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Frost Amphitheater

By Daniel Hirsch

Artist Arshia Fatima Haq created a piece for Artists-in-Presidents inspired by traditional hypnoses and her own vision for the United States. Photo by Amina Cruz


Imagine a presidential address that contains this phrase: “I am not your president. No one is your president. I don’t believe in it… There should be many presidents at once.” Or a president fronting a hardcore band and offering this primal scream: “Burn your white male patriarchy, burn!” Or one who gives the American people the following Dada imperative: “I have no self-respect. None of us do. Put your fingers in my mouth.”

This is the material of Artists-in-Presidents, a series of presidential “fireside chats” composed and performed by more than 50 artists, curated and directed by artist Constance Hockaday. The quotations above come from addresses by choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, writer and musician Jasmine Nyende, and filmmaker and writer Miranda July, respectively.

Since mid-September, Hockaday and her team of collaborators have been releasing weekly transmissions in the form of podcasts and short videos by creators as varied as visual artist Mel Chin, author Lewis Hyde, experimental poet Eileen Myles, and interdisciplinary artist Coco Fusco.

“It’s about a radical reimagination of the future, and it’s also a portrait of where we are right now,” Hockaday said of the project, which was produced in partnership with Stanford Live and UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.

Selected by Hockaday along with a curatorial advisory board, the cadre of artists are both internationally recognized and emerging. With a wide range of ages, races, gender identities, and art practices, this collection of voices aims to challenge our ideas of what the presidency could look and sound like. In the year 2020, defined by a presidential race between two white male septuagenarians—one of whom issued forth white supremacist rhetoric and calls to violence—this project of reimagination could not feel more urgent.

“The performance of leadership in its best form is a kind of conjuring of our better selves,” Hockaday says in a welcome video for the series. “What happens if we shift the whole vibe of presidential oration away from university educated elite men to something that reflects the diversity and authenticity of this country?”


Artists-in-Presidents is directed by artist Constance Hockaday, who assembled 50 artists to work with political speechwriters on crafting their address to the nation. Photo by Phinn Sriployrung


Hockaday, whose work often takes place on bodies of water, originally conceived of the project as a series of performances to take place on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential yacht, a National Historic Landmark in Oakland. COVID-19 meant reconfiguring the project for the socially distant moment. It also meant newly contemplating FDR’s innovative way of speaking to a country facing the dueling crises of the Great Depression and emergent fascism. “There’s all these dramatic parallels between FDR and Trump in the ways that they have shifted the performance of the presidency,” said Hockaday.

Through his series of 30 fireside chats broadcast over the radio, FDR created an unprecedented moment of intimacy with an American people full of fear and doubt about the future of their democracy. “It was about faith—faith in him as a leader, faith in the potential of a unified American public,” Hockaday said of FDR’s weekly addresses. “In this current moment where we’re losing our faith in democracy, we don’t have a leader who is speaking with care and concern.”

Artist-in-Presidents runs the gamut in form and content. The addresses offer comfort, radical politics, and earnest commentary. Some offer comedy. Others brim with righteous rage. Disabled artist Alice Sheppard reflects on the role of disabled artists in creating a more sustainable future. Artist A. Haq’s address takes the form of a hypnotherapy meditation to deprogram listeners from believing in an American Dream based in capitalism. Recent high school graduate Kennedi Tezano gives a personal address to Black youth like her, saying: “I love you and I appreciate you.” Performer Xandra Ibarra’s address is a curse.

Hockaday also asked each artist to submit a “presidential portrait” with their address. Like the addresses, the portraits offer a radical reimaging of what a president can look like. There’s candid portraiture, presidential parody, and visual poems.

When first approached by Hockaday to participate, Los Angeles–based performance artist Nao Bustamante thrilled at the idea. But, Bustamante says, “Turns out it wasn’t fun. It was very difficult.” Bustamante had to conceive of another version of America, one that would elect a “Latinx performance artist to rule the roost.” No small feat in our current political reality.  She also wanted to honestly approach the trauma of the moment, saying: “We are in charge of making our reality, so what are we going to do with it?”

For her presidential address, Bustamante performs a version of herself as single woman president occupying the White House with her party poodle Gita. As she makes herself a smoothie in the White House kitchen—the staff is off for Arbor Day—Bustamante says: “I just want you to know your president loves you.” She describes her presidential persona as “The soother and inspirer in chief,” channeling FDR’s “big poppa reassurance vibe.”


For LA-based artist Nao Bustamente, reimagining the nation for the project was challenging given the trauma and political reality of the moment. Photo by Hiroshi Clark 


A crucial part of Hockaday’s conception for the project was to reconceive presidential rhetoric and the language of power. To do so, she felt it was vital to bring in the pros. Hockaday enlisted the aid of nine professional speech writers who were paired with any artist that wanted the support.

“None of our public leaders are just people. They’re constructions supported by whole communications departments,” Hockaday said. “So, I just felt like if our public leaders have communication professionals, these artists should have them too.”

To shape her address, installation artist Ann Hamilton collaborated with speech writer David Goodstone, who is Chief Communications Strategist to the General Secretary at Rotary International. Hamilton says the collaboration “made me really listen to the speeches differently. My ear was very different.”

Hamilton says she operated with the guiding question: “What do we need to hear now?” In doing so, she created a piece that employed a variety of voices, stitching together a single speech out of the voices of 12 children, ages 8 to 17.

Hamilton’s approach to use a collective voice rather than a singular one is at the core of Artists-in-Presidents' ethos. Like nationhood itself, it’s a communal project. “We’re going to replace this one-man hero story with a multivocal entourage, this chorus of people,” said Hockaday. “They’re going to represent all of the voices that have been left out. We’re going to perform public leadership the way we want to see it.”

The full collection of Artists-in-Presidents addresses is available on various podcast platforms and at artistsinpresidents.com.

 

Daniel Hirsch is a journalist, playwright, and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. He is the recipient of a Society of Professional Journalists Award for his work with the news website Mission Local.

 


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