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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

Election Day Art

Celebrating the vote

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The 2008 presidential race has been exciting and entertaining. Let's face it, though: Most of us are glad it's almost over. Given the surplus of negative advertisements and unprecedented forms of voter manipulation-from constantly broadcasted poll results to graphs denoting real-time reactions at the bottom of CNN's debate coverage-it's easy to lose sight of the joy and privilege of voting.

Partly to reinstate the value and significance of visiting the ballot box, IN:SITE Chair Pegi Taylor and Haggerty Museum Registrar John Loscuito founded My Vote Performs (MVP) to organize a series of art events to take place at 11 of the city's polling stations on Election Day. While waiting in line, voters at each of the stations will be able to enjoy a diverse range of performance art, be it a spoken-word project at the Silver Spring Neighborhood Center led by Dasha Kelly, a stylized dance performance at Pulaski Indoor Swimming Pool by Wild Space or puppetry staged by Michael Pettit at the Wisconsin Humane Society.

The initial idea for MVP arose from the first voting experience for Taylor's daughter. "At the time, I thought, 'Wow, there should be a parade for first-time voters!'" Taylor says.

Early discussions with Loscuito precluded the idea of a November parade in Wisconsin. However, they eventually hit upon the notion of staging art happenings at polling stations. The project was unanimously approved by the state governing bodies on the understanding that it would be entirely nonpartisan in its content and unobstructive in its form.

Nonpartisan

To ensure that it meets these requirements, MVP makes it clear the events are only for the enjoyment of people casting votes at those particular locations. (The general public will be able to see visual documentation of the art events and air their opinions at an open forum at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design on Nov. 25). Each project has been carefully vetted to ensure that it doesn't encroach on people's opinions or their voting spaces. Partly to this end, MVP handpicked the artists to take part in the event rather than put out an open call.

"This is a model-the first of its kind," Taylor says. "The Wisconsin Arts Board would love to duplicate this in other cities and states; the staff at the state Elections Division would love to see it happening elsewhere, so there wasn't room for mistakes. We had to work with people who were willing to engage in problem-solving if there were any issues."

She's also keen to dispel the idea that celebratory means flimsy. "Celebratory doesn't mean bland or happy faced-it's about really thinking what this means," Taylor says. "To enhance the voting experience in ways that educate and entertain."

While some projects do so by examining the dynamics of voting, others draw on history, such as Jill Sebastian's Suffragium at Centennial Hall or Raoul Deal's Ex-Voto, to be exhibited at the United Community Center. By combining Latin cultural traditions of ex-votos and Day of the Dead with performance art, Deal explores what might have happened if the voting rights Wisconsin granted "declarant aliens" as early as 1848 hadn't been repealed in the early 20th century.

Political Act?

Deal's piece takes on issues that have gained much visibility in recent years. In doing so he readily admits the difficulty of creating art in a setting that is entirely purged of political significance. "I don't understand how anyone can do a piece on Election Day at a polling station about voting that doesn't have a political element to it-it's a political act," he says.

He has a point. Art has often served as a potent vehicle for political expression. How then, in a project as sensitive as this, does one navigate the fine line between politics and partisanship? For MVP co-organizer John Loscuito, the breadth of the issue and its historical context is key.

"Immigration is topical with regards to this election," he says, "but this has been an issue for people of different cultures throughout the history of the United States. It's not partisan because it's crossing all groups of people and time periods."

However, Loscuito accepts that when it comes to art and politics, one has to keep room for contingencies, despite the measures MVP and the artists involved have taken to ensure that the work is as sensitive as possible. "People can automatically create the wrong message out of almost anything," he says.

The WhiteBoxPainters, an artist collective that includes Mark Escribano, Brent Budsberg, Shana McCaw and Harvey Opgenorth, are also aware of that possibility. Despite the group's commitment to the platonic geometries of the white box, uncolored by political embellishments, they understand their work may still be given unintended political meaning. They seem unruffled. "It's very important people bring their own interpretation to it, but we're not trying to influence anyone," Escribano says.

Their project, The Tally, will consist of two 30-foot Jacob's ladders suspended from the façade of the Town of Lake Building. Composed of white square canvases, the ladder will rise and fall through the use of cranks operated by two team members under the guidance of a third-a conductor acting on information that only he is party to, which he'll use to orchestrate the carefully calibrated crank rotations.

"Increasingly with each election we are more and more aware of the polls as they're coming in; it's becoming an experience that adds to the tension," Budsberg says. "This is meant as an illustration of that tension."

However, don't let the simplicity of their palette fool you. Given the mischief that lies beneath their work's earnest insouciance, there's always a chance the joke is on us.

And why not? A deep exhalation of awe or a hoot of self-directed laughter might help dispel the acrid taste of acrimony that's clung to this election like a bad smell. If all goes according to plan, MVP may end up being one of Milwaukee's most valuable players in the upcoming election.

For MVP times and locations, go to www.myvoteperforms.com.