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Election Reform hoodies Brendan Fowler
Brendan Fowler’s Election Reform hoodies

The hoodies challenging America’s broken voting system

Brendan Fowler’s Election Reform clothing injects political dissent into streetwear style – here, the artist opens up about the project

Artist Brendan Fowler’s latest project Election Reform may contain the ‘E’ word, but it’s not about Clinton vs Trump – it’s not even about the current presidential campaigns. Those embroidered ‘Election Reform!’ garments that have popped up on your Instagram feed (in Eckhaus Latta’s SS17 show, or on the likes of Kanye West, for example) have a bigger agenda than today’s outcome – they are seeking to raise awareness around the problems at the core of America’s voting system. “I want to get Election Reform out there, but it’s not in honour of the election,” Fowler explains of the collection, which is stocked at Union Los Angeles. “I envision it to be an ongoing project which unfortunately is going to be relevant, I’m sure, at least for the rest of my life.”

Election Reform began as a 2013 sculpture (currently exhibited at LACMA), before transforming into a clothing-based project when Fowler began customising second-hand garments with industrial embroidery and recycled fabric in his LA studio – utilising a process he had previously used on canvases. Hybrids that bridge the gap between conceptual artworks and covetable garments, the resulting pieces engage with the hype-driven world of streetwear to proliferate a political agenda that rallies against corruption, systemic inequality and disenfranchisement.

Part of a creative community that includes fellow artist Cali Thornhill DeWitt (with whom he heads up clothing-slash-record label Some Ware), avant-garde musicians like Purity and Odwalla88, Tremaine and Acyde of No Vacancy Inn, and designers and creative directors like Virgil Abloh and A$AP Bari, Fowler is well placed to tap into the zeitgeist and create an arena for political awareness and conversation.

How long have you been politically active?

Brendan Fowler: I’m 38 and I started voting when I was 18 – I wrote my college essay about third party politics. I’ve always been really focussed on politics, but I feel like a lot of my friends aren’t. Everyone follows it, but in a more general way, and a lot of the more nefarious powers instrumentalise that negligence. But information is not that hard to find. It’s just beneath the surface.

What’s the problem with the electoral system in the US?

Brendan Fowler: If there’s one overarching issue, it’s that people don’t really know what the problems are. They fall into two categories – firstly, that America is a giant country and there are all these different political bodies within it. So in the course of that, it’s like an electrical grid, where things are going to fail just because of how many networks there are. Then there’s a lot of people who are taking advantage of people’s lack of awareness in service of their agendas. One example – in the 2000 election, George Bush won the election illegally. The ballot machines fucked up because the punch system didn’t work with the paper ballots, creating what were called ‘hanging chads’ where the vote wasn’t correctly punched, which led to a miscount.

So in turn, there was a lot of visibility around the issue, which then made the idea of online or electronic balloting appealing. But once it goes to that, there is literally no way to ensure that there aren’t shenanigans going on. It was like, ‘We’re going to do a crime, and people are going to be so flipped out by that crime, that they don’t even realise they’ve turned their alarm systems off.’ Trump has got a lot of attention for saying, “If I don’t win, the election is rigged.” It’s not true, but it illustrates that there’s a lot of fragility around the electoral system. But there are watchdog groups who are non-partisan, Election Reform is an ostensibly non-partisan project. 

“That was sort of a vision I had for Election Reform before – if Kanye or someone wears it, and kids look it up, that’s how we get them the information. We’re trying to create dialogue and we’re working with what we have” – Brendan Fowler

All the Election Reform garments come with a booklet, what’s included?

Brendan Fowler: I tried to find essays that are really readable. One is an article about ballot fraud, one is an op-ed about felon disenfranchisement, because in the US if you are convicted of a felony in most states you can never vote again. The third essay is about this insane process we have here called the Electoral College, it’s the system by which votes actually happen. People’s votes are meant to be represented by this body called the Electoral College, which is this group of people who are elected in elections which no-one pays attention to. In some cases, the Electoral College has voted differently to the public. It was set up to disenfranchise people who weren’t white, it was to ensure that there was no such thing as a popular vote. There are movements to get rid of this as a system, a growing number of states have signed on to say that they will not work with the Electoral College and guarantee that whichever the way their state votes, they will vote.

How does Election Reform fit into the other creative work that you do, for instance with Some Ware?

Brendan Fowler: Since I was in high school, getting into punk, noise, skateboarding, culture, subculture – community was super important to me. For years I put out records as BARR, and I loved that, and then in my early 30s, I spent most of my energy making object-based artworks to be seen in galleries. Which was interesting, but it was very solitary and got super lonely. Cali DeWitt, he had been spending the last few years heavily in studio mode, and he and I were hanging out a lot. There was this band called Purity we were psyched on and he saw this show they did and said to them, if Brendan and I start a new record label can we put out your record? We decided it would be rad if we started doing parties around them and Odwalla88, who had just moved to LA. So this scene started happening. LA is so big, so events and parties and gatherings are really precious.

And the clothes were a natural extension...

Brendan Fowler: The clothes were like, the third idea but just the most visible in the culture. It’s faster to make shirts than it is to make records. You do a party and people go, but the shirts themselves travel in a way that the party can’t. So that’s really about a community, but also objecthood and physicality and design and content, about body and performance. The shirts are all only organic, XL, ostensibly made ethically. We’re trying to set a dialogue about that too. I think we both feel optimistic about where cultural production is headed, Election Reform fits in with that. All the Election Reform and Some Ware stuff says, ‘Wear often, wear rough’ – it’s about not being so precious. I’m really into designer clothing that is precious and delicate and treating it with respect, but these garments aren’t meant for that.

Watching Cali do the Kanye stuff, and watching kids get really genuinely excited about it, I was like, this is rad. That was sort of a vision I had for Election Reform before – if Kanye or someone wears it, and kids look it up, that’s how we get them the information. I’m not trying to trick anyone, but we’re trying to create dialogue and we’re working with what we have. It’s an ongoing project, and I think it really will be ongoing.

You had a debate-watching party with Eckhaus Latta, and collaborated with them for their last show. How did that come about?

Brendan Fowler: When I was doing artI was so appreciative for the occasion to work in my studio in solitude but I really missed friends and people. But with clothing it’s been so fun collaborating, opening up. Zoe and I became friends in LA and I met Mike through Zoe. I was a huge fan of Eckhaus Latta. They were just like, ‘Hey, would you wanna collaborate?” and I was like, ‘I would do anything you guys wanna do!’ It’s really beautiful watching how they’re creating a business on their terms, but they’re really hardcore with design, really hands on. So it was great to get to work with them, I don’t know anything about garment construction or design, with Some Ware we’re just printing on blanks, Election Reform is all recycled vintage garments.

Are you hopeful for the political future of America?

Brendan Fowler: I’m an optimist, yeah, but I also believe in hard work and doing the work. I believe that there are certain situations that are more of an uphill battle – I think a lot about certain parts of the world like Syria, where it seems unfathomable for citizens to do anything other than hope to survive right now, so being in a situation where we do have, for the most part, a real democracy, we have something to work with, we have a voice… I know life can be overbearing or tiring, the capitalist industrial complex makes it easy to just consume… but I do really believe in the power of people to create the change we want. I’m optimistic, but it starts with awareness, with conversation and a dialogue. The idea of Election Reform is to engender a dialogue. Right now we’re talking a lot about it because it’s the election, but it’s the in-between times where it’s really important, you know?

@brendanfowlerbrendanfowler | @electionreform