Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 4, 2017
Sheryl Oring, ed. Activating Democracy: The "I Wish to Say" Project Bristol, U.K.: Intellect, 2016. 222 pp.; 170 color ills. Paperback $38.50 (9781783206711)

With breaking news coming out of the White House daily, if given the chance, what would you “wish to say” to President Trump? What might you ask him? What would be your most pressing issue to discuss? Would you be able to fit it on a postcard? Sheryl Oring has been asking the public these and related questions for over a decade in her project, “I Wish to Say.” Donning 1960s-era dress suits, she travels across the country with her portable public office, a vintage manual typewriter in tow, and an ear to lend. What amassed is a diverse archive of American public opinion and a rich socially engaged practice.

Activating Democracy: The “I Wish to Say” Project, edited by Oring, is the book that chronicles her work as well as the overarching theme of when art becomes social. Given the variety of the field, it seems fitting that in creating this volume she has sought a diverse range of twenty contributors that includes artists, creative writers, a political scientist, an architect, activists, art historians, and a First Amendment rights lawyer. The book is organized into four parts with twenty-three chapters in total.

The volume begins with Corey Dzenko’s “Taking a Moment to Have a Say.” She participated in the project as one of the “I Wish to Say” secretaries during the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. Dzenko introduces Oring’s body of work and shares her experience of being involved. She describes the events as being carefully orchestrated and performative in nature. Dressed in the “nostalgic familiarity of 1960s secretaries” (2) with colorful vintage dresses, beehive hairdos, and relic typewriters, they attract those passing by to write a postcard to the president. Dzenko attributes part of the success of the project to the deliberate aesthetic choices made by Oring. She says, “Art has the potential to motivate participants to engage with important issues through the language of aesthetics and the affective and symbolic capital wielded by art” (5). The seemingly small symbolic act of dictating a letter allows participants to be heard in hopes of influencing further civic engagement. 

Following her essay is a sampling of postcards from 2004, the inaugural year of the project, written to then president George W. Bush. While some of the issues addressed in the postcards are still pertinent, such as immigration, gun control, race, and homelessness, others read with a glimmer of optimism that some progress has been made. One woman writes for marriage equality to give her partner of twenty years “future financial security” (18). Others write of health care prior to the Affordable Care Act. While health care is still deeply flawed and its future is uncertain, these letters leave you with impressions of evolving political debates as told by the people living them. Their stories are important and get to the heart of what people, at that time, were in need of most.

During the first year of the project, Oring took a cross-country road trip with one stop in Tuba City, Arizona, where the largest Navajo community in the United States is located. A six-year-old boy begins his letter to the president as if it were to Santa (72). He wants a playground, a bike (and another bike), but as the list goes on it includes a bedroom, a pencil, books, pants, and finally a door; his requests are basic needs that the government took part in denying him (72). Another tribe member asks for electricity, which the community has been without for over thirty years. The postcard itself provides a limited amount of space, so the act of manual transcription requires participants to carefully consider their words and arrive directly at their point. The experience removes the viewer from their everyday routine and allows for a moment of reflection. The postcards hold accounts and opinions, encapsulating them in time.

Part one explores the artist’s perspective through a series of ten short essays dissecting elements paramount to Oring’s practice: the typewriter, the look, the question, the camera, the archive, the paper, the street, the city, the road, and dissent. Different artists explore each topic as it relates to their own work. While the book is largely about Oring’s “I Wish to Say" Project, the compiled writings often elaborate on various aspects of her practice without directly referencing her project. This approach helps to foster a greater dialogue about social engagement and situates Oring’s work within the field. In the essay “The Look: Patty and Her Avatars,” Santiago Echeverry writes about his foray into drag performance as a reaction to the murder of a transgender prostitute in Bogota, Colombia. His creation of a persona as a political platform recalls Oring’s own methods of dressing for a distinct means. Other highlights in this section include Hasan Elahi’s “The Digital Archive: Maintaining Privacy by Giving It All Away” in which he details his project, “Tracking Transience.” After being falsely accused of terrorist activities, Elahi began systematically cataloguing and making public all aspects of his life, from his exact whereabouts to his every meal, in 72,000 images, to date (51). Alongside the “I Wish to Say” postcards within the book are Polaroid pictures of the participants. The importance of these images is discussed in “The Camera: Coming to Terms with Photographing People” by Dhanraj Emanuel who regularly travels with the project to document it. Emanuel suggests that “the role of the image is to give voice to the text” and to “contextualize the participants within the larger public” (48).

Part two, “Frameworks: Scholarly Views,” delves into the theoretical underpinnings of Oring’s practice and of socially engaged work. In particular, an essay by the art historian Bill Anthes titled “Socially Engaged Art, Photography and Art History” reinforces the function of photographing ephemeral and performance-based work. Paired with their portraits, postcards are intermeshed throughout the book with photographs of the events. This format illustrates the criticality of documentation to account for what transpired. Anthes’s essay conveys the difficulty of relying on verbal descriptions for social projects. He goes on to say “such works’ currency grows as they enter into dialogue with past art and prompt critical reflection and exchange, extending their initial impact from a momentary puncture in the social fabric of a specific time and place to an intervention into the larger arc of art history and into dialogue with larger social and political movements and processes” (112). Anthes’s plea for documentation and aesthetics is heralded by Oring in her practice. This section also includes essays elaborating on the role of the object, activism via the medium of artist books, free speech, and civic engagement.

Part three, “Conclusion: Listening and the Power of Small Acts,” brings together three essays from contributors rooted in well-established socially engaged projects. It is comprised of essays by Kemi Ilesanmi of “The Laundromat Project”; George Scheer, who was part of a public art and performance festival called Art in Odd Places; and Radhika Subramaniam from the Elsewhere Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. These essays assert and largely center on the importance of persistence, duration, and as Subramaniam notes, “The accumulation of small acts, across time and space, repeated and determined” (171).

By choosing the contributors of this volume, Oring creates the conversation she wishes to see take place. Some of the essays feel less relevant to the work or may imply greater meaning to her project. Luckily, however, she has avoided twenty-three essays of people boasting about her work. The handful of essays specifically about “I Wish to Say” feel balanced and well placed within the mix. The only drawback to the book’s formatting is that Oring’s own voice feels passive; her essays are often used for the purpose of narration. Accounts of the project largely come from the other contributors rather than first hand insights.

At times social engagement can remain contained within the art world, whereas Oring’s project is very much a public endeavor, interfacing with participants from all walks of life. This key element of inclusion creates a relatively pleasant experience for participants, but may not elicit from them a critical and evaluative response of her practice. This book fills that void and sets up a more elaborate and academically minded discourse aimed to reassert the project’s art world presence. The essays in this volume play off one another, building a robust and comprehensive understanding of Oring’s practice. More than anything, the book conveys that after thirteen years of postcards, Oring, above all else, has listened. She has continued her project through the presidencies of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, through turbulent election cycles, amid a variety of viewpoints and constituents. In an age where postcards have been replaced by tweets, she takes the time to slow down and emboldens others to do so as well. She asks participants to articulate what they want to say while she commits their words to paper. They contain the hopes, opinions, stories, and critiques all too often expressed but so rarely heard.

MA Social Engagement, Moore College of Art & Design