Declining Democracy

Francis Alÿs
Michael Bielicky &
Kamila B. Richter

Roger Cremers
Juan Manuel Echavarría
Thomas Feuerstein
Thomas Hirschhorn
Thomas Kilpper
Lucy Kimbell
Cesare Pietroiusti
Artur Żmijewski



Physical Bar Charts, 2011
Installation view at CCC Strozzina, Palazzo

Physical Bar Charts is a participative project developed by the designer Lucy Kimbell in collaboration with the sociologist Andrew Barry, starting in 2008 and reproposed within different exhibitions, trying to respond to the distinct and specific nature of places and contexts.
In the new production conceived for CCC Strozzina, the work comprises eight two-meter tall transparent pipes. Each pipe contains coloured buttons with different messages, often referring to everyday and ordinary actions, expressed through a first person singular “I”. Visitors are invited to take out and wear those buttons that correspond to their individual answer to the question: what did you do last week that made you a citizen?
During the course of the exhibition, the pipes become a kind of histogram, a bar graph that displays the degree of social activism of the participants. Day after day, Physical Bar Charts visualizes the behaviour of the visitors of the exhibition like a polling agency graph that shows the political and social tendencies of the population.
Contrary to professional statistical studies on voting behaviour, always based on data whose sources remain anonymous, the piece traces a visual connection between the individuals wearing the buttons and their recent behaviour, allowing for a public demonstration of their actions and decisions. This way, the experience proposed by the work provides the opportunity to reflect on a basic element of democracy: the public assertion of one’s own position.
The so-called “badges” are objects that have belonged to the culture of mankind for centuries. Made out of different materials, since the Middle Ages they have been used as public signs of membership, recognition and identification by single individuals or groups.
Later came the “buttons”, simple metal disks with a pin to be attached to garments as an expression of North American pop culture. In 1789, they were used for the first time in a political context during George Washington’s first public appearance as president in New York, which was the capital of the United States at the time. He and his backers wore buttons reading “G.W. – Long Live the President” at his first official speech. From that occasion they are part of popular culture, especially that of younger people, and are used to express not only political beliefs, but also musical tastes and fashion trends.  
The individual involvement and the collective demonstration of the action proposed by Kimbell, together with the strongly concrete and ordinary dimension of the phrases that the people chose to wear, also triggers a reflection on the distance between politics and everyday life. The growing separation of the citizens from official politics is a crucial element of the history of contemporary democracy, as proven by recent episodes occurred in all Western countries. Kimbell offers an answer to a more and more urgent request for involvement, calling the individuals to expose themselves in first person and affirm their role as citizens, bringing politics back to a concrete dimension of facts and actions of everyday life.

Lucy Kimbell (1966, Pembury, UK; lives and works in London) is an artist, designer, researcher and educator. She has taught an MBA elective on design at Said Business School, University of Oxford, since 2005. She originally studied engineering design and appropriate technology, then took a master degree in digital media and she is now completing doctoral work at the University of Lancaster. In addition to working through her consultancy studio Fieldstudio, she is an associate at TaylorHaig (London) and The Policy Lab (Boston), both working to innovate in public service design. Recent keynotes include the Service Design Network (2010), Design Management Institute (2010) and Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (2008). She publishes in peer-reviewed journals as well as trying to find ways to make academic work more digestible to wider publics. Her work has been shown internationally including in the interdisciplinary exhibition Making Things Public (2005) curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel and TEDGlobal (2011).

Declining Democracy