Jefferson Morley | February 9, 2019
Opposite of the Deep State
OPEN is an arresting new light installation at the Flagg Building in the heart of Washington DC. It is an open invitation: to think about power, visible and invisible, in the nation’s capital.
Created by visual artist Robin Bell, OPEN uses projected light to refract and splinter omnipresent media images into flickering light sculptures that rearrange your political reality ever so slightly.
Location is no small part of the piece. The Flagg Building is the new name for what used to be the Corcoran Gallery, once the city’s largest private museum. The white marble edifice is located barely more than a Hail Mary football pass from the West Wing of the White House. You can’t get to see OPEN without passing near the locus of Washington (and global) power, now absurdly inhabited by a corrupt and corrupted reality TV star. How to make sense of it all?
In this neighborhood, Bell’s installation speaks luz to power.
The February 7 opening of OPEN drew an impressive crowd of 700 overflowing with artisanal hipsters, policy wonks, and social justice warriors. (In AOC’s Washington, more than a few guests managed to be all three at once.)
The attendees knew the artist Bell through his decades of work as a videographer and editor in Washington. Others (like me) first met him through social media shares of his mischievously effective projections on various temples of power around the world.
Bell serves up an original concoction: post-modern graffiti. He inscribes low-carbon social media messages in public places without unduly disturbing the cops.
Here’s Bell checking into Trump International hotel at 12th and Pennsylvania Avenue.
Across the street from Trump’s fur-lined flop house is the Stalinist mausoleum known as FBI headquarters. Bell lit it up last fall with a pertinent message.
OPEN is less didactic than Bell’s public projections. He’s not trying to make a point so much as summon a mood, a mode of thinking. In Bell’s words it is “a celebration of transparency, belonging and sensibility.”
The exhibition is a prelude to another Flagg Building show, coming in June, about a famous event in DC art history: the cancellation of a Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Corcoran Gallery in 1989. Mapplethorpe’s photos of gay male nudes inflamed the tender sensibilities of certain Jurassic barons on Capitol Hill, and the museum shuttered the show. Not coincidentally, the Corcoran later shuttered itself, an object lesson in the price of self-censorship.
Bell intends OPEN to serve a counterpoint to narratives of “censorship, erasure and closure.”
The first installation, in a dark high-ceiling gallery, features five stacks of boxes, irregularly arranged as a screen for a loop of evolving images.
First comes a montage of bland smiling faces. They range from monocultural icons (Katy Couric), shapeshifting pols (the bespectacled Rick Perry), ominous dweebs (Seb Gorka), and even a cheerful torturer (Gina Haspel). These are mug shots of monochromatic media hegemony that accompany our political narratives..
Projected onto the staggered boxes, the vaguely familiar faces are rearranged into a fractured façade of power, which then dissolves to a blizzard of words, a tag cloud of confusion. The faces of power become five towers of Babel, the babble of 24/7 screens as a façade of power.
Another projection, a flowing chyron that says “The President is Closed,” references both Trump’s government shutdown and the way that the never-ending conversation about the president is a closed loop. Next time somebody ruins your dinner party by complaining about a Trump tweet, repeat after Bell, “the president is closed.”
And there will be more. Bell says he will be adding new installations during the show’s run through March 31.
I came away feeling like OPEN also serves as counterpoint to the discourse of the “deep state.”
When people of any political persuasion speak of a “deep state,” they are expressing a fear of hidden power, often right here in Washington. This fear may be expressed irrationally (Alex Jones of InfoWar), or rationally (Peter Dale Scott, “Deep Politics” professor at UC-Berkeley.)
Either way, those of us who talk about the “deep state” speak of conspiracies and plots. We discern closed narratives emanating from dark political spaces. It is a tempting, often appropriate, mode of thinking about and seeing the world of hidden power.
OPEN is a trip in the other direction, a journey toward light not darkness. Bell’s show (literally) holds power up to the light, and then fractures it, so as to break its spell.