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.

Post-Modern Graffiti

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.

The Show

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.

OPEN Towers of Babel
(Credit: Robin Bell)

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.

(Credit: Robin Bell)

One Reply to “Opposite of the Deep State”

  1. When was the last time I read a critique of an art show that wasn’t part of the exhibition itself? Thank you, Jefferson, for re-engaging journalism with the art world. I hope other journalists follow your lead to as a way to include the artistic world in their expression of how they view the world. I like Bell’s post-modern graphiti – I wonder if he’ll project something onto the Whitehouse? Perhaps the information uncovered since the JFK assassination should have it’s own ‘art show’ beside the format of film, books and museum centers. That could be a very creative challenge for artists that also have an interest in what continues to be hidden. Sometimes aesthetically pleasing paintings or sculptures have a different way to educate. In the 1960s, America was dealing with Russian subversion through propaganda that America had to step up to. How much of the JFK assassination theories continue to be a part of that propaganda today? Can they be sifted? If that propaganda was used to distort and undermine American’s confidence in themselves and their republic, is it still working? What about the countermeasures the USA has taken since JFK spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington D.C. on April 20th, 1961? With the digital age, I would think outside forces are worse than ever for the United States. I see the ‘deep state’ as a way to keep America running relatively smoothly in order to keep the country from breaking apart, state by state. Is that OK? If it results in corruption or is because of corruption, no it’s not. Mistakes have been made by evil politicians and generals but shining light into darkness is what makes America beautiful. The country has the ability to admit when it’s wrong when those that take oaths are ethical, respect their laws, are not corrupt and valued for it.

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