Freedom, Democracy: What Words Define Our Present Moment?

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Brian Dailey defies easy categorization as an artist. He is a polymath whose “omnivorous curiosity” and thirst for learning have taken him to over 120 countries and have seen him reap success as a welder, artist, arms control expert, business executive, and university professor.

Dailey’s art tackles the big questions of our time—he has pondered the dangers of a global arms race and the likelihood of nuclear war, has looked at identity politics, and has striven to dismantle stereotypes based on party allegiance—but what ultimately interests him is the ordinary person’s worries, hopes, and aspirations. In his latest and largest work to date, WORDS, Brian Dailey explores humanity’s waning faith in the social contract and its keepers, governments and institutions, and hopes to make people think about where our world is heading.

His unconventional life path offers a rare vantage point from which to survey these developments. Raised between California and New Zealand, Dailey ventured out on his own at 17, moving to Australia for six months and becoming a welder’s apprentice. Much of his late teens were spent traveling around Eastern and Western Europe. He earned a master’s degree in fine arts from Otis Art Institute in 1975, then spent the rest of the decade working and exhibiting art in Los Angeles. Dailey’s intense interest in humanity and relations between people of different cultures prompted him to complete a doctorate in international politics at the University of Southern California in 1987. This led to government appointments in arms control and space policy, followed by a sixteen-year career at the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which he left in 2008 to return to art.

Today, Dailey brings this unique experience to the America for Bulgaria Foundation, on whose board of directors he has served since 2017.

He calls his connection to Bulgaria serendipitous. A Bulgarian gallerist in New York and an acquaintance at the Foundation led to a trip to Bulgaria on the eve of Bulgarian democracy’s twenty-fifth anniversary, in 2014. He marked the occasion by photographing the country’s diverse electorate, on the heels of the highly contested parliamentary elections that year. The result was Bulgaria in Democracy, a project similar to what he had done with America in Color two years earlier. The photographic series breaks through stereotypes and puts a human face on the labels Democrat and Republican.

America in Color can be seen at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, through December 31, 2020.

We spoke to Brian about his artistic work, his love of travel and learning, and the connections that drew him in ABF’s orbit.

America for Bulgaria Foundation: You are an artist of many interests. How do you choose the subjects you pursue?

Brian Dailey: Making art is much like starting a sentence but not knowing how that sentence is going to end. In that spirit, I usually begin a project with a question. In the case of my most recent art project, WORDS, the question was: How has globalization affected language and culture? At the start, I was thinking of the more economic and social dimensions of globalization, particularly how the internet brings a lot of western exposure and content to different cultures and people. Another dimension of globalization is the fashion industry and how it has homogenized the way people dress in the world through its ubiquitous presence via the internet. For example, in some of the most remote places of Central Asia, I saw many people dressed in contemporary western fashion and hardly anyone in the more traditional clothing of the region.

The most powerful element that has had a significant impact on culture and language, however, is social media. Тwo of my art projects, America in Color and WORDS, revealed that social media clearly develops a sense of separation or “tribalism” among groups of people, which in turn can contribute to populism and in some cases nationalism. From the start of these projects in 2010 and 2012, respectively, there has been a notable growth in the presence of social media within the global community and, I would say, this has had a major effect on people and their behavior.

ABF: Your most recent work, WORDS, took seven years to complete, and you had conversations with nearly 3,000 people from 134 countries, asking for a single-word instinctive response to 13 words: future, democracy, religion, freedom, environment, United States, socialism, capitalism, love, war, peace, government, and happiness. You wanted to examine how our languages and cultures have changed in an ever more connected world. Was your original query answered?

BD: It really evolved from that initial premise or question I mentioned earlier. I didn’t know where this was going when I first started the project in 2012. What was a surprise out of the 120 countries I visited on seven continents, and in every region within them, was the reaction to the word government. People in only five countries had positive things to say about their government. All of them were in wealthy Middle East countries. The rest were often negative about their governments. By far the most used word for government in almost every country was corruption or a synonym for it. Similarly, democracy was something that over the seven years of this project I saw less and less support for as a desired means of governance. These reactions illuminated for me how disappointed the people of the world are with their governments and how this can be a serious challenge to maintaining internal and external stability, if not hope for the world. People are suffering significantly around the world. The global conversation I experienced evolved into questions about inequality, violence, government, democracy, corruption, employment, health, and justice.

ABF: What else did you learn that surprised you from doing WORDS?

BD: There are many key takeaways that I gleaned from this project. Specifically, I was taken by how the response to the project was varied: [about how it] makes you think about life; that we share similar problems; how we are more alike than different in our aspirations. It was also not unusual to hear people tell me that they never before had had to think about the importance of these words. For many I was told that the project changed their thinking about the meaning of these words or even life.

On a more granular level, I found it interesting how different participants’ responses were on a regional or environmental basis. For example, when I visited a Syrian refugee camp in Bulgaria, their response to war was different than what I heard from an American or a Western European. In another example, participants in sub-Saharan Africa responded to war based on what it did for them, using such words as freedom, liberation, change, progress, whereas for the Syrian refugee, it was blood, starvation, terror, sorrow, tears. The moment we are in defines how we see many of the embedded concepts of these words.

But other words also evoked concern and disappointment. In Madagascar, for example, I went to three different venues for the interviews, so people didn’t get to hear what everyone else said. For the response to happiness, over half of the answers came back “nonexistent.”

I should mention that when I started the project, there were actually only twelve words. Early in the project, I believe the eighth country, I went to Bhutan. When we finished the interviews, I asked the guide what he thought of the twelve words. He said, “Well, I think you are missing one word.” “What’s that?” I asked. He responded, “Happiness”. He went on to say that his country’s leaders try to measure happiness in Bhutan. They even have a measurement system called something like the gross national happiness index. So, I added happiness to the project.

I think it is important to also mention that in every country I used a local guide. I did this for a number of reasons, but, most importantly, I wanted everybody that participated to be asked these thirteen words in their native language. It was a serious challenge and made for a more complicated project, but it was essential, in my opinion, to get a more accurate response.

ABF: One of the original twelve words was democracy. Can you tell us more about how people’s responses to it evolved over seven years?

BD: What I learned from a lot of people is that they don’t think democracy is necessarily all good for all applications or all countries. It has its limits. One of the responses I frequently heard was “overrated.” To that end, I wanted to be careful to not be seen as implying “American democracy,” because our form of democracy is different from the system even in like-minded countries such as France. Democracy as implied here is something more simple, such as direct voting for your leaders or a voice to be heard rather than inherited non-elected monarchs or even non-elected revolutionaries or despots who are imposed without election as the leader of a country.

That said, as the project evolved from 2012 to 2019, people’s views of democracy changed. At the end, I started to ask participants after the interview about the skepticism they expressed for democracy. In other words, if not democracy, what? Many said a “benign dictatorship” or something to that effect. This was driven by what a lot of people saw around the world. Brexit comes to mind as does the trend toward nationalist or populist parties that were and still are surfacing around the world.

ABF: So, we are united in our disgruntlement with democracy, but it can’t be only the negative that unites us…

BD: Over 63 languages are spoken in the project. It required quite a bit of interpretation, but then again you also begin to see how powerful language and words are. There are basically ten languages used in the world for about 5 billion people out of the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants. English is number 1, Mandarin is number 2. Thirty to forty countries use English as their everyday language despite some of those countries also having 60 to 80 indigenous languages. For example, I was in Zambia, and the guide kept asking everybody in English. Finally, I said: “Sir, I would like you to, as much as possible, use the person’s native language or dialect.” He said: “Sir, I speak nine languages, but, unfortunately, in Zambia we speak 83 languages, and the president of the country has directed that everybody speak English as a way to unify the country. So, the only way we can do this is in English because that’s what people speak as the common language.”

Uganda was another interesting example. My guide in Kampala spoke one of the local dialects, and her husband spoke a different dialect. The two could not communicate to each other with their tribal or homeland dialects, so their common language within their own family was English. That’s how they communicated with each other.

ABF: What would you like people to take away from seeing WORDS and your other works?

BD: I don’t want to tell people what to take away, I let people form their own opinions. I can tell you what people have told me they took away, however. Many said that these are things or concepts that allowed people to think about their challenges, their hopes, their problems, and their disappointments. The key thing that I found people experienced was a profound sense that we are all in this together. They didn’t understand before that people around the world shared many of the issues that I just mentioned, those hopes and anxieties, challenges and wonders. To me that was important.

If you ask, which some have, “What is the one thing that you want me to do while interacting with the project?” I would say, “I hope art makes you think.” Thinking is the only thing I can ask you to do. Spend some time reflecting, thinking about what you are hearing, about what you are seeing. The internet has made us so quick to move on, take the next message and respond to that, do a like or a dislike. It’s the most I can ask people to do: let the experience take you in and reflect, contemplate, and hopefully discover.

ABF: One thing that stands out in all your work is the incredible amount of preparation and learning that must have gone into it. What drives your thirst for learning?

BD: When I was nineteen, I took a train coming from Poland to East Germany. I sat across from this person, a Polish mathematician, apparently a very famous man within Poland. He and I spent the entire night talking. Despite him being in a closed communist country, he actually knew more about the United States than I did, its political system, its origins, every aspect of its history. At that point, I decided I was not going to tolerate my own ignorance anymore. I was inspired to return to school and learn as much as I could about all subjects, not just fine art. I no longer wanted to be embarrassed that I knew little about my own country, let alone about the world and its history. So, that’s what compelled me to learn about the very subjects that I ignored in high school. It generated in me an omnivorous curiosity that excels even today and indeed is a critical aspect of my art.

ABF: What were you trying to learn in embarking on America in Color, your photographic portrait of American voters ahead of the 2012 elections?

BD: I wanted an opportunity to take portraits of my friends, tradesmen, or other people who visited the studio. So, I began experimenting with this project in the studio, not on the road, which I did later. I didn’t want to do just a normal portrait but wished instead to include something about the person that may not be known to anyone else. I accomplished that by asking them to identify their political affiliation. I communicated that affiliation by changing the background material of the portrait to a color that matched their party—blue for Democrat, red for Republican, gray for Independent, green for Green Party, and yellow for “I don’t or can’t vote.”

When I posted these portraits on the studio wall, the response by many people was: I can’t believe that person is a Republican. I can’t believe that person is a Democrat. The stereotyping was palpable. I was totally surprised. So, I decided to go to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles and see what would happen outside the studio. The response was the same. I then began to visit rural as well as more urban venues to ensure a comprehensive look at the American electorate. In total, I went to 22 states over two years in both urban and rural settings, taking more than 1,200 portraits. But in the end, I asked the question: Why do people stereotype so quickly without engaging in a dialogue? The project dealt with that issue as well as personal identity and self-expression.

ABF: You have a really varied background, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that the work of a foundation like ABF should interest you—work that’s at the crossroads of culture, civics, society, etc. Why did you become involved with the America for Bulgaria Foundation? 

BD: I have a two-fold reason. I also sit on the board of the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, or FAPE, whose mission, among other things, is to install American art in US embassies around the world. One of the other board members at FAPE was Len Harlan, one of the original members of Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund (BAEF) and later the Foundation. Len spoke often and eloquently to me about this foundation in Bulgaria called America for Bulgaria, or ABF. Obviously, my curiosity was piqued by his description of ABF and its important mission.

In parallel to that, my gallery dealer in New York City at the time was Bulgarian. He did two of my solo shows, one of them being America in Color in 2012. He left New York to return to Bulgaria in 2013. In 2014, I had a mid-career retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in Sofia, which was organized and curated by my former gallery dealer and also supported by ABF. As part of that experience in 2014, I, and ABF, thought it would be interesting to go around the country after the rather controversial national elections and do a similar portrait project. I couldn’t do it like America in Color given the broad range of Bulgaria’s political parties. At the time you had something like thirty political parties with only eight that ultimately qualified for a seat in parliament. With that I went about structuring a project that showed the diversity of the Bulgarian electorate, and that was, at the same time, much different than America in Color.

That project is what gave me a lot of exposure to Bulgaria: the plains, the mountains, the lakes, the seaside, and the various types of urban, the rural environments and, of course, the diverse and interesting people. It was a year or two later that I was asked if I’d be interested in joining the ABF board. In short, it was serendipitous, to say the least.

ABF: What aspects of ABF’s work do you feel most involved in and why?

BD: When I was a young artist, I traveled through countries such as the Soviet Union and the aforementioned East Germany and Poland. These travels and experiences inspired me to think about democracy and freedom. I met a lot of artists and writers in those countries. It wasn’t so much that I was against the communist system, because I don’t care what form of government a country chooses. For me the issue is whether it was freely chosen, or was it imposed upon them? In turn, the answer is often found in the area of artistic freedom and expression. In the case of what I experienced in these countries, the artists and writers were highly repressed.

With respect to the Soviet Union, I took the Trans-Siberian Express when I was 25 years old as a way to get from Europe to Japan. It took 18 days to cross the Soviet Union, but during that long travel, I met a number of artists and writers who were exiled to the far reaches of Siberia. Simply put, they were punished for their art or means of expression. That was what bothered me—a totalitarian state oppressing artistic freedom.

I believe that people should have free choice and the right to express themselves irrespective of the form of government. Said differently, I don’t care what system the people choose, but artists of all types, for example, should be free to express themselves in the way they want. That is what motivated me in life, whether through my art, my time in government service or even in the corporate world—freedom of individual expression. One of the areas of focus during my time on the board of ABF has been to ensure that Bulgaria continues to allow for—the artists or just the individual—the necessary freedom to express themselves and to speak honestly and candidly about their government.

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