The Liberty of Empire


Written in response to Matthew Friday’s exhibition, The Liberty of Empire, on view at 1708 Gallery from January 7 to February 12, 2011.

When the Texas Board of Education elected in 2010 to eliminate Thomas Jefferson from their history textbooks – one of hundreds of revisions they claim restores balance and conservatism to secondary education curriculum – their decision raised to the level of national inspection the process by which individuals and small groups in positions of editorial authority make decisions about how history is represented, and how education is subsequently printed, bound and disseminated to reflect that representation. The Texas vote captured both the attention and imagination of artist Matthew Friday, whose installation, entitled “The Liberty of Empire,” explores Jefferson’s cherished ideologies of republicanism, agrarianism, liberal arts, and socio-economic utopias in the multi-dimensional context of a classroom/gallery space.

Friday’s classroom installation juxtaposes old and new media spanning centuries of technological evolution. A portable printing press – similar in scale to the portable copying press invented by Jefferson – sits opposite a computer work station; a digital projection covers a wall perpendicular to a chalkboard; and textbooks supporting a cross-section of academic disciplines fill a semi-portable, rolling bookstand/study carrel in an homage to the portable desk Jefferson designed for his own varied intellectual pursuits. The arrangement begs comparison of dissemination methods, consideration of the development and exchange of socio-political ideas in the current culture, as well as the efficacy of tools widely used in contemporary education.

Also implicit in the arrangement of Friday’s media stations is an invitation not simply to view, read and glide by, but to take unexpected liberties with the elements of his exhibit. Visitors are fundamentally encouraged to touch, draw, experiment, write, print, discuss, and debate – in short, to use the gallery space and its contents to explore first-hand the themes of his project. He intends for viewers to make connections not only to image and object, but also among old and new ideologies,various technologies, and seemingly disparate academic disciplines. Most importantly, his aim is an open exchange among individuals in the gallery, and in the virtual space into which his contemporary, social experiment extends.

Consequently, Friday has erected a metaphorical foundation onto which participants build – literally and figuratively – an exploratory dialogue that considers some specific questions about history and its uses in current and future iterations of culture, politics, and public discourse. Answers submitted to Friday’s online questionnaire are printed on vellum. Answers are superimposed over a fractal pattern generated by singular responses and printed on a vellum sheet, resulting in a visual representation of the density and intensity of language in concert with pages of text. The vellum sheets are positioned on the gallery wall according to their tone and content. As they are added to the wall, they gradually obscure a line drawing of Jefferson’s historic home, Monticello, inspired by an image which originally appeared on the back of the US $2 bill (Jefferson’s portrait is on the front of the bill). Use of the image, and the calculated act of obscuring it fulfill a grand metaphor representing the process by which layers of experience and interpretation affect historical perspective, and change what we can readily apprehend. Thus, participants create and embellish an essential dimension of the installation.

Voluntary, public involvement is vital to Friday’s project, and perfectly in keeping with Jefferson’s notions of citizenship, civil liberties, and civic duty. In this way, art, social awareness, and scholarly examination are synonymous expressions of community engagement. And because participants proffer very personal views about the value of history as a cultural collective and as an individual experience, the exercise engenders intellectual and social empowerment. Even if there is disagreement about the ideal uses and conservation of history, there is, at the very least, an unfiltered conversation among citizens on the subject.

Friday’s project admonishes participants to consider carefully how histories are prioritized, categorized and disseminated. Subsequent decisions made in assembling the dominant record of history arguably establish and reinforce cultural values and societal agendas that are reflected in the arts, politics, commerce….even textbooks.

The current age, with its array of media, provides, as never before, a plethora of “instruments, institutions and practices” (Friday questionnaire) for capturing events and documenting experience. Though this places a greater burden of circumspection and evaluation on the researcher, the availability of unfiltered experience, within the context of focused exploration, enriches the broad record of chronological events, and validates myriad marginal histories that comprise the chorus ofcultural experience. Hence, it seems utterly counter-intuitive, if not futile, to attempt to suppress any view of history; Friday’s project, with its initiation of open dialogue, invites close consideration of that collective chorus.

Yet this does not speak to ownership of the discipline, a question that may, indeed, be the cornerstone of Friday’s entire project: who owns history? In a letter to James Madison, Jefferson stated that the “earth belongs always to the living generation.” Thus it may also be where history is concerned. But with ownership comes responsibility, and, hopefully, a necessary measure of humility as temporary caretakers of the record of human existence. When a handful of citizens decides to alter – or utterly erase – portions of that record, the public balance is bound to weigh the consequences, or by ignoring, suffer them. Bet a $2 bill on it.

Robin Ashworth
VCU/Media, Art & Text

Robin R. Ashworth
is currently a doctoral student in the Media, Art and Text program at Virginia Commonwealth University, and an adjunct faculty member. She has taught regularly in the Department of English, and periodically in the School of Mass Communications at VCU for over 15 years. She has published artist reviews for the VCU GAA Catalog, and is currently pursuing a documentary project exploring the effects of new media on West African griot culture, and oral traditions. She wholly embraces an immersive, cross-disciplinary approach to academics, and has long been an enthusiast of the arts at home and abroad.

ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.

IMAGE CREDITS: details from Matthew Friday’s site specific installation, The Liberty of Empire, 2011, 1708 Gallery, Richmond, VA, photography by Kathleen Jones
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