Compound: What can you tell us about your transition from attorney to artist?
Cole Sternberg: Well, I was always making art. So, the main transition was going to law school in the first place. During law school, I also had my first exhibit. Since then, the knowledge, textual analysis, and societal awareness that I developed while in law school has greatly affected my art practice to the point where they are now inherently intertwined.
C: What was the genesis of the Free Republic of California Project (FRCP), and what sparked your drive to create an independent constitution for California?
CS: When I was three years old, my family moved to California from Virginia. My parents sold me on the move by mentioning Disneyland and teaching me the “Do you know the way to San Jose?” song by Dionne Warwick, which I sang endlessly. Perhaps the idea started then. Or, a few years later, a petitioner knocked on our door collecting signatures against marriage equality, in response to which my dad immediately kicked him off our property. So, maybe it was then. Essentially, the idea has been floating in the ether since I have had a pride in California and a moral compass.
The Constitution started taking form about two years ago. I thought the most effective way to address our need for widespread change was to start with a core, infrastructural document. To build a house, you need a blueprint.
C: What are your hopes for this provocation?
CS: My hope is that the Free Republic of California as an idea makes people think. I hope it makes them question why things are the way they are and question why we can’t change things for the better. From this intellectual challenge, perhaps policy can push in the right direction.
C: When FRCP hits in the streets in the form of street wear, signage, and billboards, how do you view the challenges that will come with larger audiences digesting the work as political camouflaging and as propaganda, rather than receiving it as artwork? That tension, suspension, and translation is at the core of the project. What can you share about that in-between status linking signification and reception?
CS: “Everything is art,” as Joseph Beuys said. By the same token, if everything is something, then something can also be nothing. People don’t need to categorize the Free Republic as any one thing. They can simply digest it in manageable proportions and as they see it. Meanwhile, I can continue the tradition of artists presenting social thoughts through multi-dimensional visual presentation.
Similarly degenerative of the concept of categorization, I think it is good when it isn’t easy to define or categorize something. Putting an idea such as the Free Republic in the box of “art,” “fashion,” or “politics” immediately limits its statement and impact. For example, the topics of the Free Republic are not political to begin with; we’ve been tricked into thinking that basic concepts of humanity, sustainability, economics, and rationality are “political.” Collectively, we need to fight against this. There are common goals and necessities of humankind that we can all embrace.
Read: the draft constitution of the Free Republic of California