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Patriot Games

A politically charged artist puts capitalism to popular vote

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Steve Lambert is no stranger to questioning how America works. The tough part is getting people to talk about it.

"There's this capitalist belief that resources ... that can be extracted and profited off of have value," he says. "And anything that can't compete in the marketplace is weak or unnecessary.

"More personally, everyone in my family has worked hard for generations and somehow barely scraped by. My mom is turning 72 and continues to work full-time because her health care has to cover her and my father, who is too ill to work."

Perhaps that's why Lambert, a self-styled counter-consumer-culture performance artist from Boston, has taken to putting the entirety of America's socioeconomic system to a vote during a summer stint as artist-in-residence at SPACES gallery.

His new project, "Capitalism Works for Me! True/False," will be one of countless interactive installations featured at Ingenuity Fest, Cleveland's bazaar of avant-garde arts and sciences, where creativity, engineering, and wild speculation converge for one weekend every year. (Find more on this weekend's Ingenuity Fest in Get Out! and Music.)

Lambert's creation consists of a nine-foot-tall marquee sign that proclaims the titular sentence in garish stadium lights and red, white, and blue paint. To the right, an interactive panel lets you, the viewer, determine whether the assertion is "True" or "False" by pressing a flashing green or red button. This in turn flips a scorecard on the big sign to record the vote.

In recent weeks, Lambert has gotten out the vote everywhere from Public Square to the Gordon Square Arts District. In late October, he'll take his contraption across the country.

If early returns are any indicator, the artist is engaging his audience.

"With respect to the question, I think it's too simple," says one young professional who cast a True vote at the exhibit's SPACES debut. "Any economic philosophy is not wholly good or bad, but it depends on how society implements it. I'm fortunate to not be homeless or unemployed. I do have student debt, but I certainly can't complain."

The True voter's lady friend isn't so content. "I'm OK, so maybe I'm not being true with the vote, but I see everything going on around me, and I'm not OK with that," she says. (Curiously, both radical leftist subversives and tea-drinking Randroid reactionaries all were unwilling to be identified for this story.)

At appearances around town thus far, the response has veered slightly in favor of False. But the final tally, to Lambert, is of secondary importance. "It's beginning to consider capitalism — and whether or not it's working for you — that's important," he says. "Otherwise, there's not really space to do that in our lives."

Lambert was brought to Cleveland as part of SPACES' World Artist Program, which recruits out-of-town creators for big, loud, opinionated public art projects. He originally hoped to rope Dennis Kucinich into a performance piece, but found the Congressman to be "remarkably busy." So he switched his focus to public participation.

Ingenuity, which puts dozens of creators within arm's reach, was an immediately attractive venue. After finalizing the plans for "Capitalism," Lambert sketched the piece and had it constructed by Signature Sign on Cleveland's near East Side. He assembled it with help from SPACES staff, who have also proven to be good sports in helping schlep the piece around town.

An instructor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Lambert has kept critique of American socioeconomic assumptions central to his creative focus. He is one of the founders of the Anti-Advertising Agency, a collaborative that buys advertising space for use as canvas for non-commercial art.

In 2009, he was one of several dozen contributors to the "New York Times Special Edition," a mass printing of 1.2 million fake copies of the touchstone newspaper's July 4 issue, distributed by hand and through commandeered news boxes in New York City. In the alternate universe of the "Special Edition," Congress had enacted such progressive wish-fulfillments as single-payer health care, free college, and a maximum wage law.

Ingenuity Fest is apolitical in its conception, but laissez-faire about individual artists' use and abuse of politics — so long as it excites the gray cells. And in the case of Lambert's piece it does, if only to make one wonder if this is indeed the question we should be asking now. More cautious souls might be inclined to ask, say, "If it's not working, is incremental reform rather than radicalism the best way to fix it?"

In any case, it can't hurt to challenge our often unacknowledged economic intuitions. And if we can do it over funnel cakes, all the better.

"In a way, I've been working on this all my life," says Lambert. "There's been threads in my past work that lead here. Last year I decided this was the most important direction I could take things. The question of whether or not capitalism is working for you is what we need to be asking right now."

"Capitalism Works For Me!" will be open for voting throughout Ingenuity Fest, held Friday through Sunday, September 16-18, at the Detroit-Superior Bridge. Learn more at ingenuitycleveland.com.

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