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Sign of the times: Art piece at Conn College asks the public to vote on capitalism

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Nestled to the left of the Crozier-Williams entrance on the Connecticut College campus is a vividly eye-catching sign. In bold cut-out letters, each dotted with carnival-like lights, is one word: “Capitalism.”

Below it, on a cobalt-blue board, is a cursive finish to that sentence: “works for me!”

But it’s not a declaration as much as a question. Visitors are invited to vote on whether they believe that statement, by pushing buttons under “True” or “False.”

A tally runs like a scoreboard under “True” and “False.”

It’s not only a query but also a discussion-starter — which is really the point.

This public art piece by Steve Lambert has travelled the country and abroad the past few years, with stops in Times Square, Boston and London.

“Voting is not the point,” Lambert says. “It’s just a way in. It’s the door. Once you’re inside, the real artwork is the conversation, the thinking process that happens around you having to choose one or the other.”

It has already provoked plenty of discourse about capitalism on the Conn campus.

“Once you see it up there, literally in lights, people suddenly start having conversations,” says Sandy Grande, who is director of the college’s Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity as well as chair of the education department. “As soon as we put it up, we would hear students walk by, and they were like, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘I don’t know, what do you think it means?’ They’d go, ‘Absolutely true.’ And ‘No, it doesn’t (work for me).’”

Sophomore Alexander Lawson has noticed a similar uptick in dialogue on the subject, prompted by Lambert’s art.

“I think it’s a great piece,” he says. “We’re having more conversations about capital and capitalism on campus than any time I’ve been here.”

In class, there have been explorations of what capitalism means, if it’s sustainable and if it’s a moral thing, among other aspects of the topic.

“I think it’s really an essential conversation,” Lawson says.

At Conn, where “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False” remains through May 4, the display is the culminating event of the school’s yearlong programming on the theme of “capital.” Lambert’s work is sponsored here by the college’s Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

The public can vote through April 26 (see hours on page D1), and the results will be reported when Lambert comes to the campus for the “Inequality, Race, Justice Matters” session that runs April 26-28. Lambert will speak after a trio of economists do at 4:30 p.m. on April 26 in Blaustein Ernst Common.

Lambert says that the score between the Trues and Falses is usually fairly close and that people offer various explanations for why they cast their ballots the way they did. (On a recent day, the vote on the Conn campus stood at 209 trues and 140 falses.)

With the presidential election process in full, headline-grabbing swing, it’s a particularly ripe time for students and the general public to consider the question.

When Lambert created “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False” in what turned out to be the summer before the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, capitalism seemed like a taboo subject.

“The first statement I made about the piece was about how people don’t directly talk about capitalism. They talk about the economy or the business climate or the housing crisis, whatever. They had all these ways of talking about the economy but not about capitalism. Or symptoms of what was happening but not causes,” he says.

He confronted capitalism head-on with this artwork. The interesting aspect isn’t so much the vote — Lambert says that most people don’t believe that the statement is 100 percent true or false — but what the viewers have to say about the subject. He has filmed those comments, and Conn students are videoing remarks here.

One of Lambert’s favorite responses was from a 17-year-old Boston student, who said, “Capitalism can’t work for everyone. If it did, it wouldn’t be capitalism.”

“It was something I hadn’t thought of in such simple terms before, like you have to have losers,” he says.

When he was in Times Square with the piece, he spoke with Germans who were visiting. They told him, “Yeah, there are losers, and people need to be able to fail. That happens. But when they fall, how do you let them fall, how long should it take and how difficult should it be to recover?”

Sometimes, people think about capitalism in automatic ways — for instance, that we have evolved through history, and this economic system is the end of the evolution and is the best we can do, as flawed as it may be, he notes.

Lambert aims to get people talking about that but also understanding it as a more complex thing — that capitalism can work in a lot of different ways and that there are other economic systems. People sometimes believe, too, that there’s a singular definition of capitalism, but it’s actually implemented in all kinds of different ways in different countries through time, he says.

“So it’s really about evaluating the system that we have and then figuring out, well, okay, what do we want?” he says.

Lambert intentionally presented “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False” in a friendly, recognizable way; people understand a scoreboard, and they understand voting.

“The scoreboard is a trick, a ruse to get people to participate. It’s a way of saying, ‘Whatever you think, it counts, and it will literally be counted,’” he says. “But also it’s a familiar way of participating, right? And we have this sense of obligation. You’re supposed to vote, given the chance.”

Lambert’s other notable art pieces include one he created after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. In a collaboration with Andy Bichlbaum of The Yes Men, he designed a replica of the New York Times that was a hopeful look into the future (it was dated July 4, 2009). It was, Lambert has said, “to celebrate what we wanted, rather than criticize what we don’t.” A front-page headline, for instance, proclaimed “Iraq War Ends.”

Lambert — who is the son of a former Franciscan monk and an ex-Dominican nun — is founder of the Center for Artistic Activism the Anti-Advertising Agency, and he made Add-Art, a Firefox add-on that replaces online advertising with art. In 2013, he was asked to speak at the U.N. about what he has learned from his studying advertising’s impact on culture.

Over his 15 to 20 years of creating art, he says, “I had made a lot of art work about different things going on in the world, and everything connects back to the economy and capitalism.”

That led to his addressing the issue directly with “Capitalism Works for Me! True/False.”

He says he thought, “How can I talk about capitalism in a way that doesn’t make people want to run away? It was a little problem I wanted to solve. Or an artistic challenge — to make a piece about capitalism people would want to engage with.”

Grande says the “Capitalism” work has been an educational experience for her, too, as someone who hasn’t really engaged with public art before.

“It’s really opened up my eyes to how transformative art can be ... (and) to how different ways of learning can be really effective,” she says.

WHEN YOU CAN VOTE

If you want to cast your “True” or “False” response to artist Steve Lambert’s question of whether capitalism works for you, the available dates and times are:

Wednesday, April 20, 11:50 a.m.-1 p.m. and 6:30-7:30 p.m.

Friday, April 22, 10 a.m.-noon

Tuesday, April 26, 1-4 p.m.

The sign is located in front of the College Center at Crozier-Williams on the Connecticut College campus in New London.

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