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Posts Tagged ‘activism’

This past weekend I took part in a very cool project called House of Democracy. It was one of the events at the Helsinki World Village Festival, an annual festival that brings together performers, musicians, activists and other involved individuals from all over the world. This year’s theme was democracy. Something that is always in short supply.

House of Democracy was set up to show people  how democracy works. It was a simple tent with a voting poll inside, where you could vote for the theme of the next year’s World Village Festival. Now, you may say, what does this have to do with theater?  The House of Democracy was, in fact, a piece of performance art. The theme for the next year’s festival has already been set (it’s going to be Human Rights) and so the whole voting poll was a show we put on to illustrate a point.

The set up was pretty elaborate and there were a number of stages, but the gist of it was as follows. Outside the tent stood a clown who with cheerily ushered people in, promising them an opportunity to see democracy in action. Inside perspective voters were greeted by two grim individuals in booths and two queues (Men vs Women; Poor vs Rich; Foreigners vs Finns, etc.). The booth people were hostile and demanding, pelting voters with arbitrary question, forcing them to switch lines and generally acting unpleasant.

Vintage Vote poster from Obey

Even though there appeared to be two queues, only one actually led to the to the voting area. The other one just sent you outside where you got a leaflet stating that you had just experienced democracy as the majority of the world experiences it, i.e. you didn’t get any of it.

Those who despite all obstacles got inside were treated like royalty. There were comfy couches, drinks, and polite staff. Voters were encouraged to vote for human rights and there were plenty of subtle and not so subtle prompts.  Those who chose to vote for something else would see their ballot torn to pieces right in front of them. As the would-be voters, either disgruntled or content, left the tent, they got a flier explaining that though they did vote, it didn’t mean anything since the elections were fixed. And the staff, the clown and the bureaucrats were all actors putting on a show.

This project was really interesting and challenging. It was imporv from start to finish and keeping in character wasn’t always easy. Especially when you had to be incredibly hostile to people. It was terrifying to see how few people protested or got angry with you for asking personal questions. I was truly glad when someone would stand up for themselves and call me out. But it was disheartening to see how many went along with it and voted for the very thing we suggested.

Caption: “I vote for people’s happiness!” Soviet poster.

This performance art piece really made me think about ways of combining theater and activism. We often think of theater as one-way – the audience is passive, soaking up what’s going on on stage. The play can have a message and the audience is invited to consume this message and possibly internalize it, but they’re not expected to experience the message firsthand.

If Shakespeare was right and all the world’s a stage, then we are all indeed actors. You’d be surprised to see how easily people fall into expected roles. As any sociologist will tell you, people start following unwritten scripts the moment they recognize the situation and very rarely deviate from these scripts. The goal of such a performance (and of many experiments conducted by social scientists) is to see how far you can push the script before people feel compelled to break it. And many of these scripts need to be broken if we want to build a better world.

Whatever you feel about democracy as a political system and it’s obvious shortcomings, I’ve always believed that art exists to help people think about the world around them. Theater can do much more than just entertain. It can be a catalyst for change.

The House of Democracy was the brainchild of Kepa and Political Parties of Finland for Democracy, Demo Finland, who promote international cooperation on democracy. The project was brought to life by artist Jani Leinonen,who is known for his somewhat controversial art (he once kidnapped a statue of Ronald MacDonald and held it for ransom).

Fun fact, both theater and democracy were invented by the Greeks.

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