Living Democracy

What gives life to democracy? Living Democracy explores the work of political representation in all its messy entanglements, including when the threads that hold it together start to break apart.

Since 2019 a team of ethnographers – anthropologists, political scientists, communications scholars, filmmakers, and photographers – have been researching the relationship between politicians and those they claim to represent in Brazil, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, the US, and the UK. Ethnography can be a way of researching the everyday work of politics. It involves learning with people in their workplaces, homes, or meeting spaces, through conversations, observation, counting, drawing, and reflecting. If you pay attention to the wider social and cultural world; to past, present, and future; to the differences to people and what impact they have, you can get under the skin of relationships in parliaments.

Democracy appears to be fraying at the edges. It requires the appearance of order for the public to consent to decisions taken, taxes raised, and laws passed. Three processes create a sense of stability: rituals and symbols; rhythms of performance; and riffs of meaning. And yet some are losing faith in the rituals, are exhausted by the new rhythms and don’t recognise themselves in the riffs. What is to be done?

If we understand political work more fully, and its entanglements with social and cultural life, it can assist wider political engagement. By appreciating the ordered and messy patterns, examining the interwoven connections and being attentive to frayed ends, we are better able to enter the political worlds that shape our lives.

In this exhibition ethnographers present their insights into the relationship between politicians and those that they work with or claim to represent. Responding to the endlessly changing demands of different configurations of people and pressures, you will see how politicians constantly shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary and respond to varied audiences. Most of us are shapeshifters some of the time, but politicians do it to an amplified degree and with more serious consequences. Through the relationships we create with them, democracy comes alive.

Living Democracy, an exhibition of parliaments and politicians around the world

12th January – 16th March 2024

The Brunei Gallery, SOAS University London

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