Artist and activist on the u.s.: “the stakes are high”

Artist Marisa J. Futernick has worked on Presidential Libraries. A conversation about Trump’s legacy and the U.S. system of government.

"Roosevelt’s Little White House," Warm Springs, Georgia Photo by Marisa J. Futernick.

taz at the weekend: Ms. Futernick, at the end of Trump’s term, it seems unlikely that he will endow a Presidential Library, doesn’t it?

Marisa J. Futernick: Whether Trump likes it or not, the Constitution requires him to make all documents from his term available after he leaves. The Watergate affair made that mandatory. At the time, Richard Nixon tried to delete phone calls that incriminated him. Perhaps Trump is also concealing illegal activities, but senses the chance to build a shrine to the myth of his person. It might look like the gift store in New York’s Trump Tower.

You’ve done photographic work about presidential libraries. What do Presidential Libraries symbolize in general?

born in 1980 and raised in Detroit, works on themes like "American Dream." For her book project "13 Presidents" (Slimvolume, London, 304 pages), she traveled to all the Presidential Libraries in the US. In 2018, she made a film about the missing ten floors of Trump Tower in New York.

The idea goes back to F.D. Roosevelt. He envisioned a place where government documents would be stored for posterity to view. He built a house in his hometown of Hyde Park, New York. He raised funds to finance it, but turned the building project over to the National Archives, which is under the federal government. That’s how it still works today. Presidential Libraries are a mixture of archive and museum. Outgoing presidents decide for themselves where to establish their libraries, usually at their home base. That is why presidential libraries are scattered all over the country. They often feature the birthplace of presidents. So far, there are 13 such libraries, starting with Herbert Hoover and ending with George W. Bush. Obama’s library is to be built in Chicago.

Do dark chapters of history feature in the exhibits?

Some critics see the buildings as mere mausoleums; the appeal of the exhibitions lies precisely in the subjective conveyance of history. A negative example is the Nixon Library show on the West Coast. For a long time, it downplayed the Watergate affair. Only a new director of the archives gave space to the distortions.

U.S. domestic politics is based on the two-party system. Has Trump’s destructive administration shaken this balance of power? He came to power with the help of Republican politicians, who supported him to the end.

As a U.S. citizen, I have heard cautionary voices saying that democracy cannot be taken for granted. Recently, I read the book "On Tyranny" by historian Timothy Snyder. In it, he lays out 20 theses about how our country is doing.

Lesson 17 says, "Watch out for dangerous words," which is how Snyder defines terms used by extremists, including Trump.

Lesson 17 in particular takes on eerie relevance with the storming of the Capitol. In Lesson 6, Snyder warns against paramilitary groups. He gives us to understand that language expresses power.

A U.S. president is endowed with power. To prevent his autocracy, the system of checks and balances exists. Is it still a suitable control authority?

As Snyder has written, we should not blindly rely on these tools. Moreover, there are large regional differences in the United States. Therefore, there is a logic in checks and balances of mixing federal and state governance. This also means basic rights of the federal system do not apply everywhere. This is what happened with the Jim Crow laws, which maintained de facto segregation in the Southern states after the end of the Civil War in 1865, even though slavery had been officially abolished.

2020 was a year of crisis, citing the Corona pandemic and the brutal death of George Floyd in police custody, as well as the riots that followed. How did you experience 2020?

As a difficult year. Even before that, I was politically active; the chaos made me determined not to let up. Together with fellow artists Rebecca Sittler and Deborah Aschheim, I organized the exhibition "Almost Presidential," which is about political failure. My work "Concession" is dedicated to defeated presidential candidates. Concession refers to the circumstance when a failed candidate concedes defeat. As is well known, Trump has not yet conceded his election defeat.

"Old Carter Family Peanut Warehouse" in Plains, Georgia Photo by Marisa J. Futernick.

A peaceful transfer of office is political norm. Underdogs exert tremendous influence on society and on the political system as a whole. A positive example is Stacey Abrams, who lost in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election but has since become influential as a voting rights activist. By the way, I’m a member of Artists 4 Democracy: Before the presidential election and the Georgia by-election, we did grassroots persuasion work to get people to cast their votes at the polls. That engagement has given me confidence to tackle the big challenges that come after Trump.

That the U.S. benefited from the slave trade is historically attested. How is the country dealing with that legacy?

The U.S. was founded on racism and is still racist today. I have often thought recently of Democrat George Wallace (1919-1998), ex-governor of Alabama, who was considered a notorious racist. He tried unsuccessfully to become U.S. president. Wallace invoked segregation as a viable social model and, moreover, law & order. His slogans are echoed in Trump.

Fascinatingly, in 1972, when Wallace wanted to run against Nixon, Shirley Chisholm also became the first black woman elected to Congress. And she was also trying to become a presidential candidate. During the campaign, Wallace was assassinated, leaving him a paraplegic. Chisholm visited him in the hospital. That sparked a lot of media coverage and earned her criticism. She said that in a democracy it is important to show respect for political opponents. Anything else would only create a climate in which assassinations follow words.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right granted to citizens by the constitution. Now that social media companies have blocked Trump’s accounts, which he used to spread hate and collect donations, an excited discussion has arisen.

Artists tend to defend free expression and push that freedom to its limits. But we are also aware of how the First Amendment is repeatedly held up for questionable ends. As a positive example, my fellow artist Dread Scott comes to mind and his transgressive use of the U.S. flag in his work. Conservatives tried to stop that. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which prevailed, even burning the U.S. flag is consistent with the Constitution. So you can imagine how Trump and his cohorts would react to Scott’s artwork, all the while invoking free speech rights for their own agitation.

January 20 marks the inauguration of Joe Biden. This day ceremoniously ushers in his term, what gives you cause for optimism that the Biden administration and its reform program will have opportunities?

The fact that the Democratic Party controls not only the White House but both chambers of parliament means that the new government has a good chance of being able to implement its plans. I am also hopeful about the number of citizens who have recently taken an active part in the election process. I also hope that the majority has understood what is at stake in every new election, not only in presidential elections but also in local elections.

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