Digital Media and Democracy, aka From Democracy to Post-Citizenship is a panel I am organizing at MIT for the Media in Transition 10 conference entitled Democracy and Digital Media with the assistance of Rob Halperin. The panel was developed following the encouragement of Professor William Uricchio, Department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT. The panel seeks to engage with and discuss issues related to contemporary populism, art representations, aesthetic social engagements, and revolts as represented and mediatized in twenty-first century visual media. The panel will take place May 18, 2019, in Classroom 66-160 from 3:15 PM to 4:45 PM. Thanks to Deniz Cem Onduygu for the poster and to the Goethe Institut Boston for their gracious support.  

From Democracy to Post-Citizenship: The Art of Populism and Revolt in Twenty-First Century Visual Media

Lanfranco Aceti [chair]

The Western World is currently grappling with the rise of a populism that, if it is characterized either by a right-wing or left-wing ideology, is also based on an idea of purity that has its roots in the Donatist heresy (fourth century AD) that has since become the slogan of reformist movements within the Western World as well as the accusation leveled by counter-reformists.

The failure of democracy, and the state’s transformation into a digital media corporate governance for the few, has created a perfect storm of anger and resentment.

The return to purity, to a golden Arcadian democracy, is seen in dichotomic terms that identify anything that is existing, current, and institutionalized as the swamp of nefariousness. As such the swamp and anything that is swampy has to be drained and cleansed.

The panel will discuss the possibility that we are moving beyond anger and entering a new globalized phase of violent economic class confrontation (visible across all media) between the plebs (seen and condemned as such by the elites of the right and left) and anything or anyone that is seen as establishment (independently of their ideological affiliation).

The transnational nature of these movements speaks of a generalized malaise that is dependent upon economic structures of social exclusion which, similarly to the enclosure in Britain, segregate large sections of the populations in economic slavery.

No longer stakeholders in these societies, why is it a surprise that post-citizens, left and right, are now willing to tear institutions down and start anew?

Panelists’ Abstracts  

The Alarm Bell Rang in the Silence: Witnessing and Memorializing Democracy through New Media

Lanfranco Aceti

The arrival of Donald J. Trump—and the populist movements across Europe—was all but a surprise to a few intellectuals. While signs of social crisis and cracks in the new post-democratic corporate order were perceptible across social media, the ‘majority’ lived in a faulty consensus that displayed a self-delusional inability to read and understand the mood of anger and disenchantment in the populus.

The traditional media presentation of post-democracy—a defective ideal of democracy with lower expectations as the best of all possible worlds—did not perceive the revolutionary charge of digital media visual imageries. If post-democracy is a lesser democracy and as such slipping towards dictatorship, where is the point at which democracy through post-democracy becomes dictatorship? What is the number of people that can be cut out from society in the name of economic gains before the social body collapses?

The Great Recession gave numeric indicators to the amount of people who are necessary to be disenfranchised in order for a ‘democracy’ to slip into a populist frenzy. Nevertheless, is this really a populist frenzy or an easy label for people who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, and forgotten to favor vulture capitalist practices dismantling across the globe post-fascist democratic constitutions?

If democracy is ending, digital media have witnessed and memorialized the confrontational context of the processes of transformation into post-democracy. It is in this visual digital media context that the righteous anger of the ‘forgotten people’ has to be inscribed in the larger issues of social injustice and economic slavery.  

Democracy, Slave Revolts, Emotive Data, and New Media

Vincent Brown

Is it possible that there is something in the historical slave revolts in the Caribbeans, but also in other socio-political historical contexts, from which contemporary people can learn? What is the role that collected contemporary data plays in shaping the perceptions and realities of failing democracies across new media? What if the emotive charge of data (both historical and contemporary) that represent the angst and plight of entire populations has been too easily dismissed in the name of scientificity and objectivity, and this has led  to faulty interpretations and historical re-interpretation of events?

The essay departs from the recollection and analysis of pre-existing data concerning what may be defined as marginal historical events in the Caribbeans, which nevertheless were inscribed in and part of larger historical shifts rebounding across the globe as historical markers left by imperialistic power struggles and confrontations, and unveils the emotive personal histories and representations that characterize and shape popular moods and mindsets.  

Similarly to these historical events, the current socio-political contemporary American history is characterized by minor events and data that are interpreted and constructed aseptically. Decontextualized and vacuumed of any emotive charge these data represent the basis upon which an interpretation of the ‘mood’ of society is constructed.

The essay argues the importance of understanding and fully representing the emotive value of data, the impact that they have on personal and collective histories of small minorities, social groups, and citizens at large if one wants to understand phenomena and movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, or #YellowVests.    

Populism vs Democracy and Social Media… and other Disasters

Mischa Kuball and Gregor H. Lersch in conversation

In this conversation, Mischa Kuball and Gregor H.  Lersch analyze the contemporary artistic and curatorial definitions of public space, democracy, and art. Recently, these three definitions have taken center stage in history and have undergone a substantial change from the interpretations and attributions they had in the 1970s.

The current conversation will serve as a platform to discuss, via the project series public preposition and the exhibition and public art project res.o.nant by Mischa Kuball, the latter presented in the Jewish Museum Berlin from 2017 to 2019. Curator and artist examine the aesthetic and curatorial implications of addressing these topics within an extended socio-cultural context.

The conversation will focus on the relationship between historical sites and their context, using, as one example among others, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and Lersch’s curatorial approach to issues that extend the role of the museum beyond traditional definitions and borders.

Anticipation and interaction in the context of art performances and time-based interventions are the aesthetic tools that the artist employs in order to engage with democratic frameworks and new media. The works of art and projects spring from site-specific analyses of the locus in which they take place. Within their aesthetic structures, they incorporate social, political, or communal specificities and challenge the audience by being fleeting and temporary interventions that rely on the potential of an altered perception of seemingly familiar / suddenly unfamiliar urban and social contexts. These projects ask their viewers to reconsider the modalities of their engagement with democracy, populism, and new media.

Democracy, Performance, Activism, and the Public Domain

Stefanos Tsivopoulos and Vera Ingrid Grant in conversation

In this conversation, Stefanos Tsivopoulos, artist, filmmaker, and lecturer at Parsons, and Vera Ingrid Grant, Deputy Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, analyze both the current interchanging social landscape and the way citizens come together in public spaces to voice and claim their rights. There have been countless gatherings, demonstrations, and marches in recent months in the United States and, in many capitals and cities around the world, marching has become a vital tool in the hands of people.

The discussion draws inspiration from Stefanos Tsivopoulos’ One Step Forward Two Steps Back (2017), an ongoing project conceived for the public space—more specifically, conceived as a performance-protest, taking place in front of buildings and other public domains that represent political power. The first edition of the performance took place at the Constitutional Square (Syntagma) of Athens in front of the Greek Parliament, in 2016, and the second in front of the White House in Washington DC, in June 2017.

One Step Forward Two Steps Back is stripped of any political message; there are no shouted slogans, no placards, no bull-horns, and no chanting. It is based on a subtle choreography of 12 performers walking one step forward and two steps back, in silence, for an uninterrupted cycle of 24 hours. The public, the tourists, and the passersby are challenged to observe, inspect, and relate to this palindromic flow of bodies, as activism, as a silent demonstration, a transient sculpture of human bodies, or simply an act that reflects upon our political times.

Cultural Prosthetics: Projections and Instrumentations

Krzysztof Wodiczko

The democratic process depends on the communicative and discursive vitality of the public space.  

This demands the creation of psychosocial and cultural conditions for people to open up and fearlessly speak in public, as well as devising the aesthetic and media means and strategies that inspire and assist not only their open communication and expression but also their public reception.

These who are least heard, understood and whose unacceptable life situation and experience is least acknowledged,  should be first to receive an opportunity for such communicative project.

Unfortunately, many among them are so overwhelmed by the very experience they may wish to make public –and which we should all hear– that they keep silent. Creating conditions for them to open-up and communicate in the Public Space –and for the public to come closer and listen –requires exceptional help: psychological, cultural, artistic and technological.

My Projections and Instrumentations intend to offer such help. These projects are both psychotherapeutic and political as well as developmental and civic. I call them  cultural prosthesis.

In my presentation, I will elaborate on the social, psychological, technological, aesthetic, and design aspects of some of my projections, and instrumentations developed with less privileged city dwellers who for the sake of their own lives, lives of others, and society at large, have made use of such projects to appear, speak, and be heard in the public space.


Lanfranco Aceti (artist, curator, and professor, BU/MIT)

Lanfranco Aceti is known for his career as an artist, curator, and academic. He is the founder of The Studium: Lanfranco Aceti Inc., and editor in chief of the Leonardo Electronic Almanac (MIT Press). He has exhibited and curated internationally and currently is working on empty pr(oe)mises a curatorial project with the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens (EMST) as well as a series of new artworks and international performances on populism, democracy, and the body.

Vincent Brown (professor, Harvard)

Vincent Brown, Charles Warren Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is a multi-media historian with a keen interest in the political implications of cultural practice. Brown is the author of The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery and producer of an audiovisual documentary about the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits. He is currently writing a book about African diasporic warfare in the Americas.

Vera Grant (director and curator, University of Michigan)

Vera Grant is the deputy director of curatorial affairs and curator of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. Previously, she has been director of the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, executive director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard. She has lectured and published widely on race and visuality in 20th century American and German culture.

Mischa Kuball (artist, KHM)

Mischa Kuball has been working as a conceptual artist since 1977. Using light as a medium to explore architectural spaces and social and political discourses, he reflects on a variety of aspects—from sociocultural structures to architectural interventions—emphasizing or reinterpreting their monumentality and context in architectural history. Public and private space become indistinguishable in politically-motivated participation projects, providing a platform for communication between the audience, the artist, the work itself and public space.

Gregor H. Lersch (curator, Jewish Museum, Berlin)

Gregor H. Lersch is head of exhibitions and curator at the Jewish Museum Berlin. Recently he curated presentation by Mischa Kuball and James Turell. Beforehand he was Lecturer at the Chair of Art and Art Theory at European University Viadrina Frankfurt/O. From 2005 on he coordinated and co-curated exhibitions like “Side by Side. Poland-Germany. A century of Art and History“and “The New Hebrews – A century of art from Israel.” both at Martin-Gropius-Bau.

Stefanos Tsivopoulos (artist, Parsons)

Stefanos Tsivopoulos, an interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker, has exhibited in art institutions and film festivals worldwide. His films are typified by a visual language that merges cinematic tropes and allegoric narratives with some of the most urgent socio-political and economic issues. In 2013, he represented Greece at the 55th Venice Biennial with the multimedia installation History Zero. He has also exhibited in documenta 14, Kassel; the 2nd Beijing Biennial; Manifesta 8, Murcia; the 1st Athens Biennial.

Krzysztof Wodiczko (artist and professor, Harvard)

Krzysztof Wodiczko is Professor in Residence of Art, Design and the Public Domain at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University. He is renowned for his large-scale slide and video projections on architectural facades and monuments. He has realized more than 90 of such public projections in the United States and across the world. Since the late 1980s, his projections as well as designs of communicative urban equipment have involved the active participation of marginalized and estranged city residents.