Inspired by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats, Chilean American visual artist Constance Hockaday has created a program designed to address today’s America, which is crippled by the social and economic fallout of a global pandemic.
Featuring 50 artists and their accompanying public addresses, Hockaday’s creation is called “Artists-In-Presidents: Fireside Chats for 2020,” which asserts the importance of how artists are acutely apt to articulate how the world has arrived at a moment of crisis and possibility once again. Produced in partnership with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, the Fireside Chats for 2020 will be distributed for free over radio, podcast and social media from Tuesday, Sept. 14, through Friday, Nov. 13.
CAP UCLA worked with Hockaday last season while she was a resident artist. CAP UCLA’s Artist Residency Program provides local and national artists creative time and necessary space for the development of new work. Kristy Edmunds, CAP UCLA’s artistic and executive director, has many conversations with artists before they find their final form.
“We talked through many iterations, but it always had the ingredients of what she envisioned,” Edmunds said. “It would involve diverse artists across the country in the lead up to the election, it would involve perspective from voices we are less accustomed to hearing from, and that each artist would commit to making a presidential address from their own vantage point.”
Stirring the hearts of Americans, FDR united the country around his vision during the Great Depression by speaking directly to the public through a series of radio broadcasts called the fireside chats. The “Artists-in-Presidents” are not calling for a re-do of FDR’s fireside chats, but rather an acknowledgement that many of the national narratives of liberation have erased Indigenous voices and the voices of people that make up the majority of this country — Black, LGBTQ, people of color, persons with disabilities and women. Hockaday believes the country has come to a point of rupture because of the lack of perspective available.
“This project is important to me because it’s about this overdue need to update the performance of public leadership,” Hockaday said. “After all, even one of our most celebrated presidents, in his most famous policies, specifically excluded brown and Black people and he interned Japanese Americans. Our national legacies of liberation have always excluded and erased the voices of the majority of people who live within our arbitrary borders.”
Participating artists, including CAP UCLA fellow Ann Hamilton, critically acclaimed playwright Daniel Alexander Jones, United States Artists President and CEO Deana Haggag, filmmaker and writer Miranda July and American poet and novelist Ishmael Reed, will write and deliver their versions of national addresses.
“FDR’s short, intimate radio speeches dramatically shifted the tone of the American political character, by seeking to heal the ravages of the previous era that had provoked an acute lack of faith in American democracy. There was no doubt that Constance was instigating a generous and deeply considered undertaking,” Edmunds said. “We commissioned the project to get her started, and following invitations to participate, every artist was offered payment, and in a time where the arts economy has been devastated the spirit of mutual compassion meant that all of these artists engaged in an approach where mutual aid and peer-based support were apparent.”
Like every American president, artists were provided with professional speechwriters to support them in finding their presidential voice. Each artist will also create a presidential portrait of themselves for social media and a future gallery exhibition.
“It’s a really difficult ‘assignment'” Edmunds observed. “I mean, if each of us were asked to create a three-to-five-minute speech that cuts across the divisiveness of today’s political rhetoric to address our better character as a people, or how democracy as a value might find active repair – how would you respond?”