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When democracy began taking shape in Athens some 2500 years ago, its citizens were asked to gather once a month to openly vote on laws and decrees, elect officials, and try political crimes. Since then, democracy has become more and more diluted. Bigger states with even greater populations made it all but impossible for all citizens to gather at one place at a time. Even in Athens, the direct vote was only viable as no more than ten to fifteen per cent of the population counted as citizens (women, children, slaves, criminals, and foreigners were excluded). Hereupon, representative democracy was introduced in which every few years, citizens would elect a manageable number of representatives. The liberal democracy, familiar to us since the eighteenth century, is even more diluted. In a process of further specialization, it expects politicians not only to be professionals but also to submit themselves more or less to the mandates of a political party.

Liberal democracy defeated monarchy worldwide in less than a hundred and fifty years, and its next big threat-totalitarism-was pretty much extinct in another seventy years. Still, liberal democracy doesn’t appear to be the big winner, but rather to be slowly deteriorating. On the one hand, autocratic regimes have gained enough expertise and pragmatism to rule countries like companies-expanding capitalism beyond a liberal setting. On the other hand, supranational institutions have gained in power, and even when most countries are now considered democracies-as are all of the member states of the European Union—the people’s vote is for the most part merely symbolic. After having been and still being indoctrinated with nationalism by almost all political parties, the people are mistrusted by exactly those parties for their inability to grasp the long-term necessities that go along with globalization. Likewise, the people regard politicians as elitist, manipulative, and corrupt. Society has become more complex than simple ideological dictates can encompass, and people find their opinions less and less congruent with any one single party.

Modern telecommunication could enable all citizens to participate in political debates and to vote with short notice on an unlimited number of questions. To not overburden them, decisions about questions of minor interest could be restricted to a randomly selected group of people (like jurors at court) or each citizen could only be allowed to vote a limited number of times per year (as recently proposed by Martti Kalliala, Jenna Sutela, and Tuomas Toivonen1). Instead, plebiscites are often limited to elementary constitutional questions and need to be initiated with a petition that is signed by a large number of citizens. The plebiscite is regarded as a last resort in saving rather than an actual exercise in democracy.

As it stands now, the only thing ordinary people can do to directly influence politics in between elections is to hold a demonstration where the secret ballot is foregone, and instead one is left to vouch for their opinion in public. Each demonstration has to be individually promoted so that it is never just about a specific topic but about sympathy with its organizers. Banners have to be painted, trucks rented, loudspeakers installed. Then all participants have to gather at a specific place at a specific time—no matter if it’s hot, freezing cold or raining. No matter how many people turn up, all that really matters is the media coverage. If the demonstration doesn’t make it into the evening news, it is as if it never happened.

The Occupy movement has tried to overcome these obstacles by installing a permanent demonstration that avoided representing specific interests. Its newness yielded extensive coverage by the media, but after a couple of weeks or months most participants lost interest in endless public discussions and the movement disappeared—at least from the streets and the news.

What is missing is a new mode of demonstrating that is both easy-going and lasting. Something that can be done as quickly and casually as a virtual “I like” but still works as a distinctive physical gesture in the real public space. You are going somewhere and along the way you choose one of several passages to express approval, disapproval or indifference to a specific question. As with the division of the assembly you don’t have to raise a hand or push a button, but to spatially separate.

Just like streaming a TV program or a movie online, it is no longer necessary to attend demonstrations at a specific time. Demonstrations can go on for days, weeks, months, and though they may lose visual size, they can take on new spectacular phenomena. The participants are no longer lost in the crowd but instead expose themselves, one after another, and can use their moment of decision as an individual performance. Traditional demonstrations can be transformed into telegenic endless queues in front of the yes, no, or maybe passages.

Each person stepping or rolling through this device we call simply “Vote” is counted electronically so that the typical disputes about the actual number of participants are eliminated. The results of the issues are archived online to satisfy an ever-growing demand for quantification and ranking. This growing demand is often interpreted as the result of a progressive commodification. Placing a number on something is only a short step away from pricing it. But democracy is about counting too, and it is no coincidence that standardized coins were invented around the same time.

As basic counting technology makes no distinction between voters, you would have the chance to vote several times on the same question. You might even go back and forth endlessly, for days or months on end, assembling thousands of votes. Social monitoring would admonish or even applaud you for such an extraordinary engagement. Vote thus becomes a model study in grassroots democracy, or at least a playful experiment. How to deal with this new public tool has yet to be developed and might vary extremely from place to place.

In Gwangju, Vote is positioned in the middle of a busy shopping and entertainment district that is mainly frequented by teenagers. A narrow street is divided into three pedestrian lanes marked “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe.” A delegation of the Gwangju Youth Center has been commissioned to detect the most urgent issues teenagers and other citizens of Gwangju should vote on in the midst of streets lined with clothing shops, tarot reading stalls, karaoke bars, and cafés. Previously existing street furniture invites these “walk-through” voters to relax, contemplate, and discuss.

1. Martti Kalliala with Jenna Sutela and Tuomas Toivonen, “The Vote Economy,” in Solution 239-246—Finland: The Welfare Game, (Berlin, 2011), p. 45–48.

VOTE by Rem Koolhaas & Ingo Niermann

PROJECT : Vote (2013 Gwangju Design Biennale Folly Project)
DESIGN PERIOD : 2013.02 - 2013.04
CONSTRUCTION PERIOD: 2013.05 - 2013.10

TYPE : Architecture - Folly
LOCATION : Gwangju, South Korea

OMA (Alexander Giarlis, Grace H. Cho, Victor Nyman, Jihyun Woo)

OBBA (Sojung Lee & Sangjoon Kwak), Sangbong Sim

Gwangju Youth Center

- Director : Nikolaus Hirsch
- Curators : Eui Young Chun, Philipp Misselwitz

- Region Experts : Mincheol Lee, Seonghoon Kim
- Representative of Residents : Hwancheol Jeong
- Local Student : Noori Han

Gwangju Metropolitan City

Gwangju Biennale Foundation

Kyungsub Shin

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