What Does Democracy Look Like?

Thursday, Oct 1 – Dec 23, 2020

Columbia College Chicago
600 S. Michigan
Chicago, IL 60605

Reserve a ticket to the exhibition

The Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago (MoCP) presents What Does Democracy Look Like? from October 1 – December 23, 2020. Leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the  MoCP  has invited seven faculty members from various departments at Columbia College Chicago to mine the  MoCP’s  permanent collection of nearly 16,000 objects. Each curator has interpreted the museum’s collection to consider what democracy means to them, and how photographic images record and shape our understanding of current and historical events. This exhibition will not only showcase photography from the collection, but will also feature participatoryelements, including onsite voter registration. 

With more than 200 works on view, the exhibition includes work by artists including Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Dawoud Bey, Patty Carroll, Darryl Cowherd, Krista Franklin, Dorothea Lange, Danny Lyon, Carlos Javier Ortiz, Gordon Parks, Art Shay, Carrie Mae Weems, and Garry Winogrand, among many others.  

Within this umbrella, the seven different interpretations of visualizing democracy are varied in approach. In one collection of images, photojournalism—and a free press in general—is examined as essential to democracy. Featuring photographs that display moments portraying our shared humanity, including stories of endurance and protest, as well as gains and struggles, photojournalists present the realities of the current moment and allow a society to envision what the alternative might look like.  

In another gallery, the historical roots of democracy, particularly who has been denied voting rights in American history, is displayed. 2020 is the 150th anniversary of the 15th amendment’s ratification and the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment’s, two landmark moments that allowed many more Americans to vote. With this history in mind, viewers are presented with images signifying that which has changed, while acknowledging the continued lack of voting access for many, due to felon disenfranchisement and voter suppression. 

Other curators make apparent the connection between technology and the democratic state. One curator uses red and blue photographs from the MoCP collection as a data visualization of the popular vote in the last ten presidential elections in the US, inviting the viewer to reconsider the beliefs, values, and mythologies associated with this American two-party system. Another gallery uses augmented reality to highlight the toxic relationship between democracy and technology, through an interactive installation wherein visitors are encouraged to speak into an iPad, which uses an algorithm to corrupt their language, demonstrating the ways in which words are coopted and distorted through corporate technologies. 

Other highlights include more optimistic conceptual approaches to the question of visualizing democracy, including a selection of images tied to the concept of Black femme joy, featuring photographs that capture Black girls, women, and gender non-conforming femmes as they exercise their freedom to joyfully occupy public and private spaces. Another gallery uses images of nature, particularly the tree, as a metaphor for an inclusive democracy and ultimately, a free society.  

“We are excited to partner with members of the Columbia College Chicago faculty to present this exhibition that not only interprets the concept of democracy, but also considers how the museum’s collection can be used to represent where we see, or don’t see, democracy thriving in the world we live in,” said curator of academic programs and collections Kristin Taylor. 

The exhibition is organized by MoCP chief curator and deputy director Karen Irvine and curator of academic programs and collections Kristin Taylor. Guest curators include:  Melanie Chambliss,  Ph.D., Assistant Professor of African American History;  Joshua A. Fisher,  Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Immersive Media, Interactive Arts and Media;  Joan Giroux,  Professor, Art and Art History Department;  Ames Hawkins, Ph.D.,  Professor of English and Creative Writing;  Raquel L. Monroe,  Associate Professor of Dance;  Onur  Öztürk, Ph.D.,  Associate Professor of Instruction, Art and Art History Department; Sharon  Bloyd-Peshkin,  Associate Professor of Journalism.   

There will be a panel discussion on Thursday, October 8, 2020 addressing  voter disenfranchisement, moderated by guest curator Sharon  Bloyd-Peshkin.