It’s a bit like those scenes in movies where people try to escape the Gestapo by racing through alleys and canals and empty plazas to the gates of the nearest friendly embassy – except it’s just navigating the outdoor dining tables on the bustling Main St., El Segundo sidewalk, and then you’re in. Welcome to the Free Republic of California, established 2020.
Interdisciplinary artist Cole Sternberg’s installation begins with a “canvassing office” opening directly off the building’s bright lobby, where the new nation’s reconfigured state seal is proudly displayed (a modified version of the current one most notably with just the one star now) along with artist-made gear, literature, merch, and propaganda materials, and an intricate white-board style breakdown of the plan.
A second chamber traces the intertwining threads of California’s myth, legend, problematic origin stories, and pop culture signifiers; and also displays the mission statements, fully realized constitution, and international diplomatic agendas that will form the basis of the government. “California Dreamin’” plays on an endless loop from a vintage wooden cabinet of books and memory objects, and among the documents a series of images present vistas of majestic California landscapes mediated, augmented, and obscured with gestural objects and shapes from modern art.
The final room opens on a wide, tall, bright space with monumental, emotional, and affecting photography-based and sculptural installation, the nation’s hand-sewn flag presiding. A massive wrought-iron ranch gate tells a story of craftsmanship, wealth and land-grabbing, invoking the mythology of the cowboy and the invasiveness of settlements in an Ozymandian nod to the absurdity of the very notion of “owning” the land. A careworn photo-based mural aggregates the cinematic drama of the Pacific sunset into a collage of our signature shared dream. FREESTATE may be laid out like a museum exhibition, but in reality, it’s the manifesto for a movement.
The Free Republic of California as a plan is surprisingly well thought through. The site is complete with the plan for secession and a digital library of newly drafted policy papers, agreements and treaties, as well as a historical archive. In its incarnated aspects as a conceptual-art armature, FREESTATE addresses concepts of human rights, the environment, democracy and freedom through strategies of participatory multimedia culled in equal parts from art history and political activism.
As its founding document states, “We, the People of California, in order to form a more perfect and peaceful society, establish justice, ensure tranquility, preserve the earth, promote the general welfare, and secure our collective liberty and posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the Free Republic of California.”
One of its iterations is the activation of its public welcome space with guest artist Álvaro Daniel Márquez’s related but self-contained project, Ecologies of Displacement, an installation which in its recognition of the indigenous peoples of this land seeks to recognize their erasures at the hands of settlers who came in waves. At the same time, the work honors and reactivates indigenous societies’ attitude of stewardship rather than ownership of the land we occupy, and what such a reimagination might mean for the structural policies of, say, a free and independent progressive new state. It’s also quite beautiful.
Márquez is an interdisciplinary artist and researcher who is best known for his accomplishments as a print-maker, employing traditional techniques to depict contemporary urban scenes and explore narratives of immigration and displacement. His poetic and rather haunting installation is an inky black tree which emerges from the wall, its canopy of fluttering gold leaves and harvest of linocut acorns all made with printer’s tools and speaking in a voice of somber contemplation, the magic of earth spirits, the embellishment of rituals, and the symbolism of bounty. The inclusion of the names of murdered and displaced indigenous tribes and their languages makes the dimension of loss inescapable in the work, even as the hopefulness of shimmering leaves lifts the spirits.
Everywhere throughout this work and indeed the entirety of the ESMoA installation shines an aura of nostalgia and mythology, cut with the politics of independence and settlement, the knotty layering of theft upon theft, the dream and the allure of the West, the glories and deep disappointments of its reality. This could be California’s last chance to live up to its promises, the show seems to warn.
But first, we’ve got to reckon with how we got here, and then we can perhaps more mindfully rebuild. In a sense both Sternberg and Márquez are simply asking questions about what such an effort would look like as both an energy and an implementation. It’s art, but you get the sense they’re serious about it. And maybe we should be, too.
ESMoA (El Segundo Museum of Art), 208 Main St., El Segundo. FREESTATE is on view, and Márquez will be in residence on site, through March 27; esmoa.org/experience/freestate.