The 2016 American presidential election season has been even more surreal than usual, with unconventional characters, extreme ideologies, candidates under government investigation, negative campaigning, improbable promises and outlandish claims. The voting process itself has even come under question.
In the middle of that context, British artist Jennet Thomas has created the film and multimedia installation The Unspeakable Freedom Device—which looks at today's politics through a surrealist, distorted lens—currently on display at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. Its dystopian world resembles a medieval environment with futuristic technologies, centered around the persona of "The Blue Lady," a stand-in for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Although the topic is politics, in contrast to the realism of American political satire, the visual style is surrealist, in the tradition of Monty Python and A Clockwork Orange.
"My work takes place in an alternate reality that operates under a kind of dream logic," Thomas says via email. "It's a world similar in some ways to ours, but the rules are different."
The democratic processes we take for granted, which have become subtly subverted by technology and bureaucracy, are more overtly frustrated here, as voting is outlawed, citizens are fed a sense of contentment by the Unspeakable Freedom Device technological instrument, and an Orwellian regime manifests itself. A Thatcher impersonator, as well as totem-esque doll, both utter actual quotes from the Iron Lady.
"This work is probably my most elaborate, and technically ambitious," Thomas, who emerged during the experimental underground film and art scene of 1990s London, and was a co-founder of the Exploding Cinema Collective, says. "But my themes remain: anarchic play, ambiguity, rhetorics of power and belief explored through the weirdly comic."
One of the major themes at play is the political symbolism of the colors red, green and blue in British politics (red and blue are the reverse from the U.S.—red is Left and blue is Right) and the way they are combined in television. The biggest challenge in presenting the work to an American audience became "translation," in a sense: making it resonate with our political reality, which is decidedly different. The work was met with controversy in Blackpool—where the film's scenes take place, and where Thatcher actually gave many notable speeches—and the film's release there in 2015, shortly after her death, was postponed. The UMOCA presentation will be the first time the work has been shown in America.
The show is part of UMOCA's relatively new emphasis on politically charged artworks, most notably in the exhibit Ideologues. Show curator Becca Maksym notes, "I've always been interested in the Reagan/Thatcher relationship, and how that era in both our and Britain's history resonates with contemporary politics. Binaries of liberal/conservative, capitalism/socialism ... and so forth became underlying themes for my 2016 exhibition programming, as I wanted to engage with the animated climate of our presidential election year."
The sculptural elements of the show allow the aesthetic logic of the film world to spill out of the film frame into the physical space of the viewer. The 45-minute piece loops around, and walking in at any point, you can see how it repeats, like a strange dream—and that's part of Thomas' intent as well. It might be taken as symbolic of the way politics spills out into "everyday life," as though that was something that was separate and detached from politics.
The freedom, as symbolized by the device, also seems intended to compel the viewer to question not only the word's use, but also its meaning. "In the film, that 'Unspeakable Freedom device' is a thing—it's the device everyone is supposed to want, that facilitates an enhanced state of being, a state of ultimate upgrade. You wear it around your neck. It wears you," Thomas explains. "[But] 'Freedom' is a very contested, weasel word, much abused by politicians, particularly so historically in the U.S. Freedom from what? There is a darkness in the word 'Unspeakable' that is appropriate to the times we are living in, when the real forces and ideologies that control our lives are hardly spoken of, unexamined."
Thomas' work shows that the reality of political experience is a psychological narrative revealing hidden control mechanisms of the human psyche, acting out dramas that fulfill emotional needs often more than intellectual. The political space is one in which the tools of manipulation are fully brought to bear on the human animal.
"There is a new kind of savagery in the air," Thomas believes, as "freedom" and other words used to describe our unspeakable longings, desires and fears—used, as Noam Chomsky put it, to "manufacture consent."