The Station Museum of Contemporary Art is exhibiting art collective Democracia’s new work, “ORDER,” an expansive, operatic condemnation of global capitalism and imperialism. The exhibition, opening Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m., will be presented alongside “We Protect You From Yourselves” (2013-2016), a series investigating the image of the riot policeman as one of repression-come-spectacle.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Democracia’s Ivan Lopez and Pablo España recently to ask them questions about their new work and about their famous collective.
Upon entering the Station Museum, I was greeted by a larger-than-life marble statue of a riot policeman, finger to mouth. This ominous figure loomed large over me. Whether they are trying to be helpful or not, the sight of a policeman has always left me with a feeling of unease.
After introductions with Pedro España and Ivan Lopez, we chatted for a bit about the duo’s arduous flight from Madrid the day before jumping into the interview.
Byline Houston: Democracia formed in Madrid, Spain in 2006. What does the creative process, planning and execution generally look like for the collective?
España: The way Ivan and I work, we are kind of the “hardcore” of the group. Of course, the name Democracia implies the structure of our work. Our interests explore power relationships, power structures, antagonisms and so on. In some ways, Ivan and I handle the scheduling and the conceptual framework of the group. We have circles of collaborators, of which includes a circle of regular individuals, designers, filmmakers, writers — the list continues.
There is another circle composed of communities or groups that we collaborate with for specific projects, depending on the project. Teams come and go as we interact with Democracia as an open group, and people join us because they are interested in the project and it gives them space to be experimental with their own work. Our collaborators are not only people who know how to do things, we produce together on the conceptual level as well. For example, if we join with a specific community, Democracia adopts their work and aesthetics to the piece. Democracia does not have specific aesthetics. In making this choice, our collective has room to explore and breathe. (to Lopez) Ivan, is there something you’d like to add?
Lopez: (to Pedro) you’ve got it covered, more or less.
Byline Houston: Speaking of collaborators, you worked with the Houston Chapter for the Huey P Newton Gun Club, which maintains the legacy of Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party. What led to this collaboration, and how was your experience working with them?
Lopez: The first act of “ORDER” was shot in Houston, and it is about the power of speech. We also integrated within the scene the other side of that (the power of speech). It was through the Station Museum that we were connected with the Huey Group. We, as Democracia, invited them to collaborate, in which they said yes. At the start of this project, this collaboration was not planned, and we don’t hold expectations on people and groups working with us. Each Collaboration begins as an invitation for others to share their work. Coming together with the Huey P. Newton Gun Club has been an amazing and very rich experience.
España: In the beginning stages of this project, we knew that we wanted to use Texas’ law that allows people to openly march with guns. We are coming from Europe, and culturally, the relationship we have to guns is very different from the United States. For example, when European culture comes across these kinds of images, of people with guns in the street, it is understood as right wing — fascist —and very threatening. We took this imagery and applied it to the right’s opposite, the people without power. In the beginning, we did not know that we would collaborate with the Black Panther Party of the Huey P. Newton Gun Club. We were initially looking for organizations with a leftist background, and upon learning of this, the Station informed us that we could reach out and work with the black panthers, to which we replied, “OK. Yes, that’s great!”
Byline Houston: That’s pretty amazing.
España: In the first act of “ORDER,” we have a voice talking about why capitalism squeezes (consumes, drains) the benefits and resources from the earth and its people. We confront this speech with empowered people. Finally, the opportunity to work with the Black Panthers was perfect because, culturally, when we talk about or see violence in Europe, the first reaction of the public is to deny violence and put it away, so to speak. People do not think about this violence as an extension of the violence of the system.
Byline Houston: You filmed ORDER’s three acts in three different cities: Houston, Dublin and London. What led to the project taking place in these locations?
Lopez: Houston was the starting point of this entire project. In fact, from the very beginning, this project was an invitation from the Station Museum to operate against the empire. Although everything started here, we’ve been working on this project for a while, about four to six years. Writing “LIBRETTO” led to our second act, featuring a children’s choir performance. Our initial idea was to shoot the second act in Germany, as Germany is the economic center of Europe. Finally, we received an offer to do the project within a shopping mall in a village south of Dublin, Ireland. This particular village is well known as being the place where big companies like Amazon and Google camp out there to avoid paying taxes. This corporate interaction has changed the economic landscape of the village from a poor, working class area to one where, all of a sudden, people with big salaries from the United States occupy space.
People gather in the mall, and it is there where the children’s choir go and sing for consumers, reinforcing consumerism. It all ends with the third act in London at a dinner party with real VIP guests, elites with control and power to change the ways of the world. These guests gather to have Christmas dinner, and all they are aware of is that there will be an opera performance.
Originally, we wanted to film this final scene in one of Houston’s Country Clubs, where all the former presidents in Houston associate. Unfortunately, at this country club, we would not have been able to record our performance. After two years, our search led us to the Dorchester Hotel, a posh hotel historically known as a gathering place for people of politics and power. We brought in the Houston based singer Lisa Harris for the final act. Once we secured this final location, we made sure to have this project done, despite the challenge of executing this final scene.
España: To add, the owner of the Dorchester Hotel is the Sultan of Brunei. Currently, there are protests and boycotts against the hotel in response to the Sultan approving new laws against gay people. These laws condemn homosexuals to death by stone throwing. The hotel is not only a place for powerful people, but also a dangerous place. In the third and final act of “ORDER,” the singer Lisa confronts and insults party guests with the line, “Your sons are gonna erase their names.” As in, the descendants of these powerful people will be ashamed of their family names.
Lopez: The grammar is in an operatic style. Structuring our message in this way inspires respect, and this allows the singer to keep going and finish their message. To witness the amazing voice of the singer, the audience is not sure if it is only an opera performance or if they are talking to them directly. Within the time the audience is processing this, the message can reach its end, uninterrupted. We use opera as a tool to allow our message to reach its completion; otherwise, we would be stopped after the first word. We have found that opera is a powerful vehicle for our message.
Byline Houston: To be in the same room as the opera singer, witnessing their amazing voice — I would have liked to have been in that room.
Lopez: [By the way] both singers Lisa Harris and Amanda Gregory will be present during the opening.
Byline Houston: Absurdity and imperialism are interesting concepts to explore, especially in this country. Do you find significance in presenting this work in the southern United States, in Houston?
España: Absolutely! After all, “ORDER” began as a commission from the Station Museum as an act against the empire.
Byline Houston: Yes, it appears we’re in one of the bellies of the beast, so to speak.
Lopez: Houston also represents a part of the empire where many wars start and are negotiated. Oil has a hold on the city, as does the medical privacy complex. Yes, there is definitely context to this location.
Byline Houston: How would you describe the term “late-capitalism” in your own words?
España: Late-capitalism is bound to necropolitics — how the system administers death. Capitalism is a kind of rotten body, and we are living inside this body. The nature of this economic system is a predatory one. The term “late-Capitalism,” or “last stage,” implies that it is going to collapse.
Lopez: A sentence that repeats many time in the opera is, “We are going to collapse but it doesn’t matter because we will not be there,” is phrase [that is] a part of late-capitalism.
Byline Houston: I saw that y’all have had publishing and curatorial projects. How do those branches interact with and inform Democracia?
España: We were directors for an arts and politics magazine. We’ve published pieces about books and other media because, for us, this work is related to our artistic practice. We are creators who organize alongside other artists and share our collective concerns with others while making space for different points of view. Compared from then to now, we are primarily involved in organizing projects. To avoid the curatorial figure, we work within a network of mutual support — self management and so on. For us, we do not see a clear distinction between our work as artists, publishers or organizers. They are simply different methods to work around the same things.
Byline Houston: What is something you would like guests to consider as they visit this exhibition at the Station Museum?
Lopez: The project is presented as an opera, through film, and this leads people to internalize that they are viewing a work of fiction composed of scenes and actors. This project is not that. It is important that guests consider the scenes on film as reality, that there are no actors and these actions happened for real. In this exhibition, there are two important moments of this process: The moment of initial action, where we don’t really know what is going to happen, followed by a second moment, where we process footage collected and format it.
España: For example, when you see the limousine going across Houston with lettering that reads “Eat the Rich” and “Kill the Poor” on each side, nobody witnessing the limo as it drives by knows what is going on.
Lopez: People on the street see one of the two sides of the limousine and they react, creating many actions that couldn’t be fully captured by our cameras. However, the root is there — the Action.
España: Another example, When you see the Black Panthers demonstration, they are having a real demonstration. As the vocalist Lisa Harris performs at the Dorchester Hotel, she is in a room of powerful and wealthy people, people of European royal families, unknowingly participating and being insulted. This is also true for the people at the mall. Shoppers unknowingly become like actors, but in truth they are not.
Lopez: To us, It is very important to not only work within a stage-like setting, but expand and base our reaction on a non-fictitious action. To any of our projects, the starting point is always a real action.
“ORDER” will be on view at Station Contemporary from Saturday, April 27 to August 18. The work is a joint commission between a/political and Station Museum of Contemporary Art, produced with the assistance and support of CANADA and Rua Red Gallery.