A Super PAC for participatory arts

“Super PAC” is a phrase many of us are probably sick of hearing by now, much like so many other hot-button talking points that have come to define this often preposterous and almost always frustrating presidential campaign season.

Adam Horowitz, “Chief Instigator” of the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture, says back in February of this year there were many conversations within the USDAC network about this election cycle that echoed a total feeling of disengagement and disenfranchisement. They began thinking about what they could do to add a different flavor and a different spirit during a time when there was such a strong sense of xenophobia and fear-mongering.

“It’s not like we had answers of what can be done, but knew we had questions,” he said.

One day, while thinking about Super PACs, he came up with a new acronym: Participatory Arts Coalition.

A request for proposals was issued: people could apply for microgrants of $300 for projects that stir meaningful connections, disrupt narratives of hate, remind us of those who came before us to fight for rights many don’t even use (like voting), and embody what democracy actually looks like – that it depends on our voices actually being heard. The stipulations were that projects had to be participatory, replicable, public, and free for participants.

Pop-Up Story Booth
Pop-Up Story Booth

Though they were offering just $300, along with technical support that yielded videos for each project and a toolkit highlighting all of the grantee projects, the USDAC received nearly 120 project proposals.

“It just shows how eager people are to step up and participate in new ways of engaging,” says Horowitz.

The nine projects that are now part of the Super PAC toolkit were selected for being volunteer-friendly, low- or no cost to produce, accessible to non-artists so a person does not have to be an artist to take part in them, and essentially replicable.

“The juiciest thing in the toolkit is that each of these projects are actually something that was very much designed to a particular person, place, or passion, but it is also translatable to others,” says Horowitz. “Each of these projects bring people together in meaningful dialogue and demonstrate what democracy could actually look like.”

While the election is looming – November 8 and not yet soon enough for many of us – Horowitz notes that the issues this particular Super PAC addresses are not going to go away once the polls close.

Papel Picado Now!

“We can always use new forms of participatory engagement,” he says. “So much of the spirit of this is recognizing how hollowed out our democracy is right now, especially when our entire idea of what constitutes democracy is a single presidential election and not the many, many ways we need to be showing up as citizens.”

The nine Super PAC projects are designed to step beyond the “myth” of elections, as Horowitz describes it – not just voting for president and not just voting on the local level, but getting democracy to work by getting neighbors to engage with each other and interfacing with local government, like collecting stories of displacement on the streets and using them as testimonies at city council meetings.

“Democracy works when we know our neighbors, when we see each other as humans in the fullness of our stories and our cultures,” says Horowitz. “From that commonality we can make a difference on whatever level we’re called to.”

Les Agents Provocateurs

The nine projects that are included in the USDAC’s Super PAC are:

Make America Crate
Comprised of a giant, portable “soapbox” made of reclaimed industrial crates, Make America Crate encourages people to voice their notions of democracy while taking the center stage, a space typically reserved exclusively for politicians.

Pop-Up Story Booth
The Pop-Up Story Booth encourages neighbors – especially those often excluded from the official democratic process because of racism, immigration status, or language barriers – to share their thoughts and experiences of gentrification and displacement, creating testimonies to be delivered to City Council members as they consider issues of rezoning or affordable housing.

Democracy Uncut: A Hearable Dialogue on Race and Policing
Democracy Uncut is a video documentary on race and social justice, with each individual interviewed at length and without interruption (and without reducing interviews to mere shouting sound bytes) on issues and experiences of race and policing.

History in the Making: Papel Picado Now!
Papel Picado Now! uses the Mexican folk art tradition of cut paper to create powerful messages in art while inspiring dialogue among participants.

Les Agents Provocateurs
Les Agents Provocateurs is a kind of flash-mob style of participatory performance art, with singing and dancing performers dressed in riot gear.

Blackbuster Pop-Up Projection
Pop-up screenings are intended to spark dialogue about equal representation in the media and the democratic process needed to achieve it.

Bring Your Own Voice
Bring Your Own Voice (BYOV) invites people to perform a tribute to one of their favorite writers in a public setting where everyone’s voices are heard.

Buffalo Commons (Un)Voting Fair
The Buffalo Commons (Un)Voting Fair is a multi-activity event representing different aspects of the democratic process, imagined and experienced in ways in which all can be included, with all art, photos, and writings created then collected and posted in the “People’s Report,” an online ‘zine that will also be mailed to every candidate on the November 2016 ballot.

LawnCare encourages the use of lawn signs to promote real, positive values rather than political candidates.

Blackbuster Pop-Up Projection

These projects do not lose relevance or value even once the clock strike November 9, but can be used as engaging democratic disruptions even when there isn’t a presidency at stake. You can download the full Super PAC toolkit and become an “ExtraSuperDelegate” here.

The next big project for the USDAC is their annual civic ritual and participatory art project People’s State of the Union, a series of Story Circles held in our own communities after the President’s annual State of the Union address. Each year the USDAC offers toolkits and online trainings for anyone interested in hosting a Story Circle in their own community, bringing neighbors together to share personal stories. More than 120 different communities have participated in each of the last two years since the USDAC first introduced this civic ritual concept.

“Democracy is a conversation, not a monologue,” Horowitz says, explaining that the annual State of the Union is a monologue delivered by one to many, rather than an open dialogue involving many. “We invite everyone everywhere to do a Story Circle, bringing neighbors together to address the State of the Union.”

Story Circles are filmed and uploaded online, and then a group of poets collaborative compose the Poetic Address to the Nation inspired by these Story Circles, which is then live-streamed. This year’s toolkit will be ready in late November, and Story Circles will be scheduled from January 27 to February 5, 2017. Join the USDAC mailing list for more information in the coming weeks.

All images provided by USDAC. Main image: LawnCare.