ESMoA’s ‘FREESTATE’ experience dreams up a world built on Golden State ideals

By Christina Campodonico

Part thought experiment, part conceptual art piece and part marketing/ad campaign, artist Cole Sternberg’s ‘FREESTATE,’ based out of ESMoA, explores the many meanings of nationhood through the lens of California
Photos Courtesy of ‘FREESTATE’ | Cole Sternberg

“Whatever starts in California, unfortunately, has an inclination to spread,” is a quote credited, interestingly enough, to Democratic President Jimmy Carter. It’s a slogan that conceptual artist and native Californian Cole Sterberg has adopted for his new exhibition housed out of the El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMoA), called ‘FREESTATE,’ and it’s a sentiment he hopes to encourage in a positive direction as our country heads into Election Day and beyond.

In the exhibit, Sternberg imagines the agitprop creation of The Free Republic of California, a thought experiment of sorts that centers California as an independent nation state with its own Constitution, website, international alliances and even California-cool merch. The line of minimalist T-shirts, hoodies, face masks, pins and totes that tout playful and slightly cryptic phrases, like “Pacifist, Pacificist” and “Owls Stirred the Silence Here and There,” could easily be mistaken for an ad campaign with an environmentalist, West Coast tinge. But Sternberg is using this apparel not only to promote the project, but also to plant the seeds of something more substantial in people’s minds. And he doesn’t mind the “confusion” it stirs.

“I mean, now I pretty much exclusively wear these T-shirts,” says Sternberg over video chat as he wears one of the “Free Republic” T-shirts. “One person, you know, walks by me thinks, ‘Hmm, I wonder what ‘The Free Republic’ is like?’ That’s already a spark, right, in one mind.”

“I wanted to feel like it’s real, even though all this is just me,” he continues. “I mean, I can’t believe I made all this stuff, but I wanted it to feel like it was happening on a bigger scale than one, you know, artist sitting at home. I also just like the idea of multi-level concepts. So you could look at that website and think, ‘Wow, this is the most elaborate marketing campaign for a streetwear line ever. … Or, ‘OK, this is some like crazy, secessionist movement.’ Or ‘this is a pleasant conceptual art project that’s just making this thing,’ which is probably the most truthful of them. But I like that confusion, ‘Like what really is this?’”

For the “FREESTATE,” Sternberg even created very official-looking documents that would be integral to the establishment of California as an independent entity. In the world of the exhibition, The Free Republic has invited other U.S. states to join in its independence, been recommended to join the United Nations and entered into the Paris Climate Agreement, (which the U.S. began to withdraw from in 2019).

“In all of these little pieces, you can discover little things,” says Sternberg as he guides me through the exhibition’s galleries via video tour. “These are exact versions of the UN documents. So like the number code and everything would fit with the date that we would ratify the agreement. Some of them have barcodes that are scannable and stuff. … I got really like geeky into that kind of stuff. This is the NATO protocol accepting us. And then these are all the signatures using the real names and my guess at what their signature would look like for all the representatives of the of the countries.”

Even though the Sternberg went so far as to write a completely new constitution for California, (which he considers a “living document” and published in a pocket-size book as well as on the exhibition’s website) and create a new flag and seal for the nation state, the law school-trained artist says the “The Free Republic” is not part of a secessionist movement or the imagined outcome of some fictional revolutionary moment.

“My use of California is kind of a guide to get people to listen to the ideas of the show, and on a broader perspective to get the U.S. to like respect California more because California is so important and critical,” says Sternberg, noting throughout our conversation how California is an economic superpower, among the world’s greatest exporters of produce and creative ideas, an influential leader in sustainability and also a beacon of egalitarianism. “I’m thinking of how there could be infrastructural change, regardless of whether we’re part of California, a part of the U.S. or not. …

“There isn’t really a narrative that I perceive,” he continues. “It’s more here [are] ways that we could change positively — and whether that’s California pointing them out, California leaving or everyone joining California… [or] basically remaining [in the Union] and trying to work on these things more specifically… whether that’s judicial term limits or carbon neutrality or reproductive rights or police reform, you know, there’s a ton of different things, and if I could just help a little bit in that, that would be great. I don’t really see how a revolution would work. It’s more like an intellectual idea of a revolution.”

In other words, the exhibition is more of an invitation for the whole country and people of all political stripes to step into a California state of mind and consider the state of our entire nation in that context.

“The first document [of] my official documents is that invitation to the other states because, you know, I would like my grandparents in North Carolina to join The Free Republic,” says Sternberg. “I’m talking about this thing covered in California, but it’s really talking about the U.S.”

Visit thefreerepublicofcalifornia.com or esmoa.org to explore the virtual exhibit.

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