Freestate is an exhibit rich in concept, research, and visual direction that asks, “What if?”
By Maureen Kingsley
"There’s something better out there. Let’s try to find it.”
Artist Cole Sternberg, creator of work for the new Freestate experience at ESMoA, spoke these words to a group of virtually assembled art enthusiasts, journalists, and other interested individuals at an October 3rd preview of the art installation that runs through next March. Cole was describing the philosophy of and motivation for Experience 47: Freestate—an in-depth conceptual reimagining of the state of California as its own nation apart from the greater United States, renamed The Free Republic of California.
In this multifaceted installation, which includes an exhibition at ESMoA as well as a dedicated website and a shop for political “merch,” Cole asks the viewer “to imagine countless possibilities where things can be different,” he explained at the preview event.
Curated by Bernhard Zuenkeler, who also curated ESMoA’s recent Stardust experience, among others, Freestate addresses the concepts of human rights, environmental protection, democracy, and freedom through fine-art pieces, original documents, ephemera, and extensive online content. It recalls Joseph Beuys’ “7000 Oaks” land-art project, which precipitated the founding of Germany’s Green Party in 1980. Freestate’s opening, in October of this year, was intentionally timed to coincide with the run-up to the 2020 presidential election.
Within ESMoA’s main gallery, Freestate is separated into three spaces. The viewer first encounters what appears to be a hip-looking canvassing office or swag shop displaying The Free Republic of California merchandise as well as posters and other familiar-looking campaign-style visuals. “You know you’re on the cusp of big change when you enter this room,” Cole says of this space.
Room two, located in the center of the gallery, appears as more of a traditional, low-ceilinged, carpeted office that is more formal-looking than the first. It contains detailed policy documents related to California secession, such as a comprehensive constitution and other government paperwork. It also features ephemera and original sculpture, as well as stirring vintage photos of California layered with the artist’s paintings, which reveal “the beauty of the state, but through a kaleidoscope,” he adds. A 1940s-era radio cabinet stands at one end of this room, full of “relevant curiosities related to the California dream,” Cole says, while the popular 1960s tune “California Dreamin’” plays—a bit eerily—on repeat.
“This second room asks, ‘What happens next?’” he explains, and adds that it speaks to systemic infrastructural change.
Room three, at the rear of the gallery, represents “the beginning of the idea of freedom,” Cole says. It includes a piece of California live oak (the official state tree); a large found steel gate titled “Trail’s End”; a lightweight, broken fence that symbolizes freedom and escape; an applique and hand-stitched flag of The Free Republic of California; and “Owls Stirred the Silence Here and There,” a nine-by-12-foot thermal transfer on finished wood panels (which also serves as this issue’s cover image). “This room suggests that freedom is possible and within reach,” Cole explains.
A Utopian, Futuristic Vision
An artist with a background in international law, Cole has had a lifelong interest in the processes behind conceiving of and writing laws. “The law and its use of words have influenced my work for quite some time,” he says. In fact, he’d been thinking about and conceptualizing Freestate since he was a child, and even wrote a book about it 12 years ago.
When the novel-coronavirus pandemic hit the United States earlier this year, it prompted Cole to explore the Freestate concept even more deeply and view such critical social issues as healthcare costs, unemployment, and support of the unemployed community through the lens of California secession.
“The year 2020 contains a stew of issues that have laid bare our problems,” explains Álvaro D. Márquez, the ESMoA Experience Award recipient for Freestate, whose artwork “Ecologies of Displacement” (pictured) appears in ESMoA’s lobby. The multimedia art piece “asks visitors a series of questions that implicate us in the settler colonial project and implore us to imagine a new world” that is more just, equitable, and sustainable, Álvaro says.“I refuse to feel defeated,” the artist adds. “The Freestate exhibit exists in this political moment, and it is a product of our time.”
“We need to push ahead and grow more enlightened as a society,” Cole adds.
“Yes,” agrees Álvaro. “Let’s think of ourselves as participants. Democracy calls on us to be active participants in history. Let’s participate.”
Freestate at ESMoA runs through March 27, 2021. Visit The Free Republic of California’s website, which features artwork, policy documents, visual presentations, merchandise, and more. Visit ESMoA online here.