In the late 1970’s, the small town of Kinney, MN, angry at the amount of aid being doled out by Uncle Sam to foreign countries, while ignored places like the Iron Range steadily declined, announced its intention to secede from the Union and become an independent city-state. The would-be Republic of Kinney drew barely a flutter of attention. Poor Kinney; there was no internet back then, no blogs and no e-campaigning. Unlike their predecessors, the people behind The Free Republic of Duluth, following in Kinney’s “we’re leaving this country without going anywhere” tradition, have a website. It all started with this post, on the blog site Perfect Duluth Day, last fall:
“Free Duluth! Since the rest of the country is clearly batshit, we propose secession from it. Screw 'em. We got it all right here and we're keeping it. Reject the times, embrace your future as a citizen of the Free Republic of Duluth. Watch for a formal public declaration. Be a part of it! We need to finalize a name, design a flag, build a website, and elect a president and other governing officers. Make up your own office and run for it - we're free now to do as we wish .... Preserve our unique culture from the cultural imperialism of our oppressors. All aboard! Next stop: freedom.”
Since then, they’ve put together a city-state toolbox. “They” are primarily Jim and Allen Richardson, Duluth brothers who write a deeply intelligent if somewhat cliquish column called “Gonzo Science” for the local alternative press, in which they expound on topics such as genetically modified food, the dangers of mercury in dental amalgams, and Howard Dean’s bid for president. The brothers Richardson aren’t punk art slackers; they’re gainfully employed members of the community, bent on channeling their anger over the lack of real political candidates into something besides impotent good-cause fundraisers and the formation of yet another nonprofit organization with a catchy acronym. If the Free Duluth Election 2005 event held on February 4th is any indication, the Richardsons and their ilk are out to do something more difficult than threatening to secede from the Union. They’re going to make people think.
Free Duluth’s city-state “elections” (I hate to say “mock elections,” since they were far more participatory than, say, the last U.S. Presidential elections) capped off an evening of conceptual (and regular) art and interactive theatre on February 4th at the Washington Studios gallery in downtown Duluth.
The event starts at 6:00 pm with a showing of visual art works by area artists, beer provided by a local microbrewery, and an array of the usual gallery appetizers—cheese, crudités, fruit, crackers—served on a Speedo-clad guy named Steve. Steve is covered in Saran wrap. This is supposed to symbolize something. There are flip charts and markers so that we, the people, can suggest slogans and laws for our new city-state. Guests are given protest signs (CHEAPER CHAMPAGNE NOW, REPEAL THE 30 MPH SPEED LIMIT ON LONDON ROAD, CENTRAL HILLSIDE CAUCUS, and so on; two signs proclaiming simply FOR and AGAINST are available to supplement positions at protesters’ whims) and encouraged to choose Free Duluth city-state titles for themselves. I write “Director of High Maintenance” on my name badge and mingle with the Queen of Public Health, Steam Valve Operator, Minister of Disinformation, and of course the candidates themselves.
The Bloodgoddess (Sienna Effinger) reminds us voters that she is not campaigning or running for office per se, since she has a divine mandate to rule the people of Free Duluth. There are vague implications that she is from another planet, or at least non-human. Her running mate, Mr. Nice, is a Muppet; indeed, her constituents are mostly Muppets, and part of her plan for New Duluth is to allow Muppet immigration from neighboring Superior. The Buffoon (Allen Richardson) of the No-Weirdos party is staunchly anti-immigration (“Muppets and humans can live together,” he says, “but should they be allowed to vote?”). The Buffoon’s vision for New Duluth includes a 1-day workweek while the Bloodgoddess intends to enslave the citizenry for her own selfish means, such as building a ziggurat (it’s like a pyramid for Bloodgoddesses). The candidates and their minions role-play, talking about the fictional Battle of the Bong Bridge, in which New Duluth’s independence was won. The Buffoon’s young running mate (Devin McKinnon) is called simply The Scotsman. As tiresome as the kilt-wearing shtick is, I have to hand it to Devin, since he never once drops the accent, not even while responding politely to questions like “Devin, how’s your mom doing, I haven’t seen her lately?” or telling us excitedly about his day job at the Great Lakes Aquarium.
The casual campaigning lasts until nearly 10:00 pm. The supply of crudités and crackers dwindles, and the cheese starts to melt from the heat of Steve’s plastic-wrapped body. Once in a while, someone gives Steve a grape or a sip of water. A bored child pelts Steve with a baby carrot. The candidates are exhausted. This “interactive” stuff is a lot harder than it looks.
We are herded into an overheated room and the debates begin. Allen wants cheaper champagne prices; Sienna plans to have entire bar tabs underwritten by corporations in order to keep the ziggurat-building populace drunk and compliant. There is a heated discussion about the topic of baby-eating. The Bloodgoddess condones the free and open eating of raw babies at any time. The No Weirdos party acknowledges the nutritional value of babies, but calls for more conservative laws that would restrict baby-eating to special circumstances. Sienna warns the voters that the Buffoon’s promise of a 1-day workweek is just sweet-talk and lies. The Scotsman accuses the Bloodgoddess of hating freedom. Just before the polls open, someone produces a file of classified photos: The Buffoon, while publicly opposing Muppet immigration, has been photographed in sexual situations with Muppet lovers. He is a closet Muppetophile. The crowd hoots and guffaws and grabs ballots, which they are instructed to deposit in a garbage can. The election results are announced, and Sienna and Allen proceed to beat the shit out of each other. They do this in an exaggerated, obviously staged way, but they also allow it to go on long enough to make the audience uncomfortable, then ravenous. People start yelling GET HER and YEAH and POUND HIM. They trash the debate area, and then a samba band starts playing. Someone in the crowd remarks, “I wish this was a real election.”
--- The elections were not the end of Free Duluth. The websites are chattering with plans for more. Although a great effort was made to engage the audience at the February 4th event, the Free Duluth movement still feels like an inside joke. It has received a bit of mainstream publicity, and the Elections 2005 event attracted a fairly wide demographic, but the detailed structure behind Free Republic Elections 2005 is known mostly to people who have pored over the website blogs and online “campaign information.”
Then again, aren’t all political campaigns inside jokes, with insiders being privy to the real information? Isn’t the essence of voter apathy, of the millions of undecided voters, that people just aren’t paying enough attention and not doing their homework on the issues? Satire is a mirror, held up so that we can see the best and worst in ourselves, and this Free Duluth event was such a mirror. The best part of the event was the candidates’ “values,” or lack thereof. There was no clear analogy between No Weirdos and Republicans or between the Democrats and the pro-Muppet ziggurat-builders. Was baby-eating about abortion? Not exactly. Neither Sienna nor Allen directly parodied Bush or Kerry or even Nader. They’re all evil; it’s all corrupt; we’re all screwed no matter who we vote for or how many dot-orgs we start up. As one of the candidates (it doesn’t matter which one) put it during the recent debate for the future of Free Duluth, “I guess you’re going to have to govern yourselves.”
Photos by Starfire Lunt and Barrett Chase; photomontage (election poster) by Rob Litzenberger