Community Arts Network Reading Room/Art in the Public Interest

Articles, Essays, Interviews & Memoir
“What Does Democracy Look Like?”

democracy curiosity remakeCo-author with Lucy Winner in 2005

One of the most popular chants heard at recent anti-war demonstrations around the country is a call-and-response about democracy. It has an infectious rhythm and is passed back and forth, usually between a single voice posing the challenge, Show me what democracy looks like! — and an exuberant, raucous group reply that goes: THIS is what democracy looks like!

In the spring of 2004 we embarked on a project with a group of students at the Metropolitan Center of Empire State College, the State University of New York’s alternative college for adults. We wanted to uncover what democracy looked like to our students, right now, in New York City. Our “Democracy Project: A Laboratory in Arts and Civic Dialogue” encouraged students to explore ways to “perform democracy” — that is, to respond to current political, social and civic matters by making art together. The goal was for students to examine their own experiences and expectations of “public” acts of citizenship — marching, performing, participating on a jury, politicking. This looking would lay the groundwork for a multidisciplinary performance. We wanted to use the arts as a means to engage ourselves, our students and the larger community in dialogue. More