To banish or exile a member of society, citizens of 5th Century BC Athens would create a ballot by inscribing the name of the person they wanted to neutralize on a shard of broken pottery called an ostrakon. Once 6000 unfavorable votes were cast for any one name, the person was exiled from the city for ten years, giving rise to the term ostracism.
Numbers of ostraka were created by reusing the plentiful and durable pieces of broken pottery from the homes of citizens. Pots were purposefully broken during contentious periods, or small circular disks were wheel thrown to add to the numbers of ballots available. Carried by participants, these potsherds landed in the Athenian Agora, the foundational site of democratic freedom and free speech. Here, thousands of citizens, wielding their ostraka incised with the name of their vote, uttered their inscription while forcibly casting them over a circular barrier to be tallied.
This intense and expulsive public action allowed physical expression not possible by secret ballot and provided the opportunity to functionally and symbolically dispose of those financial dishonest, tyrannical, treasonous, or abusive. A growing accumulation of ostraka was a compelling symbol of unity while providing a visual confirmation of both the number and consensus of the voters.
Besides names, Athenians also wrote expletives, short epigrams or cryptic injunctions. Ancient examples include Kallixenes, son of Aristonimos, "the traitor.", Archen, "lover of foreigners.", Agasias, "the donkey." And Megacles, "the liar."
Mirroring this history and collective democratic action, participants in this contemporary counterpart are invited to inscribe with the name of a person they wish to banish on handmade pottery shard showing historical Greek and contemporary imagery. Over time the array of ostraka will grow as the work travels from community to community, building a collective voice of dissent.
What name will you inscribe?
Ostraka is a collaborative work by Wendy DesChene and Jeff Schmuki. Silkscreen oxide monoprint on ^04 earthenware. Dimensions variable.
© 2019 by Jeff Schmuki