The “C” Files with Maria Brito

FULL EPISODE

For Freedoms

Maria Brito and artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, co-founders of the collective, For Freedoms, discuss freedom in America, voting rights and art as a medium for participatory engagement. Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, director of the Jack Shainman Gallery and an original For Freedoms member is also interviewed.

AIRED: October 29, 2019 | 0:13:43
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TRANSCRIPT

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The genius thing about For Freedoms is that,

as artists,

Hank and Eric came with this amazing idea

to create ways of showing art by recruiting other artists.

They have worked with 150 artists

or more in the United States

to highlight that people have a lot of power with the vote.

So what For Freedom has done is an incredible use of billboards,

bus stops, town halls

lead by artists, exhibitions, installations.

When you combine art and the message,

it really becomes bigger than each of the parts.

How you two came up with the idea of For Freedoms?

Well, we've been friends for a long time,

and both, as artists, in our art practices,

we were sort of addressing this intersection of art and politics

from different approaches, different perspectives,

and we think that art is always politics,

and all art is political,

and politics, actually, public policy

is a reflection of our culture, which art creates.

That, and the idea that we wanted to expand

what it meant for people to be actually

politically engaged and civically engaged.

And we were really initially inspired

by FDR's Four Freedoms.

Where he said, in his 1941 State of the Union Address

that everyone was entitled to four basic freedoms --

freedom of speech, freedom of worship,

freedom from fear, and freedom from want.

We were looking at those freedoms

and how they were represented,

especially, you know, initially through

Norman Rockwell's paintings of those four freedoms,

and not only were the freedoms limited to four,

but the definition of who was entitled to those freedoms

as Americans was pretty limited.

When we started looking at those pictures,

we recognized that the people in them represented

a certain slice of America, mainly a very white slice.

-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. -Yeah. Even in the --

This is the 1940s, right?

This is 1943.

So we were interested in blowing out that idea of who is included

and who is considered to be leading our society.

We wound up doing 82 different versions

of Rockwell's Four Freedoms images,

and I think you'd be hard-pressed

to not find representatives of people

who you consider part of your community,

and that was really kind of exciting,

that we didn't have to, like, you know, check box,

check box, check box.

Why did you choose billboards as medium?

Well, we are in an age where, basically,

branding trumps everything,

and what's really interesting about art

is that it asks questions that are often unsettling,

and that, what would it mean to start

to put billboards across the country

that didn't necessarily say a very concise thing.

It didn't necessarily sell anything

other than the idea was something

that we really wanted to put out into the world,

like, thinking about how we can rethink of how public space

is used for challenging the status quo.

I think it's important to recognize

that this mechanism of advertising

was something that we wanted to be critical of while

also participating in.

Similarly, I think, that's where artists

are situated within democracy.

We want to open space for artists to be both participating

and criticizing at the same time.

Who made this?

I did.

So, yeah, this one says "LoveOverRules,"

and it begs the question, do we put the rules

and the laws over, you know, love for mankind,

or should, you know, love of humanity

actually always overrule the kind of laws

that are often designed to keep us separated?

"Where do we go from here?"

Yeah, so this is an image that I made in Jordan,

and there's this fence that's kind of breaking down.

I've been photographing what I think of

as the trappings of nationalism in the Middle East

which, you know, as you know, is a colonial project,

and when we were thinking about doing billboards

for the project, I came back to this image

as something that now has a relevance

in a very different kind of context here

in the United States.

It looks like the US-Mexico border.

-Yeah. -Yeah.

And the "we" here is the interesting part

for me about the question,

which came up as part of the project --

who gets to be on one side or the other,

and who gets to be defined as the "we"?

And it begs the question, where do we go from here?

Because once we have these lines,

how do we continue to relate to one another

and grow as a human species?

A lot of the work that we are often doing

is really more about questions, you know,

and how do we kind of address

really complicated, entrenched problems,

and then, what new problems come up every time

we try to solve one?

This is work by Cinthya Santos-Briones.

There are immigration detention centers

in all 50 states across the country,

but we often think about this question of immigration

as something that happens just in the border,

in a specific area,

but in fact, this is happening much closer to you,

to any of us, than where you think it is.

There have been these spaces of worship

where families are taking refuge

so that they're not being placed in detention.

Targeted, right.

And then these kids are playing in the sanctuary,

but also in a pretty precarious way.

-So... -Right.

...they both are on the edge of joy,

but also basically kind of like walking a tightrope.

-Right. -Yeah.

Yeah, a tightrope, and the little one is almost,

like, left at his own devices. -And then the Virgin Mary...

-But all on the -- Yeah. -She's watching.

All on the same plane as the Virgin Mary.

You engaged so many people,

and so many eyes have the opportunity to see the message.

How you guys came up with that genius project?

Yeah, we started pretty simply.

We were like -- We asked our friends,

"Would you guys like to do a billboard?"

And, frankly, in the asking of people,

that made the project real, because once we said we were

going to do it, we were like, "I guess..."

-"We have to do it." -"...we have to do it."

And also, we were excited by the notion

that nothing like this had ever been done before.

We wanted to do exhibitions, town halls, and billboards

in all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico,

and were able to do over 100 exhibitions,

120 town halls,

and almost 200 billboards with over 100 artists,

and we worked throughout that period

with over 250 institutions and 800 artists.

Jack Shainman, my gallerist,

was the first person to really see the value of this project,

and then he wound up allowing us to use the gallery

as the headquarters for two months to curate an exhibition,

and that's a really strange thing

for a commercial gallery to do.

I wanted to talk to you about your perspective

as a founding member of For Freedoms

about the vision and the purpose of that collaborative platform

and what it meant to you at the time.

I mean, I think that, when For Freedoms was starting,

it just felt like, do as much as we can possibly do

at a time when thinking about the political system,

ways of working with and also around and challenging

the kind of political system, was really, really important.

It was really interesting for me

to try to figure out what kind of role the gallery can have,

you know, as a commercial gallery,

but also as a home for our artists

where they can kind of execute their wildest dreams,

and how we can really be a part of that,

and how a gallery can be more than just somewhere,

you know, that puts on shows and sells work,

but how it can really be invested in the artists

in really literal ways,

and how it can join the conversation

as an entity itself.

And have you had a particular anecdote

or a moment where you have seen communities

engaging with the work of For Freedoms where you said,

"Wow, this is meaningful."

Or something that has moved you, or impacted you?

Yeah. Yeah.

I mean, one particular artwork

that we had was the Dread Scott flag

that we hung outside of the gallery.

And, I mean, as an example of something that was really,

really concrete, we were threatened by our landlord.

I, you know,

had to have a conversation at the local police precinct,

and, you know, I ended up going and talking to Community Affairs

for hours about issues around police brutality,

and, I mean, as something that's, like, really concrete,

it was really an amazing moment.

It was a really amazing conversation.

I learned a lot. I think they learned a lot.

That was one work and one conversation,

and that forced participation.

I would like to know what happens

when people go to the town halls.

What is For Freedoms giving them to engage them?

Well, each one of the town halls

is based on one of the four freedoms.

The one that we...

For example,

we did one on freedom of worship, and that was...

We centered that on the idea of faith,

art, and mass incarceration,

but the conversation that resulted

from having these different people in the room,

it really culminated in one of the women

from the Lutheran group

talking very personally about her experiences,

and she said, you know,

"I was arrested when my daughter was 9 months old for having..."

an ounce of marijuana?

I can't remember how much.

She had a very small amount of marijuana, and she said...

And somebody yelled out, "That's unjust!"

And she said, "Yes, that is unjust,

and I'm doing my time, I'm paying my responsibility,

and I'm going to come out of this and do amazing things."

And she was 7 years into a 10-year --

-Probation? -No.

-Sentence. -Sentence.

Oh, she was in a sentence for 10 years for one ounce...

For her first-time drug offense.

And with a 9-month-old child, and so that was...

And it does sound unjust that someone

who is a mother of a new child,

who had never gotten in trouble before,

would be kind of separated from her child,

but she was making the most out of it, essentially,

and that, like, our pity doesn't do any good,

but our support and encouragement might help.

And that's the space where it's --

you know, that's the space that art

can really play an interesting role,

because it's like, how do you make sense

of these seemingly conflicting and complicated ideas

that don't boil down to just, like, "Oh, that's unjust,"

or "Yes, it's unjust, but it's also something else"?

So it's -- it...

Seeing these different kind of aspects of where faith,

mass incarceration really do intersect often,

you know, was something that I --

That's the art, you know, where we have this museum space

which people often go to just to be amused,

and now there are, like, 250 people in a room

with a sheriff's deputy with...

-Right. -...a gun,

you know, with six women who were imprisoned at that point,

in discussion with multiple other people

around these issues.

-That's incredible. -And so we learned,

really, through the courage of the institutions

that collaborated with us.

We, Eric and Hank haven't been to,

I'd say, 90% of the programs that have been

For Freedoms-related because they're so big,

and we really want to make the point that

For Freedoms isn't us, you know.

It really is this network.

We try our best and have done okay

so far being kind of cheerleaders for the network,

but, you know,

I'm always astounded by the things that people do

without anything that's involved with us,

and the project can grow from that.

So we really think that,

for For Freedoms to really live out its mission,

it has to always be seen as a collaboration

that is dislocated and evolving and actually organic.

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