Arts & Entertainment

Activating Democracy: When Politics and Arts Collide

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Matthew Paterson
  Staff Writer

Twelve years ago Sheryl Oring, an assistant professor of Arts at UNCG and one of 2016’s Distinguished Spartan Scholars, began work on the “I Wish to Say Project.”

A public art piece where she dresses up in a 1960’s era secretary outfit and sit down somewhere public, like a park, with a typewriter and writes postcards to the president dictated by anyone who approaches. This offers the everyday person a chance to profess their grievances about social and political issues.

We’ve two presidential elections pass by in the last twelve years and are approaching a third. Responses have changed with the times but the heart of the project has stayed the same and grown stronger every year. Most recently in April, Sheryl gave sixty UNCG student volunteers an opportunity to visits New York’s Bryant Park and participate in the project. The park was jam-packed with students behind typewriters.

Now, on October 27, after compiling the postcards, Sheryl Oring had a special release of her new book “Activating Democracy: The I Wish to Say Project.” This compilation also includes essays from Lee Walton, associate professor of art at UNCG and Dr. David Holian, associate professor of political science. Other collaborators include George Scheer, founder of Elsewhere, the living art museum located in Greensboro and Dhanraj Emanuel, a Greensboro photographer.

The clacking of the typewriters filled the atrium of the Weatherspoon Art Museum as four secretaries sat in a row typing out postcards. Sheryl and her colleagues spoke with visitors before the presentation, meeting fans and families alike. At around seven o’clock the crowd flooded into the auditorium to watch the presentation. Sheryl recounted the projects humble beginnings, stemming from her 1999 piece, “Writer’s Block”, which was inspired by Nazi book burnings during world war two.

The presentation was about how valuable freedom of speech is, how people thought their voices were lost or couldn’t be heard. She provided an outlet. The typewriter. Not a MacBook or a Tablet; a typewriter. A fossil of a bygone era. “The inability to backspace makes you stop and consider every word before committing them to paper.” Said Sheryl on why she chose to use the instrument.

She found many people were willing to sit down and join, and much of them felt a place to voice your opinion and actually be listened to is a rare thing these days. Instead of cyber posting out to the masses wondering how many people will see, let alone actually read, what you have to say, Oring has opted for just a one on one conversation.

“Audience members conducted themselves as citizen participants and producers rather than consumers under the state’s control,” said Sheryl commenting on the behavior of the audience.

As the night came to a close the group of speakers took to the stage and answered questions. The range of topics discussed addressed the diversity of those who participated, and how art coexists with the political themes of the piece. Near the end someone asked Sheryl where she thought the future of the project would be heading. To this, Oring mentioned creating ways to make the project more accessible so people may attempt a similar type of project. It appears far from over, inspiring many more people and making them feel like they have a voice in their country.

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