What did it mean to run for Lord Mayor? To take art outside the loaded walls of exhibition display and into a political campaign? Did it allow for ideas voiced within artistic practice to become more tangible? Or did it reveal another kind of performance? Perhaps campaigning is just a performance? Is politics just a performance? A performance to hide the fraught realities of governing systems? Can it be a productive performance?
An Artist’s Guide to Becoming Lord Mayor brings Katie Sfetkidis’ recent social explorations back into a more familiar setting, translating the act of running for Melbourne Mayor into an artistic context. The exhibition takes the form of an imagined campaign office that has since been abandoned, perhaps representative of what it would look like now that the dust has settled. Reflecting on her political stint, Sfetkidis brings together the past and the present by filling the office with campaign ephemera and documentation; including a film featuring the artist’s video diaries and footage from public forums, as well as posters, paperwork and photographs. Within the walls of KINGS, these propaganda-turned-artworks continue the dialogue elicited by Sfetkidis’ campaign. In doing so, Sfetkidis promotes ongoing conversations—questioning the complex intersections and distinctions between art and politics—that extend beyond the life of the campaign and her pseudo-electoral office.
Was it a political statement? Was it an artistic statement? Was it a combination of the two? Was it a conversation between the two? Was it a conversation that blurred boundaries between politics and art? But were there any boundaries separating them to begin with?
Katie Sfetkidis’ simple, yet loaded decision to run for Melbourne Lord Mayor in the 2018 by-election cannot easily be distilled within either art or bureaucratic politics. Instead this act actively moves between these spheres, opening up new dialogues at a time when sexual harassment claims and a lack of female representation are only the tip of the political iceberg.
Whilst the art industry is often complicit with and contingent on economic and political systems, these two ‘worlds’ can easily seem removed from one another. Many exhibition spaces are increasingly becoming active sites of dynamic critical discussion surrounding gender, cultural identity, queer politics and other groups of people that have, and continue to be, systematically marginalised. However, these voices often remain contained within such spaces, rather than directly effecting ‘serious’ political decision-making. Taking a different approach to her intersectional feminist and often performative practice, Sfetkidis was determined to provide a platform for unheard voices beyond the walls of the art gallery, whilst simultaneously promoting alternative perspectives within politics. She hoped to further bring politics and art together by directly engaging artists within city projects. Rather than allowing politics to be an alienating mediator that largely controls the fate of the arts, Sfetkidis endeavored to find a sense of political agency for herself and her community.
Stefkidis quickly realised that immersing herself within the campaign environment turned out to be markedly different in practice. With limited time to present views in front of skewed audiences at public forums, being a spokeswoman for the arts soon became an idealistic enterprise that revealed to Sfetkidis the broken capitalist systems by which society is structured. Meanwhile, new social media accounts and public interviews fashioned a hyper-aware, campaign-driven persona of the artist, distancing Sfetkidis from her principal arts community and forcing her to engage in a new kind of performativity. This sense of segregation was amplified by the artist being unable to disclose her involvement with City of Melbourne-funded art organisations (including KINGS) or display campaign posters in these spaces during the election period. Returning back to KINGS to exhibit the remnants of her campaign provides Sfetkidis with a platform to expose and come to terms with some of the realities of running for office.
Did it make a difference to the political system by enacting real change that broke down immobilising power structures and toxic cultures? Power structures largely built by rich, sexist businessmen who don’t understand the needs of the city, let alone the creative community that resides within its boundaries. Why did it take three decades for a female Melbourne Lord Mayor to get elected again? Whilst there have been and are women making the decisions too, are the rich businesswomen involved perpetuating these same structures? How do we change ingrained systems of illogic?
Is there a way we can actually be taken more seriously? What happens when you bring the two seemingly disparate worlds of politics and art together? Did voicing opinions through a different type of public outlet actually change anything? Well, you have to start somewhere. Start somewhere when finding ways to open up institutions to everyone. Katie Sfetkidis may not have all the answers, but at least she is prompting the questions.
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