Upcoming exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography turns the lens on democracy

By Lauren Leazenby, Staff Reporter

Lucas Smith

The desolate site of the Unabomber’s Montana cabin, a 1950s woman dressed up for a civil rights event and the ghostlike shell of a once-segregated school are just a few of the images Art and Art History Department Professor Joan Giroux feels represent democracy.

The photos are from the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan Ave., and may end up as part of the upcoming exhibit “What Democracy Looks Like,” which will explore the current state of democracy through the eyes of Giroux and six other faculty guest curators.

The exhibit will open Monday, July 13 and run through Sunday, Sept. 27, but the seven faculty members have already begun the process of selecting pieces from the MoCP’s permanent collection to be displayed in the exhibit.

Representing several different disciplines, these faculty members will bring their areas of expertise to the exhibit, said Kristin Taylor, curator of Academic Programs and Collection Instruction at the MoCP. While the faculty are free to approach the theme however they choose, Taylor said most are looking to the upcoming elections as a source of inspiration.

Giroux said she is focusing on the photographs of locations and physical spaces.

“[I am] thinking about space and how the shapes of the spaces that we are in and the objects that surround us inform us in understanding democracy,” she said.

Giroux is looking through every photograph of the MoCP’s 16,000-piece permanent collection in alphabetical order by artist to make her selections. Now one-third of the way through, she has already chosen more than 300 images, which she will have to narrow down.

Being forced to pick just a handful of pieces from the collection has caused her to think about whose perspectives are most important to put on display, she said.

“How do we have one stand for the many, or many stand for the one?” Giroux said. “In democracy, there’s always a little bit of a push and pull between those things.”

Guest curator Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin, an associate professor in the Communication Department, said the current political climate makes it timely for the museum to join a larger cultural conversation about the state of democracy in this country.

She said she was invited to be a curator, in part, because of her work with voter registration on campus.

“I feel one of the things democracy looks like is a place where as many people as possible register to vote,” Bloyd-Peshkin said.

Another facet of a healthy democracy, she said, is free press. Many of the pieces she has selected so far are created by photojournalists, photos she said represent first-hand documentation of events.

Joshua Fisher, an assistant professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department, will implement augmented reality in the exhibit to symbolize his sense that democracy is currently experiencing a breakdown.

Fisher is designing a device that will record viewers’ comments about what they see in the exhibit. An algorithm will corrupt that message, and someone will walk around the exhibition space broadcasting the misconstrued version of what they are saying.

“My hope and my belief is that, July through September, the space will become crowded with a whole bunch of augmented reality agents speaking nonsense, which will perhaps parallel what is happening in our political space,” Fisher said.

To complement the augmented reality, Fisher will also select pieces for the exhibit. He said he is interested in the tension between urban and suburban communities, and is hoping to juxtapose Greg Stimac’s lawn mowing portraits with historical images of protests.

Other faculty chosen as guest curators include Assistant Professor Melanie Chambliss of the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department; Associate Provost for Faculty Research and Development Ames Hawkins, who is also a professor in the English and Creative Writing Department; Associate Professor Raquel Monroe of the Dance Department, who also serves as co-director of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and Associate Professor of Instruction Onur Öztürk of the Art and Art History Department.

Making use of the large and diverse on-site collection is an important function of this exhibit, Taylor said, as well as engaging the college to be more involved with what the MoCP does.

“We’re always trying to grow and really be more and more integrated with what the college is doing, and to really always be in touch with the work that all of the students and faculty are doing across the college,” Taylor said.