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‘I Wish To Say’ Highlights Voters’ Voices at UNC Charlotte

Art as an amplifier

You might see the messages as you’re driving into Uptown from the University City area, or driving north on I-85, or rounding the I-277 loop. “I wish to say … please represent all Americans,” reads one billboard. “I wish to say … make healthcare affordable,” says another. If you happened to be on UNC Charlotte’s campus back in March, before the world came to a screeching halt, you may have seen artist Sheryl Oring, dressed like a 1960s secretary, tapping out dictation from passing students and university personnel on an old fashioned typewriter.

Those messages eventually made it to the aforementioned billboards and into Oring’s I Wish To Say project, which is now at the core of UNC Charlotte’s No Redactions exhibit, a mix of performance, public service and art exhibit that gives average Americans the chance to deliver their thoughts and concerns to the Oval Office.

Sheryl Oring is an artist, educator and former journalist who devised the I Wish to Say project in 2004. Since then, she has been setting up in public spaces around the country and asking passersby if they want to dictate a postcard to the president.

Sheryl Oring (Photo by Jon Eric Johnson)

This year, in the midst of a rancorous and wildly unpredictable campaign, Oring has made a few tweaks to the interviews she conducts.

“I’m framing it so people are writing to the next president,” Oring says. “I’m trying to make it less political, and more idealistic.”

The ongoing project has come to Charlotte in two successive stages. In March, right before COVID-19 changed the way the world operates, Oring set up shop in her vintage secretary’s costume on UNC-Charlotte’s campus for the performance piece, soliciting responses from passersby and typing up their answers on postcards.

Prints made from those postcards have become the core of Oring’s exhibit, which opened to the public at the UNC Charlotte’s Projective Eye Gallery on Oct.1.

With help from UNC Charlotte’s Director of Galleries Adam Justice, I Wish to Say acquired a new wrinkle, exclusive to Charlotte. Sixteen of the postcard’s messages are currently being displayed on five digital billboards throughout Charlotte.

Pulling this multipronged project together has been a challenge, complicated by the fact that all interviews after March had to be conducted virtually on Zoom. Once Oring’s artistic canvassing and transcription is complete, she’ll gather up all the postcards she’s collected and send them to the White House following the inauguration. It’s a massive undertaking that she juggles with her day job as professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Oring’s Case of Writer’s Block

In a roundabout way, Oring’s project — a confluence of journalism, art and education — began in Berlin, she says.

She was working at the San Francisco Chronicle as an editor when she was accepted for an Arthur F. Burns fellowship for journalists in Berlin, Germany. The two-month long fellowship turned into a six-month leave from The Chronicle, at the end of which she decided not to go back.

She had fallen in love with Berlin, so she quit her job and dove into the city’s art world.

In the course of a year, Oring collected over 600 old-fashioned manual typewriters and devised a sculptural project called Writer’s Block, comprised of typewriters fused to a cage made of rusted metal rebar.

From ‘Writer’s Block’ (Photo by Kay Herschelmann)

“I placed them on the site of the Nazi book burning,” Oring says. “It was a pretty ambitious undertaking.”

After six years in Berlin, Oring came back to the states to exhibit her work in New York and  Boston. She was invited to San Francisco by The First Amendment Project, a group of lawyers that support constitutional rights for journalists, to talk about the knotty logistics of displaying and transporting Writer’s Block to the Bay Area.

As an aside, she was asked if she had another idea that might be easier to present. With that, I Wish to Say sprang to life, but its seeds had already been sewn in Europe.

In September 2001, Oring was traveling and showing her art in Europe when two passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. She witnessed an outpouring of empathy for Americans gradually curdle into incomprehension and anger as the Bush administration blundered into senseless and unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I got a lot of questions from Europeans about what regular Americans thought,” Oring remembers.

Europeans wondered if all Americans thought alike and supported President Bush’s ham-fisted wars of choice. The questions prompted Oring to think regular people are rarely represented in the news. She brought that line of inquiry back with her to America.

“I felt so disconnected from this country because I’d been away for six years,” Oring says. “I had this idea — a sort of person-in-the-street interview but with a twist.”

Inspired by a Secretary, Becoming a Teacher

The twist was Oring’s secretary costume and her old fashioned typewriter. The same kind she’d utilized for Writer’s Block, the typewriter is a tribute to her career as a journalist.

The costume was inspired by Oring’s grandmother, who had always gone well-dressed to her job as a university secretary.

Central Station, a 1998 Brazilian drama about a woman who types other people’s letters for a living, also contributed to Oring’s characterization for I Wish to Say.

After a show at a San Francisco café, and another one at an Oakland arts space, I Wish to Say took off. Oring spent the election year of 2004 traversing the country and typing people’s postcards to then-President George W. Bush.

As the project drew more and more media attention, Oring started getting grant funding.

“It just kept evolving and now has continued over the years,” Oring says. “I’ve typically gotten very busy during election years.”

During that time, Oring also pursued a career in academia. In 2008 she went back to graduate school at the University of California, San Diego. She earned an MFA in art and took a teaching job at UNC Greensboro. After eight years there, she decamped for Wayne State in the fall of 2019.

Conducting the I Wish to Say project is now part of Oring’s job as an academic artist, and she even published a book about it.

Activating Democracy: The “I Wish to Say” Project was released by the University of Chicago Press and Intellect Books in the fall of 2016.

The Charlotte Art Show Comes Together as COVID Arrives

To set up the Charlotte show last spring, Oring first connected with Justice. The two have been discussing bringing the project to UNC Charlotte for about a year and a half, he says.

“I find Sheryl’s work very democratic and … and sensitive to this idea that not all voices are equal, and also not all Americans share the same perspective,” Justice offers.

Justice joined Oring in developing both the performance and exhibition stages of the project. He says the participation of the UNC Charlotte students is a particularly attractive and synergistic aspect of the project.

“We were directing students to have their voices heard, [and] that helped create the content of the exhibition.”

Adam Justice (Photo by Toby Shearer)

The on-campus interviews and transcriptions were done on the cusp of COVID-19, Oring remembers. There had been no announcement of anything shutting down yet, she says, but there was a sense that it was imminent.

Oring says she had sanitizer on her typewriting desk, but no one was wearing face masks yet. The severity of the pandemic didn’t sink in for her until she boarded a flight from Charlotte to Detroit. Everybody was sanitizing the seats, she remembers.

“It just felt like people were nervous,” she offers. “It all just changed overnight.”

The Charlotte interviews were the last ones conducted  in-person, right before the virus closed everything down, Oring says. Now she works virtually, collaborating with a crew of typists who interview people through a series of Zoom calls.

Oring says the interviews she’s been conducting are a reflection of what’s happening in the country. She cites the composition of the Supreme Court, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, as an example.

But sometimes personal issues come up. Oring relates that she was just reading some cards that she typed earlier this year and found one that was particularly poignant from an Iranian student who wrote that she felt trapped in the U.S.

“She couldn’t leave or she would lose her visa, and she hadn’t seen her family for five years,” Oring says, illustrating how personal stories can often reflect larger issues.

The Great Outdoors

The most innovative aspect of the Charlotte iteration of I Wish to Say is the addition of billboards to augment the gallery show.

“I always wanted to do billboards with some quotes from the postcards,” Oring says. “It seems like a great format to present the art and messages in a different way.”

She told Justice her idea and he quickly came on board to make it happen. Justice feels the billboards are an effective way to make the work more accessible to the general public by allowing interviewees’ words to have a bigger life beyond the Projective Eye Gallery walls.

I Wish To Say
Making connections… (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Getting the postcard messages out into the community would also help offset any loss of foot traffic to the gallery engendered by the pandemic.

Fortunately, the university had a longstanding and positive relationship with Charlotte-based Adams Outdoor Advertising, the largest privately held outdoor advertising firm in the U.S., which also supports the Charlotte-born arts organization ArtPop Street Gallery.

Justice met with an Adams representative, and they jumped at the chance to extend the reach of I Wish to Say throughout Charlotte.

Two of the digital billboards are located along I-85 heading toward the university. Travelers can spy one as they’re traveling north on the interstate and approaching exit 43 at University City Boulevard, or south going into Uptown.

The other three billboards are closer to the Uptown area, Justice says. There are two along the I-277 loop and another one on I-85 coming into Uptown from the south.

“I’m glad we did it,” Justice offers. “It has definitely impacted the exhibition and helped get it out to people who haven’t visited the gallery.”

Private Messages

Those who venture to the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City in Uptown, also called the  DuBois Center, will do so safely, Justice says.

Masks are required, sanitizer will be on hand and occupancy is limited to 10 people during the gallery’s hours of operation, which are Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8:30a.m. to 5 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30a.m. to 2 p.m.

The exhibit includes prints of the postcards, photos of the billboards and on one wall, the fruits of Word of the Day, another project Oring undertook concurrent with I Wish to Say.

When the pandemic hit, she started typing a word each day, as a kind of snapshot trying to capture the mood of the period from last April to June.

“It was … a private reflection, but I also posted it on Instagram,” Oring offers. “So, I had this tension between public and private.”

Her last message in the series was perhaps the most private of all. Oring typed “suicide,” to mark the anniversary of the day her brother took his own life. She says she thought long and hard before posting that word on Instagram.

“I felt a deep responsibility to share it because I’ve encountered experiences with suicide on the campuses where I’ve worked, and I felt like it’s such a taboo subject that nobody talks about it when it happens,” she says. “It was not dealt with in a way that I felt was helpful for the students.”

Now as a department head and academic leader, Oring feels compelled to say it’s long past time to start talking about the topic and acknowledge what is happening on campuses across the country.

Sadly, with current tensions and rising uncertainty, Oring feels suicide will become an even bigger issue in the near future.

I Wish To Say
The writing on the walls. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

That’s not the only grave issue facing our fractious and fragile democracy, Oring says. There’s much at stake in the upcoming election.

“The biggest thing is making sure we can pull off a fair and accurate election,” Oring says, a message that resonates as Nov. 3 draws nearer.

With the Trump administration casting doubt on the validity of the vote and calling on white supremacist followers to police the polling places, an explosive stand-off between democracy and authoritarianism seems more and more likely.

Given Oring’s staunch support of the First Amendment, she’s also concerned about the diminishing vitality of the press in America.

Oring offers North Carolina, with so many communities lacking a strong and an independent news source, as a perfect example of her thesis.

“We’ve lost so many journalists and so many newspapers, and so much balance [due to] the decline of the industry,” Oring says. “We’re missing investigative journalism and the time, money and dedication that it takes to do things that are a check and balance to the government. It’s a problem for democracy.”

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