We sat down with artist Constance Hockaday to discuss her project, Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020, which was commissioned by CAP UCLA and will be available online starting in September at cap.ucla.edu and at artistsinpresidents.com.
Q: Can you tell us about yourself and this project?
I’m Constance Hockaday, the director of Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020. Artists-In-Presidents is an art project, but it’s also a civics project. We’ve invited over 50 artists to deliver fireside chat-inspired addresses to the nation alongside the 2020 presidential campaign.
Q: What is a fireside chat?
A fireside chat is what people called this type of national address that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was doing in the thirties. After the Great Depression began, FDR became president and he realized we had this huge crisis, people had lost their faith in democracy. The radio had been invented and he realized he could speak directly to people to overcome their cynicism and ask them to participate in democracy as an act of faith. He takes that moment and he shows up and he says I’m going to come in like this priestess, I’m going to manifest a collective, a new American mass public, I’m going to describe what you, American citizens, could look like if you came together.
This is where the project becomes potent to me. It becomes important because it’s about this overdue need to update the performance of public leadership. After all, even our most celebrated president, in his most famous policies, specifically excluded brown and black people and he interned Japanese-Americans. Our national legacies of liberation have always excluded and erased the voices of the majority of people who live within our arbitrary borders.
That’s what this project is about. It’s about taking these strategies, this conjuring of a potential American mass public, and bringing those strategies to the bodies and the voices of black people, brown people, women, trans people, indigenous people, queers, people that have been erased from the performance of public leadership.
Q: Can you talk about the shape the project has taken?
So I reached out to hundreds of artists and we ended up with about 50 committed artists who are writing their national addresses. We’re recording their performances via audio and turning that into a podcast that we’ll roll out alongside the presidential campaign. So starting at around 50 days out from the campaign, we’ll start releasing one artist at a time on the website and a podcast app, to give our audience the experience of hearing these voices alongside the actual presidential campaign. We’re exploring performances of power, performances of leadership, the history, and the legacy, and the posturing of our public leaders. We have built relationships with retired presidential speechwriters to help artists find their presidential voice.
Each artist is also asked to create a visual companion piece—their presidential portrait. We have left that open to being their aesthetic of power, however they want to do it.
Q: How did you choose artists to participate?
I didn’t want to be the only one choosing artists, so I put together a board of curators and poets that I trust. I asked them to give me names of people, and I sort of whittled down that list and sent the invitations out in waves. Whoever said yes, I then asked to recommend who they thought would be a good person to add to the cast. So it became a chain letter invitation process.
Q: What kind of voices were you looking for?
As I was inviting all these artists, the Black Lives Matter movement reached this place in the public view that it had never reached before, and I asked myself, “where are people that are living in the intersections?” I was particularly drawn to women of color, to complicated identities. As a queer feminist with an immigrant mother, I want to hear from immigrant queer women, I want to hear from trans folks. I want to hear from emotionally intelligent and beautiful Black voices.
I wanted to create an affirmative experience for a listener, to create the experience of being spoken to with dignity, of being witnessed and spoken to from the voice of a leader that sees and hears you. I was looking for people who could speak to some of the most marginalized voices or the most marginalized communities in this country. Our politicians, our public leaders, they talk about black people, they talk about brown people and trans people, but they very rarely ever talk to them.
If we provide people with the experience of young queer black women speaking with vision and speaking intimately from this fantastical national platform, will that ignite in an audience or in other black, young queer women, the thought that maybe they could run for office?
Q: Have recent events affected the project?
I’m an artist who historically works with boats and urban waterways. Around the time that Trump got elected, I was introduced to FDR’s retired presidential yacht, which is docked in Oakland, California. I am not a history buff, I’m not an academic, but I’ve come to understand a lot about the history of this country just through becoming obsessed with this ship. The project was originally about recreating the Fireside Chats, broadcasting these messages from FDR’s ship back to the nation.
Suddenly a pandemic happens, and there’s a complete and total lack of leadership. I’m just thinking, “where’s dad?” You know, where’s the guy that’s going to come and give me something I can believe in? And I realized this project isn’t about broadcasting from FDR’s ship. This is about broadcasting back to FDR’s ship. This is about us becoming “Dad/Mom” (the voice of care) for ourselves and each other. If that makes sense? This is about sending these voices back to the ship to update that history, to update all of the voices that have been erased, have been left out.
Q: What were the biggest surprises in putting the project together?
It struck a nerve. Not just in the artists, but also the speechwriters. A tidal wave of speechwriters showed up in my inbox. There were even conservative Republican speechwriters who worked for the Bush administration that wanted to do this!
Maybe the biggest surprise in this is that I have more empathy for our public leaders than I ever have before. It’s like you’re walking straight into the dark towards a feeling. If there are leaders out there with a true commitment to the common good, they don’t know what an equitable world looks like. Nobody knows what an equitable world looks like. It’s similar to creating new work, it’s just walking towards a feeling… you don’t know what it’s going to be, and it starts to become real by saying it and saying it and saying it, and saying it better and saying it better and saying it better.
Q: What do you think is the role of artists in times of crisis?
In my work, I’ve become very interested in this thing called the normalcy bias, where we get on autopilot and our bodies just continue to see the world as it always has been. To break free of the normalcy bias we have to usually have a fire alarm. The role of the artist is really to just be this sort of professional fire alarm. It’s about breaking us out of our normalcy bias, articulating these complex parts of our human experience that often just get glazed over or taken for granted. The artist is excited by a certain kind of chaos, both making it and finding it. Chaos is a beautiful, beautiful thing. Being in the unnameable, unknowable places is being close to lifeforce.