CLEVELAND — Every television ad is for a presidential candidate, the phone rings off the hook with endless robocalls, and people from all over the country knock on the door to make sure I know where to vote. It is election season, and this is Ohio. The Republican National Convention (RNC) has descended upon Cleveland and set up shop at Quicken Loans Arena (a building still trembling with energy from the city’s recent, long-awaited win of the NBA championship), magnifying an already heightened political fervor here in the mother of all swing states. Art galleries across the city are exhibiting work that responds to the 2016 race; an overarching theme is the disparity between the candidates’ messages and the needs of the people. It is widely anticipated that the narratives put forth by the RNC and the media circus that comes with it will not represent the stories of those who actually live (and vote) here. SPACES, one of the oldest, thriving alternative art spaces in the country, has dedicated an entire season of programming to artwork about the 2016 campaign in Ohio. Two of the projects currently on view, Roopa Vasudevan’s #Bellwether and Kate Sopko’s The Fixers, provide platforms for the oft-forgotten voices of locals, illuminating the intersection between “so goes the nation” and “so goes Ohio.”
#Bellwether explores a tool that has brought an unprecedented number of public voices to the 2016 election season: Twitter. Vasudevan built a script in Python that extrapolates tweets geocoded to Ohio, cataloguing everything tweeted about the presidential primary in Ohio between August 2015 and July 12, 2016 (incidentally, she shut off her server right after Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton). Vasudevan’s custom code organized these tweets according to the number of times a sentiment was expressed. She has then set about physicalizing the most prominent tweets by turning them into campaign paraphernalia: buttons, bumper stickers, lawn signs, and T-shirts, produced according to their tweets’ frequency. Viewing the physical objects in the gallery ties the tweets to the geography they represent.
Vasudevan appropriates each campaign’s design template to make the corresponding paraphernalia. Replacing a campaign slogan on a ubiquitous lawn sign with an anonymous tweet causes the viewer to think critically about iconography, message, and the voice of the (tweeting) people. For instance, a familiar lawn sign here in Ohio reads, “TRUMP: Make America Great Again,” while a lawn sign derived from the Twittersphere says, “TRUMP: Is Basically A YouTube Comments Section Running for President.” The latter would be much more likely to show up in my own Twitter feed, which reminds us of the digital bubbles we build for ourselves; if you were to run this experiment on just an individual’s feed, you’d be looking at a very different set of bumper stickers overall. That’s exactly why it’s enlightening to see the tweeting voices of all of Ohio represented in these objects, and also why it makes so much sense for them to be on view in Cleveland during the RNC, when a rare national spotlight shines upon this city.
The objects generated by #Bellwether are arranged in the gallery chronologically, so that as you move through the space, the narrative of the campaign season unfolds. The first wall displays April through December 2015, when there were 17 Republican candidates and Martin O’Malley was still a Democratic contender (remember him?). As time passes, Trump paraphernalia increasingly takes over the gallery; according to Vasudevan’s statistics, he received almost four times more tweets than the candidate with the second most, Ohio Governor John Kasich. Paraphernalia about Hillary Clinton revs up after she clinched the nomination; she received the third-most mentions from Ohio’s political tweeters.
Some tweets represented on the paraphernalia are vague, like “Bernie wants change”; others are absurdly specific, like, “Trump is Sacha Baron Cohen in disguise.” The latter probably indicates a mass retweet, according to Vasudevan. “This emphasizes the soapbox and echo chamber qualities of Twitter,” says the artist. “Social media provides a space for an extremely individualized form of expression in the context of a mass voter group.” In other words, it’s an outlet that gives the user the perception of control over how their personal narrative connects to the larger whole — something that feels especially important in Ohio. Says Vasudevan, a native Clevelander currently based in Shanghai, “Here in Ohio, it’s as if nobody cares specifically about you or what you think, but there is a laser focus on the state’s outcome.”
Just beyond Vasudevan’s sprawling data collection is a different kind of space in the gallery: semi-darkened, with a large projected video loop and three monitors with headphones. This is the gallery presentation of Sopko’s The Fixers, a social practice project centered on a series of six short films that were released serially between May 20 and July 21. Seven different filmmakers with connections to Cleveland made the films, which focus on local citizens who are heavily invested in specific issues impacting the lives of Clevelanders: education, transportation, policing, neighborhood violence and activism, food, and birth.
Sopko titled the project The Fixers as a reference to the journalistic role of “the fixer,” a hired local professional with vast knowledge of a location who helps a visiting journalist dive into a story without much previous knowledge of the place. The people in the films act as fixers for the media and delegates visiting town this week, virtually giving them the tours that actual Clevelanders believe they should take. Although Sopko’s primary use of the term “fixer” is media-related, “the double meaning of the word is important,” she says. “These films are also about people who are fixing a broken system.”
For instance, Tanese Horton, a community director at Harvey Rice School, explains how Cleveland’s “wraparound” system brings services that are usually left to social workers, babysitters, and doctors to schools. These extra services (including a mobile medical clinic and extensive extracurricular programs) lighten the load on family members who might not have the time or resources to ensure that educational priorities are met alongside all of life’s basic needs. In another film, Maria Miranda and Susan Greene demonstrate how their initiative Birthing Beautiful Communities offers pre-natal care and free doula services in a community that faces a tremendously high infant-mortality rate. Part of what makes the shorts so powerful is seeing how community members are working through such devastating problems as gang-related violence, rampant chronic disease, and abysmal public transit despite the lack of city, state, and federal support that they deserve. The sad irony is that few here in Cleveland believe these issues will be addressed at all, if effectively, this week within the circus tent that is the RNC.
Again and again, The Fixers project shows the importance of the involvement of the community, both in the films themselves and at city-wide events that have been taking place for the past month. During the associated panels and community discussions, stories have emerged about how some neighborhoods have developed solutions to the particular issues they face, inspiring conversation about how such ideas might be applied in other areas. For instance, in one neighborhood, it came to light that students weren’t making it to school on time because it was too dangerous for them to walk alone, causing them to stay home. The community came up with a solution: a “walking school bus.” As Sopko explained, a parent volunteers one or two days a week, and they walk around the neighborhood picking up students at their houses, so that the group of kids can be escorted to school together.
Stories like these have been as central to the project as the films themselves; Sopko says the relationships that have been built through this ongoing dialogue are the real goal of the work. Similarly to Vasudevan’s project, the hope is to broadcast these local voices on a national stage. The real coup in that sense is that Sopko has arranged for a loop of the films to be played in a storefront in the restricted access zone of the RNC — a prime location for an audience of national newscasters and political delegates. But the films are also all available online for free, ensuring that anyone with an internet connection can watch and learn from them.
A city like Cleveland relishes the opportunity to be in the national spotlight, to show off its recent successes and transmit the “upswing” narrative. In that context, projects like Vasudevan’s and Sopko’s are vital, giving us access to the underrepresented voices that would otherwise be lost. As Sopko told me, “A great narrative thread towards making policy is that being radically inclusive of people on the ground is crucial, and not something that is tended to often enough.” It’s the people on the ground who really matter on that night in November, the voters who are going to swing this state.
Kate Sopko: The Fixers continues at SPACES (2220 Superior Viaduct, Cleveland) through July 21. The films will also screen at the Cleveland Public Library Main Branch (325 Superior Avenue) on July 23, 2–4pm; are on view in the exhibition Of the people at Smack Mellon (92 Plymouth Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through July 31; and are viewable online.
Roopa Vasudevan: #Bellwether continues at SPACES through July 29.
Correction: A previous version of his article stated that Roopa Vasudevan lives in Beijing, rather than Shanghai. It also stated that she began collecting data in April, not August. We regret the errors, and both have been fixed.