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A public exercise in leadership

Artists-in-Presidents: Transmissions to Power is a series of 21 audio addresses by artists assuming positions of leadership. We spoke to Constance Hockaday, the project’s creator, about imagining futures that speak to all. 

Ravyn Wngz

Presidential portrait of Ravyn Wngz, 2021. Part of Artists-in-Presidents: Transmissions to Power, a project by Constance Hockaday commissioned by The Blackwood. Photo: Jackie Brown.

Artists-in-Presidents: Transmissions to Power is an ambitious art project presented by the Blackwood, University of Toronto Mississauga, that asks how we can imagine collective futures. Who should be granted the opportunity to lead the masses, especially in times of crisis? How can artists intervene in the outdated models of elite leadership that we have historically inherited and embodied? How can we acknowledge and respond to the complexities of local and global struggles? 

Drawing inspiration from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era speeches, known as fireside chats, Chilean-American artist Constance Hockaday brought together 50 artists, artists, writers, performers and cultural thinkers to address the American public with audio addresses, positioning themselves as world leaders who speak directly to the people and describe their vision(s) for the future. The first iteration of the project was released in 2020 and coincided with the US presidential election as well as the first year of the pandemic. In a collaborative process, Hockaday guided artists with speechwriters and technical support to create their presidential addresses and portraits. They were decidedly outside the historical norm, acknowledging that society has often excluded Black, Indigenous and People of Colour and different genders.

Since early 2021, the Blackwood, University of Toronto Mississauga has been working with Hockaday to widen the perimeters of this project for a new iteration. Twenty-one Indigenous and international visionaries from across Turtle Island, England, Bahrain, Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, Indonesia, India and Lebanon have been given a platform to re-shape what power truly is. The project is already underway with new audio addresses that will be released weekly until mid-December 2021. Curated by Christine Shaw, featured artists include Ravyn Wngz, Luis Jacob, Adrian Stimson, Irmgard Emmelhainz, Melati Suryodarmo and many more. 

AGOinsider recently connected with Hockaday for an illuminating, in-depth conversation.

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AGOinsider: Why is this project relevant for the times that we find ourselves in?

Hockaday: I feel like I have to tell you a backstory. I also don't love to centre this story, because I don't want this project or at least this iteration to be so centred in the US and American exceptionalism, but it is relevant.

Most of my projects have been about the waters, our largest public space, and asking, how do we take risks in this public space? How do we take risks in general, to find our power and create the kind of worlds that we need and want so that we can thrive? I came across FDR's retired presidential yacht and I thought about how weird it is. This vestige of presidential power. It's where he came to write and where he wrote his famous fireside chats. I wanted to take over that ship and open a floating social club to build a different kind of unity power, and recreate the fireside chats with different voices, not just this one white man's hero's story, even though he was our most liberal and socialist president. I wanted to update him with these new fireside chats and have them projected back into the ghost of his ship. But then, obviously, that couldn't happen  because of the pandemic. So, instead we did these Artists-in-Presidents as a way to build towards the ship project. It was centred on the presidential campaign. COVID was happening, accelerating and everyone was freaking out. We had this terrible president, there was no voice of care. There was no voice of vision. FDR was successful at describing a potential American mass public that was so captivating that people then started to act in the ways that he was describing. I wanted to make a thing like that for us, from us and we did it. 

The Blackwood came around and we thought about de-centring the US and how we've inherited this performance of leadership in all different parts of the globe. In Western positions of power and leadership, you can see it in all these presidential portraits and leadership portraits as colonization began. All of it got so pared down and went into this very Western, very stark approach. We've inherited this way of leadership and if we learn from imitation, if we learn to speak, if we learn our culture, if we learn our genders through imitating the people around us ... what are we imitating here? Are we imitating these poses, the cadence, the vernacular?

We asked if we could create a situation where people have an opportunity to imitate something else. Something more resonant and more caring. Not a leader talking about racism, about poverty, about migrant children, but speaking to those communities. It feels relevant right now because there's so much nationalism building in the world. It feels relevant because COVID is crazy. It feels like a moment. And, it probably has always felt this way but especially after Trump, for at least for me, when I listen to our public leaders speak, it now feels much easier to point out the propaganda and manipulation. I think that we need to hear voices that we trust. There's been so much betrayal.

AGOinsider: Well, on that note, what has the reception been throughout the presidential election and everything that has happened since? What have people said in response to this project in light of those events?

Hockaday: During the presidential election, several people that are close to me reached out and said “this is exactly what I need to hear right now". There was so much toxic stuff happening in the media that my hope was that people would turn to this and ground themselves in it. When there's all of this political jargon and sides being carved out, like between the liberals and the conservatives making everything so black and white, it can be hard to know what is real. I wanted people to find the parts of it that felt true to them and ground themselves in that. [I wanted them] to normalize something else that feels more true to things that many of us care about the most, like protecting the earth, freedom for all, etc. Like all of the communication that's coming at us from our leaders is information, but it's also strategic. I wanted a place where leaders, meaning artists, thinkers and performers, could speak some truth, free of that strategy. 

AGOinsider: You're giving people a space to be heard and also having their lived experiences reflected back to them in a very honest way. You mention that there can be a lot of manipulation and saying of things in a carefully worded way, especially in politics. And by choosing more creative people like artists, thinkers, intellectuals, there's a level of authenticity that people respond to.

Hockaday: Yes. And for me, a big part of it was offering people the dignity of a leader that speaks care to them. And so, I worked with the artists a lot. Some of them probably got frustrated with me for this, but they would approach these addresses with a ton of rage at the oppressive forces that have shaped the world. And I understand that, and there must be space for that. But I often would ask them if they had any interest in redirecting that energy into saying things that they would need to hear from a leader to not feel those ways. Let's speak to people and give them the experience of a leader that cares about them, or the things that they care about. That was a big learning process for everyone. 

AGOinsider: Getting to the root of the anger or beyond the anger?

Hockaday: I do think that anger is very important. It's delicate. But there were some people where I was like, 'Would you be willing to give an address to your rage?' And people rose to that. It was amazing.

Adrian Stimson

Presidential portrait of Adrian Stimson, 2021. Part of Artists-in- Presidents: Transmissions to Power, a project by Constance Hockaday commissioned by The Blackwood. Photo: Blaire Russell.

AGOinsider: How did you select artists for this? How did you partner with the 21 additional artists that you chose?

Hockaday: So, it was very different from last time. Last time, it was more like a chain letter. This time, we decided to only produce 21. We wanted to lean into certain perspectives. We wanted to hear from Indigenous peoples, especially Indigenous artists [from across Turtle Island]. We wanted a range of ages, which we, sort of, were able to pull off. The Blackwood team is amazing as well. They put together a huge list of international artists, and then, we sent out the invitations and people responded. We said 'Okay, let's have this perspective and that perspective. We want to make sure that we have perspectives from different parts of the world.' Like, what about this woman in Indonesia? What about this Muslim queer woman? So, that's how it happened.

AGOinsider: You mentioned this at the beginning of our conversation, but depending on what happens with the pandemic, how do you see the project evolving in the future?

Hockaday: So, there are three dreams. The first is an art book with portraits and texts. Two: some sort of presidential portrait gallery exhibition with the portraits, and other multimedia aspects that people could experience, all together in one space. But, the real vision is if we got some artists from both iterations of the project and we went into international waters. Okay, so this is going to sound weird. In the corporate world, executives go through these facilitated processes called “futuring”. The company starts to imagine how the world will be different because of the work that they're doing. This is also really annoying, because why is this couched in capitalism? Why don't we do some “visioning” around the work that we're doing that has nothing to do with the product? And so, in the same way that I was excited to build this communications department for artists to make these addresses, it would be cool to bring artists into international waters and lead them through some facilitated processes that are about “futuring”. I don't know what it will be. But it's like off-site training.

AGOinsider: Like a mentorship, residency or gathering? 

Hockaday: Yeah. They would come in, and we would do some discovery work. We would work with each artist to get an idea of what would be the most interesting and exciting for them to think about the future and put themselves in a position [to move} towards that. And then, we would design these exercises, and generate content. An exhibition would come out of that. Yeah, that would be my dream for this group of people who are so brilliant.

Melati Suryodarmo

Presidential portrait of Melati Suryodarmo, 2021. Part of Artists-in-Presidents: Transmissions to Power, a project by Constance Hockaday commissioned by The Blackwood. Photo: Harry Harantio.

AGOinsider: Would you ever, and this ties into your “futuring” idea, build connections between those people? Between those 70 artists for collaborative projects?

Hockaday: Yeah, for me, that's what bringing them together would be about. It's not only about this idea of “futuring”. It's giving people the opportunity to spend time together and talk because oftentimes when people from different disciplines sit together and talk, they have different kinds of ideas than they would if they [were working] all alone. If I'm a writer, and you are a sculptor, all of a sudden, the thing that we would make together is so much more than either of our practices. And so for me, that is part of bringing the artists together in some sort of off-site project. 

AGOinsider: What is the role of art in a time of crisis? Or when dealing with the social upheaval of, say the past two years alone?

Hockaday: So, it's going to sound like I'm rejecting your question. I feel like we all have a role. I think all of our roles have to be creative. Whether you are a person who works in an office, or you are a person who works for the city, or whatever it is that you do, we all have to be creative, vigilant and willing to learn too. Stand up for the things that need to change in our world, in the worlds that are happening around us. Of course, there's big stuff like climate change that's hard to [directly] address within your workplace, but, I think, for the most part, it's a culture shift. The most immediate impacts are going to be in the spaces that we occupy. So, in your neighbourhood, in your workplace, in your family. Instead of abandoning those places, and putting your attention somewhere else or escaping it, being willing to make those places better. I know that I'm not answering the role of the artist, but I don't believe in exceptionalism. I don't think artists are exceptional. I think we all have to do our part. We all are going to have to be creative. We just have to be willing to show up and be honest, caring and loving with each other and even with people that we don't agree with. 

AGOinsider: That is a great answer. Anything else you want to elaborate on?

Hockaday: One more thing is that the whole premise of this project is very flawed. I'm learning about how to describe the things I'm trying to get at in better ways and the more I go into this project. For example, I will talk about "performing power". And that can be, from an Indigenous perspective anyway, so white. Like "what do you mean, perform power or perform leadership?" A lot of it is specific to the language and experience that I have had in this world. There are so many problems with the questions that I'm asking, and that is part of it for me. There is no perfect way. We have to start with our imperfect understanding, our imperfect language, our imperfect selves, and be willing to show up for the conversations that are presented. 

AGOinsider: That just makes me think, should the goal be perfection? Or should you accept it how it is and let it evolve as it continues? As part of the process?

Hockaday: Yeah, I mean, I believe that is a part of the process, at least I have had to accept that. And it's difficult because, within a cancel culture, it's hard to be imperfect. It's vulnerable. I'm trying to make space and make more visible my acceptance of my imperfection in this process so that when people listen hopefully, instead of focusing on how imperfect the questions are, they can hear how the artists who have shown up for this project are resolving the problems of my question through their responses.  

Irmgard Emmelhainz

Presidential portrait of Irmgard Emmelhainz, 2021. Part of Artists-in-Presidents: Transmissions to Power, a project by Constance Hockaday commissioned by The Blackwood. Photo: Lake Verea.

From now until December 17, listen to this iteration of Artists-in-Presidents: Transmissions to Power wherever you listen to podcasts: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud or directly on artistsinpresidents.com or The Blackwood website. Audio addresses are released once a week on Fridays. Follow #ArtistsInPresidents on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for even more information. 

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