don’t waste my time!’ But even more scary for Rees was the number of adults she encountered who had simply never heard of democracy.

‘There were those who said things like, “I don’t vote because my parents don’t vote,” and general apathy, which we expected. But I was shocked that there were people who had never even heard the word.’ This is where ‘Democracy’ goes beyond being a conceptual art project and becomes useful social research. Although this was not the original intention, the project’s capturing of the views of over 500 people, totally at random, will be forwarded to the Welsh Assembly. ‘If they’re not interested in this,’ says Rees of the book in which people were invited to submit their views about democracy, ‘then what are they interested in?’

But the issues ‘Democracy’ has thrown up, for the artist, have their roots in class, and education. ‘Of the people who had never heard of democracy, 100% were lower class,’ she says. ‘Lower class,’ she is careful to emphasise, ‘rather than working class.’ Rees does not explain what social-scientific measures were used in establishing the stratification-status of passers-by, but her hypothesis is interesting, as is her nomenclature. ‘If you think that people are upper class and middle class, then the obvious next label would be lower. But nobody wants to be called lower class; working class had some dignity to it.’

‘The fact is, now, in the UK, there is no party to represent ‘working people’. None of the options represent them, and in a first past the post system we are always going to get this double bind of strategic voting. People vote to keep the Tories out, or Labour out. They are not voting for what they want, but what they don’t want. Or not at all. That’s why I believe democracy is in crisis.’ So despite the ‘findings’ of ‘Democracy’, Sara Rees did begin with a mission. ‘I wanted to explore the ideological basis of this current global financial crisis. Not everyone’s getting hit. The whole system works to support an upper class corporate elite.’

Which brings us, of course, to democracy. It is clear that Rees still believes in democracy but perhaps not in the form we currently have it. She cites the architecture of the Senedd building as a source of hope. ‘It is designed like an agora – literally, an assembly or gathering space. And in Athens, the marketplace was the place of assembly. That’s what we’re proposing with ‘Democracy’, supplanting consumer space with discursive space.’ And interestingly, it is the failures of capitalism that is allowing artists to ask these difficult questions; the use of empty shops for non-commercial purposes is growing. What might their function be?

Already Rees is energised. The conversations engendered by ‘Democracy’ have, she admits, politicised her even more; she is already making plans for a regular political forum. Her previous site-specific work has tended to follow a familiar pattern: the artist arrives, ‘does’ an installation, and then goes away. ‘Democracy’, by its very nature, has turned Rees on to a whole new way of working. I ask if by extension she feels The Artist in general, as well as herself as an artist in particular has a political role in society, and she warms to the theme immediately.

‘It’s a responsibility,’ she says, ‘the artist must be political, especially now.’ She cites a number of her inspirations – the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, the culture jamming activists The Yes Men and English singer-songwriter P.J. Harvey among them – as being at the forefront of addressing ‘the current crisis’. Rees also mentions Apolonija Šušteršic’s  Tiger Bay project at Artes Mundi 5 as further evidence of the need for art that engages people in the political.

As she unlocks her bicycle from a lamppost outside the National Museum, Sara Rees strikes me as a woman on a mission. In her bag there is a folder to be delivered to someone at the National Assembly. ‘Who are you going to give it to?’ I ask, wondering if the democratic survey will be passed to a civil servant or if Rees has been in touch a particular AM. ‘Oh, they don’t know I’m coming,’ she says blithely, then grins: ‘yet.’