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An Artist for President: An Interview with Susanna Bixby Dakin

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In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center:18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

Every art center and museum has its origin story. While that narrative may include political maneuvering, rarely does it include an official bid for the White House. In the case of 18th Street Arts Center, however, its foundation emanated from the sentient, purposive thinking of co-founder and artist Susanna Dixby Dakin who ran independently for the presidency of the United States in 1984. Working at the nexus of feminism and performance art, Dakin embarked on a year-long, durational piece called An Artist for President. She hit the campaign trail and traveled across the country, from rural towns to Washington D.C., speaking to Americans about the tenets of her platform, one that was rooted in new concepts encompassing creativity, politics and spirituality.

The presidential campaign functioned as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total artwork, where all of the skills that Dakin possessed as an artist were merged with ideas about citizenship and humanity, in an effort to create a monumental whole. Responding to the conservative shift ushered in under Ronald Reagan's first term, Dakin sought a more enlightened path for democracy. She characterized the whole country as an artwork, symbolically expressing ideals about connectivity, empathy and collective ethos.

As we prepare to cast our ballots on November 6th in the 2012 presidential elections, we are steeped in the mire of political rhetoric and posturing across the nation. While we may feel removed from Dakin's notion that "citizenship is an aesthetic and spiritual responsibility," it behooves us to embrace the idea that we all have the capacity to shape the world around us, taking up as she puts it, "the symbolic tools to carve the political system into something better fitting our sense of what politics should look like."

Why did you run for president?

First, because I feel very few people really understand what democracy is. To my mind it is a demanding political practice, in the same sense that art-making is an aesthetic practice. Both demand that we acquire certain skills, and use those skills continuously. In a similar way, meditation is a spiritual practice demanding continuous engagement of the whole body-mind. Democracy is an aesthetic-spiritual-political practice. Every one of us can undertake this practice. However, a truly functioning democracy poses a threat to those who hold acquisitive values above aesthetic values.

When Ronald Reagan became president in 1980 I felt our democracy was facing its greatest challenge yet. His engagement with the anti-communist hysteria of the late 40s and early 50s had displayed a simple-minded belief that democratic advocacy for less fortunate beings (or even a willingness to think about it) is subversive. In the 1960s as Governor of my state he jailed students instead of listening to them, joked in response to a demand for distribution of food to the poor, "It's just too bad we can't have an epidemic of botulism." As president he managed to turn greed into a virtue, and care for the environment or our fellow beings into economic sins. I felt desperate for something that might have a chance of turning this trend around.

In 1980 there was a performance art festival called "Public Spirit", in downtown L.A. One presenter was Raivo Puusemp, an artist from Utah who spoke about his piece done in Rosedale, a 400-year-old village in upstate New York. While he was living there, village sewage was entering the water supply. Antiquated political strategies blocked solutions to the water problem, but no one wanted to lose traditions in such an ancient village. Puusemp approached the problem as one of removing what is unnecessary in Michelangelo's definition of the art of sculpture. Puusemp ran for and won the position of Mayor. His administration solved the water problem, gaining the confidence and support of village residents. Then, with their support, he dismantled the village administrative structure and brought it under the umbrella of the surrounding township, thereby removing both the unnecessary water problem and the unnecessary corruption of political process.

I wondered, would this be possible with the US Presidency? This idea rose and sank like a very large whale, only to emerge again two years later—not to let me escape it the second time.

What were your biggest takeaways from the experience, and how have they stayed with you over time—informed your work?

As I was contemplating the idea of An Artist for President campaign, friends who were artists and/or experienced political activists told me that the people I wanted to reach (i.e. "ordinary folks") would not understand my message. Artists felt such a campaign would only ridicule and further marginalize artists. To some artists my message seemed to be that anyone could be an artist without putting in the years of effort, sacrifice and discipline required. Political activists thought my concept was far too sophisticated to have wide appeal.

On the campaign trail I was gratified to find that many "ordinary folks" (i.e. roadside diner servers, railroad porters and the like) seemed instantly to take in what I wanted to communicate, far more readily than did the professionals. The idea that citizenship is an aesthetic and spiritual responsibility and discipline like that of creating art, and that this nation is our joint artwork, made more sense to them than the idea that a horserace between two TV images is democracy.

I had been a sculptor in traditional materials like clay, stone, wood and metal. Systems theory was compelling to me: that everything is made up of systems that are in turn parts of larger systems, and so on. The idea of "systems sculpture" emerged: that all of us together can "sculpt" the political system, to bring about something more politically gratifying, aesthetically pleasing and spiritually satisfying for all.

My biggest takeaway surely was the realization that I wasn't just venting, that there are actually hundreds of thousands of people around the nation and the world attempting something quite similar to what I was pushing, most without ever hearing of my effort, and using quite different words to describe what they do, but who are sculpting social systems, ecological systems, health systems, manufacturing systems etc., all working toward reversing our headlong human dash toward extinction and global destruction. In the early 1990s I joined the Bioneers, a network of such people. A number of other such networks are flowering around the world, giving me hope that we-the-people-of-the-world still have a chance to transform the bad stuff; we will be able to make art of it, if we all get into the act.

Next was the shot of confidence. I'd always been a rather shy, reclusive person, cautious about confronting the untrue, unjust, or even unspeakable, even while feeling I had to do it, I had to do it if I were to retain any claim to humanity-with-heart. Since the campaign it has been a little easier to speak up, even when convinced there are few who will see it my way.

What I am doing now is word sculpture, finishing a novel that I started 26 years ago, though the idea was planted in childhood 76 years ago. It is a scary project in that it tries to sculpt religious dogma, and there are some fierce folks around who don't like that. I feel I have a little more courage to finish it than I've had earlier, though I am still all too vividly aware that fear puts up smoke screens to obscure the clarity needed to create what one is meant to create. I can't say I am exactly fearless at age 80, but it is easier to put fears aside and keep moving.

We can't all run for president, but how would you suggest to other artists that they engage with the political process and their civic visibility?

What it comes down to is that when we know ourselves to be artists we have an extraordinary advantage. We have been allowed, taught, or encouraged to acquire and get better at, even truly master, certain survival skills not widely valued in the culture. They enable us to do whatever it is we do, and more. These skills include drawing, cooking, sewing, dreaming, kiln stacking, clay modeling, plumbing, storytelling, woodcarving, singing, reading, dancing, carpentry, writing, gardening, moviemaking, computing, painting and many more. Some of us know they are survival skills. We know no one can all master all, but each person can master many, and the right fit of psyche and soma and skills and discipline can make an artist out of anyone. Artists survive by these skills. Others could too, if we applied them to political and other kinds of ugliness not usually considered art material.

The society around us rarely sees any skills but reading, writing and computing as survival skills. But those three, severed from the others, are virtually useless in the face of challenges the future has in store for us. Those of us who know we are artists have an urgent calling to put pressure on political and educational systems to teach more of these survival skills to all people. Otherwise education is irrelevant to survival.

You described your work in the 80's as 'performative systems sculpture'. How does this approach relate to the current trend for 'social practice' within the art world and what do you think about the similarities/differences?

"Performative" is not my word. It is a contemporary word used by others in announcements of the recent publication of my book about my 1984 campaign. As far as I was concerned the campaign was about our taking up our symbolic tools to carve the political system into something better fitting our sense of what politics should look like. It was real-time action, with shamanic intent to heal the body politic. Sadly it didn't have a lasting impact, though I keep hoping for some magical result to be revealed in future.

In the 1970s and 80s a lot of performance art involved a kind of shamanistic form or intent. Since then "performance art" has come to mean something closer to theatre and stand up comedy. "Social practice" within the art world today may embrace similar social or political goals to ours back then, but whether it embraces the shamanic aspect of 1970s and 80s performance art is yet to be seen. I remain convinced that the most powerful thing that makes something into art is the mysterious. It can't quite be defined, but there are skills we can learn and practice diligently, to help the magic happen. One of them is laughter, even in the face of some potentially world-ending calamity.

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