Exercises in power
On the experimental nature of democracy and art
di Marta Colpani

“I am an artist, not a politician nor an historian.” That is my answer to all the difficult questions, all the discussions that more and more often arise about the European Union, about the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, about democracy. I am an artist, I don’t know the answer. Luckily, I don’t need to know those answers. I don’t read the papers anymore. With their lack of critical engagement and endless repetition and rebranding of alarming news, ready to feed our lowest fears, they often just seem to echo my equally redundant Facebook feed. In the end all they do – mainstream and social media alike – is to remind me of the fact that I have no control. On the other hand I realize that to isolate myself from them is just as problematic, as it corresponds to a certain extent with a detachment from the realm of formal politics.

Nevertheless, I am an artist and my work is political. In that it addresses the perceptions and attitudes of individuals towards the environment where they live, think and form their opinions. My work wants to participate in reality, add to it, produce some kind of sense or reactiveness, but it certainly relates more to the realm of micropolitics than that of social movements or formal politics. For a start, I don’t aspire to mobilize social change or political action with my work, but rather to share and explore a state of being, often one that is not resolved. Unlike the politician and the activist, I cannot present a solution or an answer to the public, or produce any direct form of resistance to state power whatsoever. I will re-present reality, in some way or another, a reality that is not objective or explanatory but wants to be perceived nonetheless.

Yet, even as there might be some grain of truth in all of this, micropolitical art – at its worst, admittedly – can be seen as a happy bubble where it is possible to go on living, producing so-called political works and writings, engaging on a personal level with what is going on in our society, but keeping our hands off social struggle, party politics, policy making, community organizing or what have you. Yet exactly these domains, often far removed from most micropolitical strategies, form the actual backbone of our democracies, or at least these are the areas where power eventually materializes. While they are not and should not necessarily become the artist’s domains, the open question of the relation between art and politics, art and power, art and democracy cannot be bypassed either by erasing the hiatus between them with a brush stroke.

It was my brother who made a number of the latter remarks to me, in the context of a conversation we had on art and politics during our last summer holidays, while drinking beer on the beach somewhere on a small Greek island. You could almost see the Turkish coast from there. So here we were, a philosopher and an artist discussing political disengagement while spending our holidays just one ten minutes boat ride away from what was then, and still is, one of the most blatant emblems of social injustice and one clear contradiction that we, as democratic Europeans, have to face. Inevitably, back then I also lost some sense of the project I had been planning enthusiastically over the past half year: Distance1.

With all the mixed feelings brought about during those conversations with my brother, once back in Amsterdam I ventured into the project. Distance was a one-month workshop open to participants from any background with at least a few things in common: affective engagement towards their living environment, the desire to invest that engagement in an experiment that would include others, and the willingness to do so through the language of art. The participants were invited to join me in Peer, an artists’ working space in the Red Light District of Amsterdam, every Sunday of the month. During our first week together we shared our stories. Part of the exercise was to reach Peer on foot, and everyone chose a different way of doing so, documenting the walk and telling about their experience. These accounts inevitably became intertwined with our life stories and personalities. For instance, some of us did not speak Dutch and their walks were very focused on language or on finding meaning in space. Others used the opportunity of the walk to let themselves be guided through the city by strangers passing by. For some, noise reaching the streets from private homes and closed spaces became very important, as they started relating their personal memories to religious chants coming from nearby buildings.

Later on, we moved away from our individual narrations and started converging towards an account of Amsterdam that came to belong to the group, rather than to any of its members alone. The strongly individualized experience of the environment where we live in all its forms – text, images, sense of direction, isolation, obstacles, perception of private spaces that we cannot enter, – that come to define us, had to become one story, one voice. Inevitably fragmented, nonetheless coherent. In practice, we started to construct one single installation together to be presented during the exhibition that followed the workshop. We had collected a lot of material, and each one of us, while donating their individual compilation – of words written down on paper, transcripted from the surfaces of the city, of images found in the trash, descriptions of situations encountered on the street, instructions received from strangers and improvised maps quickly drawn in their notebooks – was also trying to defend a certain aesthetic judgement and interpretation of these objects. During this process, we gradually gave up our pristine ideas in order to enter into new, shared meaning in the material at hands. A personal reassembling process took place: we were re-forming our stories and perceptions in order for them to become part of the group configuration that was to emerge.

“For the course of one month, together with the other participants we explored the city on foot, tried to record our experiences and then to materialize them in an exhibition. In order to do that we had to collaborate and I feel that this was one of the best parts of the workshop. We each had to negotiate with our own selves and with the other participants, trying as much as we could not to let our egos get in our way. In a time where we give so much importance to “I” (and I think this is especially true in the art world) it was good to be reminded of the fact that we can achieve much more insight on the world around us through collaboration.” (Dorin Budușan, participant)

“I think the process was also one of looking for a way to work together, something that you cannot plan or explain beforehand. For me it wasn’t always clear, what the end result should be and if the Sundays were meant to explore first, without limits or that we should have the end result in mind from the beginning. Actually, for me, being used to plan everything meticulously, it was good to let go and to see that some very interesting results came from the loose approach.” (Liesbeth Wieggers, participant)

During the project, all participants and I became designated as a group by the context of the workshop: what kept us together was the realization of a common work. The group dynamics that came to define our relations, negotiations and interactions, were constantly emerging in the material – especially in the gestures – of writing, drawing, throwing away, collecting, adding, juxtaposing. With aesthetic choices and spontaneous interventions some of us occasionally tried to break with the set rules, almost in an attempt to either confirm or question what was becoming a small system of in- and outsiderness, within the safe walls of the white cube.

Grant Kester has been writing about art practices that deal with social relations among human beings in similar ways (what Nicolas Bourriaud defines as relational art practices), and I think he distilled one important aspect in them that I recognize as fundamental in my own work, which is the dialogical element in relation to understanding the individual. First of all, he identifies the activation of dialogue within the work, where “subjectivity is formed through discourse and inter-subjective exchange itself” (Kester 2004, p. 5). Secondly, he detects in them an attempt to start a dialogue with the social and political context in which their artistic practice is embedded and to which it relates:

“These projects mark the emergence of a body of contemporary art practice concerned with collaborative, and potentially emancipatory, forms of dialogue and conversation. While it is common for a work of art to provoke dialogue among viewers this typically occurs in response to a finished object. In these projects conversation becomes an integral part of the work itself. It is re-framed as an active, generative process that can help us speak and imagine beyond the limits of fixed identities and official discourse. What unites this disparate network of artists and arts collectives are a series of provocative assumptions about the relationship between art and the broader social and political world, and about the kinds of knowledge that aesthetic experience is capable of producing.” (2004, p. 2)

Over the past year, doubts have been raised more and more about whether democracy is the best system to govern society, and we find ourselves in the process of recapitulating what other alternatives we have. On a personal level, and in light of all recent events, I have felt more than ever the loss of control and reach as a citizen. I am sure I am not alone. The mammoth structure of governance, all the different political flavors, the amount of information that is out there and often offers contrasting interpretations of the truth, paralyzed me. And so I have found myself asking a question, admittedly a naïve one but also one that many, I’m sure, are asking themselves in different ways: what is democracy all about, and can I – as a person and, in my case, as an artist – participate meaningfully to its functioning while becoming empowered by it in the process? That is why I started looking for the ideal behind democracy – the very reason why it was thought able to empower the people in the first place. But before I could consciously articulate this question, retrospectively it seems to me that I’ve been trying to understand the most basic relational dynamics of democracy in my art practice, for example by mimicking and activating such dynamics in the group-based process of artistic production set in place during Distance. I would say that Distance has been in the first place an exercise in democracy, however one undoubtedly limited to the context of the art exhibition, leaving us once again with an open question about the potentials for the micropolitical and the political to turn to each other and thereby activate meaningful transformation.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to read Distance as a site of immediate political intervention. I rather find myself now going back to it as a way to displace and repose the question in a way that perhaps can avoid the circular thinking and the dead ends one runs into the moment she asks: what is democracy?

Democracy in itself is an experiment, a quality that brings it quite close to art. It is a flawed, unfinished system that was gradually embraced by European countries not so long ago, often in waves of democratization that followed a war or revolution. Democracy and its gradual expansion was certainly motivated by a desire for more freedom, equality and peace. But from the very beginning, there were never any guarantees that the democratic experiment would work and continue to do so in the long run. In fact, democracy has been at times advocated in a rather courageous affront against aristocratic forms of governance on the one hand, while on the other hand it was being harshly criticized as “the most fragile and insecure of governments”, because a multitude cannot be said to have and exercise a common will (Maine 1888, p. 107). This view on democracy is based on the idea that a government of the mass works as a numerical aggregate of isolated individual opinions: in other words, anarchy.

John Dewey, known to me as art philosopher but apparently also a fervent proponent of a radical and experimental democracy, criticizes a concept of democracy as “process of cutting up political power into petty fragments” (Dewey 1969, p.232), where each citizen is left with so little power that it is worth nothing. Dewey thinks this is a misunderstanding of democracy. Humans, he says, are naturally social beings and their will cannot be separated from the social context in which they are embedded.

“To define democracy simply as the rule of the many, as sovereignty chopped up into mince meat, is to define it as abrogation of society, as society dissolved, annihilated. […] There still appear to be in majority rule an instrument for putting all on a dead level, and allowing numerical surplus to determine the outcome. But the heart of the matter is found not in the voting nor in the counting of the votes to see where the majority lies. It is in the process by which the majority is formed. […] the majority have the right to rule because their majority is not the mere sign of a surplus in numbers, but is the manifestation of the purpose of the social organism.” (1969, p.234)

Considering democracy along the lines of Dewey’s idealistic view sheds some light on the sense of loss and lack of power many who inhabit democratic regimes experience today. Let me use the example of the vote, which we tend to consider as the one and only instance in which we express our decisional power. Unfortunately, we have come to understand our votes only in terms of expressions of individuality, neglecting entirely the whole of relations and identities from which our personal vote emerges. In more simple words, I think we lost our ability to exchange our desires and concerns in a dialogue among conflicting parts, and perhaps even more tragically we ceased to acknowledge our vote as the product of such dialogue rather than an isolated personal reflection.

As a result, the act of voting has lost a good part of its democratic influence. With the loss of the exchange that precedes voting, we are letting democracy – our “power of the people” – slip away, and we need to get it back. It is in fact precisely during the negotiations and debates – on our individual freedom, on the amount and quality of power we want our governments to have, on our ideals and our dreams, – that we exert this power, and less so in the circumscribed act of writing down our vote on a piece of paper. Dialogue, as conflicting as it can get, is the arena in which our shifting political associations and affiliations to one another are continuously redefined, too. This entire, never-ending effort is, in fact, the power of the people.

Distance, Fragment from final installation. Amsterdam, July 2016. © Marta Colpani/ Peer

Although during Distance the framework for the workshop was not conflictual, and the group’s diversity was certainly limited by the context of the work, – relatively effortless access to certain institutions and at least an interest in art, for a start, certainly determined who would participate in the project – presumably the most interesting aspect of this process and its outcome was to see how conflict and division come to take form aesthetically. These dynamics, which underlie our social being and define even the most homogenous socio-economic groups present in society, are often refused or even forcibly hidden, as they don’t fit our ideals of sharing and of democracy, but are in fact at the very core of the democratic ideal and of that kind of socially embedded dialogue that forms our subjectivity. One could argue that democracy fails when we fail to understand our individuality as part of the social dynamics to which we participate, when we let ourselves be deprived of conversation and confrontation, and so we are left powerless in the face of a power – be it the result of formal elections or an art installation, – that we no longer contribute to create.

1 The project has been hosted by Peer and generously funded by Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst.




Maine H. S., Popular Government, J. Murray, London 1897.
Dewey J., The Early Works, 1882-1898, Ed. by Joann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale 1969.
Kester G., Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialogue in Socially-Engaged Art. Ed. by Zoya Kucor and Simon Leung Blackwell. In Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985. Wiley. Hoboken, 2004.


Marta Colpani is an Italian artist based in the Netherlands. As foreigner trying to become part of a new society, she observes the daily interactions between people and structures in her living space. In the works, her invisible experience of Dutch landscape turns into images, stories and documents. Colpani graduated from the Rietveld Academy in 2014 and received a Mondriaan Fund Stipendium for Depth Development Artistic Practice in 2015.