David Levine: Some of the People, All of the Time
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time,” begins the famous maxim often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” David Levine’s Some of the People, All of the Time takes a closer look at the intertwining of credulity and democracy in our society: Who is being fooled in the political sphere—and by whom? What if a supposedly sincere member of an assembly—a rally, a protest, an online community—is there under false pretenses?
For centuries, people have been paid to join a crowd in order to spin it, a shadowy fact of civic participation that is receiving increasing attention today: bots on social media skew follower counts and undermine public opinion; accusations of “crisis acting” discredit authentic political action; and “crowd-casting” agencies swell the landscape of public demonstrations. Such fabricated participants, alongside rhetorical invocations of the “fake,” have revealed a remarkable fragility within our democracy.
Independently, in the realm of contemporary art, there exists a decades-long history of artists performing quasi-invisible actions in public. These actions have included following people, surveilling, “passing” with a new identity, or subtly provoking unsuspecting onlookers. Paradoxically, the artist’s own body thereby becomes a sort of costume for a veiled, secret role. Performances like these, celebrated in contemporary art, are derided in the discourse of democracy as dangerous “fakes.”
Bridging these practices through the figure of the theatrical actor—someone who gets paid to feel, who makes an art out of being fake—and situating them in the neutral space of a gallery, Some of the People, All of the Time examines spectatorship, self, and the slippage between standing out and fitting in. The exhibition’s centerpiece is the live performance of a monologue, enacted by a rotating cast of professional actors, channeling the emotional life of one such politically “for-hire” individual on a quest for self-awareness. In asking us to consider what is real, the performance also confronts anxiety-provoking questions about agency and identity: Who speaks for you, or through you? From what source do you derive your beliefs? Who claims your allegiance?
Serving simultaneously as a gallery and a stage set, the exhibition features two distinct but related installations of artwork. The exhibition begins with a group of works on paper, chosen by Levine from the Museum’s collection, that focuses on strategies for depicting crowds, swarms, and multitudes. The main gallery presents a set of textually allusive prints by Levine interspersed with ancient Roman sculptures and other Museum objects, which oscillate between readymade, artwork, and prop.
Objects on View
The right to peaceful assembly, like the freedom of speech, is a foundational pillar of democracy—enshrining the power to express common cause. An individual voice joins a louder, more influential chorus. But who sings off-key? The expressive value of a crowd can be all too easily undermined by the merest accusation of insincerity.
The various objects on view in this gallery evoke strength in numbers but also suspicion of outliers. Whether showing an individual within a crowd or the crowd itself, these depictions invite us to search for clues, to question how each participant belongs in the political, social, and civic commons. Who fits in and who stands out? How much of what we see is only a performance? What, in our judgments as spectators and bystanders, distorts the outcome?
May 8, 2018
Part of Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes produced by the Onassis Cultural Center New York
On view at the Brooklyn Museum, May 24–July 8, 2018
With his performative six-week installation at the Brooklyn Museum, artist David Levine asks: What does it mean to make an audience, a public, or a republic? In a free society, crowds matter—as citizens, as demonstrators, as social media followers. Recently, the legitimacy of certain public gatherings—in real life and online—has been called into question: bots on social media have skewed follower counts and undermined public opinion; accusations of “crisis acting” have discredited authentic political action; and “crowd-casting” agencies dot the landscape of protests, rallies, and demonstrations. These fabricated identities, alongside rhetorical invocations of “the fake,” have revealed a remarkable fragility in our democracy.
Levine explores the complexities of these fabricated identities in his new exhibition, Some of the People, All of the Time, on view at the Brooklyn Museum from May 24 to July 8. Levine bridges the worlds of contemporary art, performance, and theater with works that explore the nature of spectatorship, identity, and labor. In Some of the People, he weaves these elements together to examine the contemporary crowd, asking us to consider what is “real.”
The centerpiece of Some of the People is the performance of a monologue by a rotating cast, which takes place on an ongoing basis in the Museum’s Robert E. Blum Gallery. The performance is integrated with an exhibition of new photographic work by Levine and a selection of historical objects from the Museum’s collection.
David Levine: Some of the People, All of the Time is organized by Sara Softness, Assistant Curator, Special Projects, at the Brooklyn Museum. The project is co-presented with the Onassis Cultural Center New York as part of Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes. The Onassis Festival, now in its third year, runs from April 22 to July 8, 2018. This year, its program expands on themes in The Birds, a play by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes interrogating the democratic process, civic engagement and what it takes to build a just society. A new production of the play is staged by Nikos Karathanos at St. Ann’s Warehouse and performances run from May 2 to 13.
“Claques, fake crowds, paid protesters—they’re scandalous because their participants are not present for the right reasons,” Levine explains. “They’re getting paid to give what we’re supposed to give for free.” He continues: “This performed assent or rage or cheering isn’t even theirs, because someone else is speaking through them. But it doesn’t matter if the crowd is actually fake; it’s the accusation that creates trouble. And that underlying anxiety speaks to everyday concerns: Who is speaking through me? What am I trading my identity for, and who am I responsible to?”
The central performances for Some of the People will take place on Thursdays between 2 and 9 pm, as well as on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays between 1 and 6 pm. On Target First Saturdays (June 2 and July 7), Some of the People will be performed between 2 and 9 pm. The performances, which last about 45 minutes, are not ticketed, timed, or seated. Rather, visitors are invited to enter and exit the gallery freely, interacting with the performance as they choose.
Ahead of the exhibition’s opening, David Levine will give a lecture on May 23 at 7 pm in the Museum’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium. His talk will explore the history, theory, and practice of fake crowds, and provide personal insight into the inspiration behind Some of the People, All of the Time. Tickets to the event are free, but reservations are required. Reservations can be made at https://www.showclix.com/event/david-levine/non-member. The lecture will be followed by an informal reception and includes a preview of the exhibition.
Levine’s performances and exhibitions have been presented by Creative Time, REDCAT, MASS MoCA, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MoMA PS1, PS 122, and Fondation Cartier, among others, and have been featured in Artforum, Frieze, BOMB, Theater, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. He is the recipient of a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Related Public Programs: Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes
Birdheart, A Puppet Theater Performance by Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane
Saturday, May 19, 2018, 4 pm, Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Auditorium, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn Museum
Free with Museum general admission
This unique live performance of puppet theater, which is a part of Birds: A Festival Inspired by Aristophanes, is best described as a “chamber piece of animated theater.” Images created by Julian Crouch and Saskia Lane using a sheet of paper, found objects, shadows, and a box of sand tell a story of transformation, loneliness, and how humans interact with each other and the world around them. Resonant for all ages, Birdheart has a recorded soundtrack and no dialogue. More information can be found at https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/calendar/event/birdheart_may_2018.