An exciting new exhibition is open at the Arlington Arts Center, entitled “Take a Number: Artists and Bureaucracy.” Running September 25 through December 18, the exhibit features seven local and national artists whose work explores, co-opts and challenges bureaucratic systems and structures.
Blair Murphy, curator of exhibitions at the Arlington Arts Center, says the idea for the exhibition was in the works for two years, initially slated to open fall 2020. Luckily, the Covid-induced delay allowed for additional time to expand and evolve.
“A lot of the work in the show engages with how we’re all tied to bureaucratic institutions, rather than presenting the artist as a lone figure who stands removed from the institution they’re critiquing,” Murphy says.
The wall leading to the main gallery is plastered with gigantic, golden-vinyl lettering, listing the conditions “[y]ou are now entering,” which mimics the terms and conditions of a contract. With its ironically large, headache-invoking text, it signals you are entering a space where power is co-opted, reversed and revealed.
“One of the most important threads [in the exhibition] is the way bureaucracy and bureaucratic institutions impact individual people,” Murphy says. “Bureaucracy refers to a faceless monolith, but these structures impact people’s lives and are also created by and carried out by human beings.”
One of the most striking installments in the exhibition is Sobia Ahmad’s “wherever you are is called Here,” a work centered on national identity, sense of home and cultural belonging. Ahmad’s grandmother is central to the piece’s accompanying audio. She speaks with Ahmad in Punjabi and Urdu, telling stories of her forced migration from India to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition of India.
Ahmad, who moved to the United States at age 14, created black-and-white “anti-flags” made of rice bags that line the walls of the space. Images relating to place — both real and imaginary — are woven in. It’s a captivating, yet chilling demonstration of how bureaucratic systems create our realities.
“By thinking about [art and bureaucracy], the show brings together artists whose work deals explicitly with very real world issues — the human consequences of empire, contemporary digital surveillance, the loopholes in our financial system,” Murphy says.
These real-world issues are part of every work, including “Maelstrom” by D.C. based artist Chris Combs. “Maelstrom” is an interactive sculpture based on a fake company he created, featuring an awkwardly familiar company information desk, decked out with pens and business cards, and a logo-tapestry robotically decorated with workplace buzzwords like “innovation” and “synergy.”
There’s also a spread of machines simultaneously mining your personal information by targeting your smartphones. All data gets deleted within 15 minutes — but it doesn’t make things any less creepy. That data is displayed on an unsuspecting TV monitor on the desk.
The machines, made by Combs himself, are meant to deftly demonstrate a shared reality we all understand but rarely speak about: We are constantly harvested for our data, courtesy of the black boxes we carry in our pockets.
Many pieces in the exhibition were influenced by the Conceptual Art movement, a time period during the ’60s and ’70s which shifted the focus on technique and form to how an idea can be communicated. Works in the Conceptual Art movement were created using everyday items: chairs, paper, fax machines — anything.
That historical context makes sense given some works in the exhibition, such as a framed McDonald’s receipt — but you’ll have to see for yourself.
Other installations include a how-to video on money laundering, and a historical investigation on incarceration and incineration in the town of Lorton, VA, among other pieces featuring Maura Brewer (Los Angeles, CA), Evan Hume (South Bend, IN), Stephanie Mercedes (DC), R.L. Martens (Lexington, KY) and Pau S. Pescador (Los Angeles, CA)
“Take a Number: Artists and Bureaucracy” is open through December 18 at Arlington Arts Center. meaning there’s loads of time to take a trip to the Arlington Arts Center — and see how these artists reflect bureaucracy “as an inevitable part of life,” as Murphy puts it.