The police are here to protect us — true or false? Mass transit only helps poor people — true or false? Slavery is over — true or false? Jesus is more important than football — true or false?
These are just a few of the questions that form the centerpiece of a striking exhibition — part art installation, part game show, part town-hall meeting — that’s coming to downtown arts nonprofit Space One Eleven (SOE) for Artwalk weekend (Sept. 5-6). PUBLIC FORUM, the brainchild of conceptual artist Steve Lambert, blends the boundaries between art and democracy.
PUBLIC FORUM itself is a large sign with a snazzy midcentury flair whose central marquee contains an open-ended, provocative question — multiple questions will rotate throughout the weekend, including the ones seen above — with counters on either side tallying up the audience’s votes for true or false. Acting as a sort of game show host, Lambert queries voters on why they chose to vote a certain way, gently obliging them to defend their point of view or to consider the alternatives.
The genius of the exhibition, of course, is that few if any of the statements in question are as simple as a yes or a no answer. Without the possibility of a gray area, the audience has to consider the problems of absolutes.
“People don’t want to go to the extremes,” Lambert said. “They want there to be a middle button, like, ‘Sort Of.’ And the statements that I put up there are not easy to say yes or no to. … [One] statement was, ‘Alabama is the best that it could ever be.’ On the one hand, it’s hard not to be proud of where you’re from. But to say that it’s the best it could be and could never be better is also impossible. … People have to figure out what the question means for them, and then what their answer is, and they do that by talking it out. And that creates a public conversation.”
Public conversation is an important part of SOE’s mission, as the nonprofit serves not only as an art gallery, but also as an advocacy organization on behalf of the teaching and performance of art. In tandem with the Visual Artists Network — of which SOE is an inaugural member — the nonprofit is continuing its mission with PUBLIC FORUM to promote the relevance of art in the politics, culture and everyday life of the South.
That’s no small feat, especially since Lambert has already achieved a good deal of fame due to his ability to smuggle anti-consumerist messages into the glitz and glamour of attractive marquees, including a precursor to PUBLIC FORUM in which the statement was, “Capitalism works for me.” Despite the wry and subversive nature of his work, Lambert isn’t a firebrand, and he opts for the Socratic method of fostering critical dialogue instead of presuming to tell people how to think. According to the artist, that’s the key to the exhibition’s success.
“The way that I do it, I’m not trying to confront anyone or call anyone out,” Lambert said. “I think it’s really important that people feel comfortable saying what they think. I’ve talked to so many people that it’s not important for me to win an argument. It’s much more important to connect with that person and have them kind of see that there’s more than one perspective.
“So I often will argue against my own beliefs; with the [“Capitalism works for me”] sign, sometimes I would argue for capitalism, just so this person who had these feelings against it had to really think through why, instead of me just being like, ‘Yeah, right on!’” Lambert recalled. “A lot of times people’s positions kind of soften when you’re not confronting them – I’ve kind of had a lot of success playing dumb, in a way. It’s nice coming to Birmingham, where to some extent I am real ignorant, where there’s a lot of things I don’t know about the history and what it’s like to live there now, just because I’ve never lived there. So I can ask really obvious questions because I’m an outsider. I can ask strange questions…make jokes, and leverage my ignorance to help draw people out.”
Drawing people out is easier said than done, especially in the South. According to Lambert, his Birmingham test audience was uniquely resistant to sharing private opinions. Getting around the dissembling diplomacy that’s such a key element of Southern politesse is just part of the fun, however.
“People felt sort of threatened by something that challenges an idea so fundamental in such a simple way,” Lambert said. “That’s the part that I love. It forces people to imagine – or just to realize that maybe they don’t know. … You’re standing on the edge, and the path ahead isn’t really clear. … We don’t really know the way forward to solve it, and there’s people that, when they’re standing in the path and looking at the unknown, it just drives them crazy. They want to turn away, and I hear that in the way they answer questions. They’re just trying to make it simpler or easier, because they don’t want to face the complexity.”
In addition to the value of just being congenial and empathetic, Lambert’s made his task of connecting with people considerably easier by creating such an eye-catching sign.
“I’ve developed my aesthetic over a long time, but it’s also strategic,” Lambert said. People like the words before they even know what the sign says. There’s a splash, and they like it; it’s comfortable, it’s familiar, it’s got these flashing lights, and then as people start to figure out what it means, I’ve already got them on my side a little bit. Then people start to come up with their own answers, and things become more complicated or more difficult. But if it looked as difficult as it actually was, people would run away.”
As fun as the forum can be, and as relaxed as its atmosphere is, Lambert’s still set up a challenge for himself trying to get at the heart of these questions in Birmingham. With that in mind, here’s another statement from PUBLIC FORUM for you to vote on: Politeness prevents us from having necessary conversations — true or false?
Steve Lambert and PUBLIC FORUM will be in residence at Space One Eleven on Friday, Sept. 5 from 5:30-8 p.m. and Saturday, Sept. 6 from 1-5 p.m. For more information, visit spaceoneeleven.org.