Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Ordinary Politics: Pictures from Michael Mergen

Precinct 7-1, Centerville, TN, 2010
Ordinary Engagement with the Political

Michael Mergen's photography hung at the ArtChicago fair this month as part of an exhibition featuring the work of 19 top MFA candidates from around the country.  Pictures from Vote, a series that reveals the often unexpected contexts in which Americans cast ballots, stood out for their documentary presentation of scenes in which everyday life becomes a stage for political participation.  A Philadelphia native, Mergen began his career as a photojournalist, and is currently a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design.  His growing portfolio of work, which has been featured in Mother Jones and elsewhere, represents an expanding inquiry into the modes of political participation in America at the level of everyday ritual and routine--not just when we feel like we are performing civic duties.  Mergen's pictures stand as an important commentary on the over-saturation of daily life by the political, exposing ways in which citizens are constantly exposed to civic imperatives in scenes of ordinary life.

Vote Next to the Slot Machine

In a phone conversation this past weekend, Mergen told me that before before shooting images for Vote, he had a very clear set of assumptions about the spaces where elections take place.  "In my mind you vote in a church basement, a library, or city hall," he said.  These are spaces we go to when we want to feel like citizens: places in which we declare ourselves to be part of a collective.  "The series is challenging assumptions about those notions," he said.  They document the diversity of contexts in which political participation takes place, and belie the idea that there are a set of locations deemed appropriate for casting ballots.  In Mergen's images, voting booths appear next to vending machines, slot machines, and stacks of Gatorade bottles, demonstrating that elections take place in a much broader group of spaces that we occupy on a regular basis.

At the same time, the photographs are--with one exception--devoid of people pulling levers or grappling with electronic touch screens.  They are not about voters, but rather about ordinary spaces that feel charged with the political on election days.  In the absence of vot-ers, Vote emphasizes the depersonalization of democratic ritual, perhaps reversing what we normally think of as the defining expression of political individuality and agency in a democratic system.  When figures do appear in Ward 64, Precinct 11, they are covered privacy curtains that humorously replicate a blue automobile cover in the background of what appears to be a garage.  As Mergen put it, "The mechanics of the process are nationalized or systematized."  As a consequence of this standardization, we take ourselves to be swept into the collectivizing abstract space of national identity.

On one hand, this sense of belonging is reassuring, and we feel ourselves to be characters in the unifying patriotic narrative.  But on the other, it constitutes a manipulation of individuals that is necessary to the reproduction of democratic institutions.  We become part of the machine of democracy when we vote, and the fantasy of individual expression is shot through with a sensation that our vote might not actually matter: that we are being erased from the political process as soon as we pull the curtain behind us--that our identity is being effaced whenever we consider ourselves with respect to the collective electorate.  "Voting becomes a disembodied act of citizenship," Mergen said.  The upshot is that we submit ourselves to a process that makes our individuality abstract--expressible in a unit of political participation.

Mergen's images are not criticizing this process, but they do seem interested in exposing otherwise hidden instances when the ordinary becomes a scene for overt political action.  What does it mean when voting booths are situated in casinos, convenience stores, or in a private home surrounded by what are likely family portraits of soldiers?  It seems that these pictures are invested in a correction of our assumption that voting takes place in spaces reserved for civic participation.  It's not just voting (or jury duty--one of Mergen's recent series is called Deliberate, and he takes photographs of the sparse, though often humorous, furnishings of jury rooms).  They are alive to the contradiction between our expectation of what constitutes political participation, and the reality of political saturation of ordinary spaces.

Saturated Landscapes

In two other series, Mergen pushes beyond the overt cases when we take part in political processes, and engages with more abstract instances in which the political reaches into the blank, mundane spaces of everyday routine and ritual.  In 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he presents photographs of the White House's famous address in other parts of the country.  The idea here seems simple enough.  An otherwise ordinary address takes on a layer of meaning because of its association with Washington.  But we may also read these images as exposing the pervasiveness of abstract political power even in the absence of direct references to the Capital City.  The famous address can call our attention to wider markers of our identity as subjects of citizenship narratives--the way we are constantly bombarded with images and rhetoric that binds us to a collective identity.

The degree to which these connections have become abstract becomes most apparent than in Mergen's latest body of work, a set of images of highway sections named for War Veterans, Victims of War or Terrorism, and other groups deemed worthy of patriotic designation.  What's interesting here is the active intrusion of the political into an ordinary space.  "Voting is an elective sport," Mergen said, referring not just to the electing of officials, but to the fact that voting represents voluntary participation in the political process.  Even in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the association with the political requires an act of interpretation and association.  By contrast, "driving is an apolitical, functional act," at least when it comes to our relatively low expectations to engage in narratives of patriotism. (Though I think you could argue that a choice to place political bumper stickers and flags on cars make driving somewhat more political). The significance of works like The American Ex-Prisoner of War Memorial Highway, I-695, Connecticut (2010) and The United Spanish American War Veterans Highway, Massachusetts (2010) rests again in the juxtaposition of the title with the bare ordinariness of the space that it designates.  But in this case, the rhetorical function of the signs is precisely to invest an ordinarily apolitical space with the rhetoric of patriotism.

These are situations in which the political/patriotic narratives of citizenship in the United States are thrust upon us.  A number of important questions emerge: Who do we determine to be worthy of memorializing in this way?  Why is this even deemed an appropriate way to memorialize individuals in the first place?  Does the act of seeing these signs--the mere fact of driving on roads dedicated to the memory of someone--constitute a patriotic act?  Is this the purpose of these designations in the first place?  Finally--what will it mean when we see "Victims of 9/11 Memorial Connector Road"?

Under contemporary conditions, given the saturation of ordinary life with the political, perhaps any death can be claimed as patriotic (think of the "Heroic Victims of 9/11").  The subsequent question must be: Should we be worrying about this?  What does the presence of the political or patriotic in our ordinary lives mean for our agency as members of a collective?  Mergen gives us the aesthetic works necessary to think through these questions.

All images reproduced here with permission from Mike Mergen.  You can find his site here.

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