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A Collective Reading at the White House Reenvisions Who Might Be President

One hundred people gathered to adapt Zoe Leonard’s 1992 text piece “I want a president…” for 2016.

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From the “I want a president… (a collective reading – DC)” workshop, cohosted by EXILE Books at Transformer (2016) (all images courtesy Saisha Grayson)

“I want a dyke for president,” wrote artist and activist Zoe Leonard in her 1992 text piece, a prose poem and manifesto of sorts. “I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn’t have a choice about getting leukemia.”

Written around the peak of the AIDS crisis, “I want a president…” was a response to poet Eileen Myles’s bid for the presidency as an “openly female” independent candidate running against George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot.

Twenty-five years later, in the midst of what’s probably the batshit craziest presidential election cycle in US history, Leonard’s plea for empathetic leadership is as pertinent as ever. This Sunday, a group of artists and activists will gather in front of the White House, flash mob–style, to stage a reading of “I want a president….” After reciting Leonard’s original text in unison, they’ll read a new, collectively authored adaptation of the piece, which includes new lines like “I want a Muslim refugee for president” and “I want Sandra Bland for president.”

Zoe Leonard, "I want a president..." (1992)
Zoe Leonard, “I want a president…” (1992)

The hour-long reading is open to “everyone who believes representational government should reflect the full breadth of ‘we, the people,’ including those who are not born with privilege and easy paths to power,” the organizers write on the event’s Facebook page.

“As people keep saying, we’ve never seen a candidate like Donald Trump, and as the season has unfolded, the project has only seemed more urgent,” Saisha Grayson, one of the organizers of the collective reading, told Hyperallergic. “The divisive, dehumanizing rhetoric from the right and the sense of frustration among those on the left who wanted a more revolutionary overhaul have made Leonard’s original text hit home in powerful, painful ways this year.”

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From “I want a president… (a collective reading – DC)” workshop, cohosted by Bread for the City in conjunction with What’s Going On: Voices of Shaw (2016)

Back in 2010, during a fraught general election in Sweden, artists Malin Arnell, Kajsa Dahlberg, Johanna Gustavsson, and Fia-Stina Sandlund, in collaboration with Leonard, became the first people to stage a collective reading of “I want a president…” as a form of political protest. One day before an election that was “about to give space in parliament to an upcoming fascist, racist and homophobic party,” as Dahlberg writes, a group gathered in a public square in Stockholm and recited the text, along with their own adaptation. They’ve inspired 10 such readings since. Sunday’s recitation in front of the White House will be the closing event of this year’s Creative Time Summit in Washington, DC, three days of art and activism.

It’s not only the only current project that uses Leonard’s text as a response to the racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric poisoning the political discourse. The rapper Mykki Blanco recently performed a passionate reading of the text in a video produced by Dazed Digital, while earlier this month, the text was printed on a 20-by-30-foot billboard and installed as a public art piece on Manhattan’s High Line. The Creative Time group will restage its collective reading under the billboard on October 31 at 6pm.

Written by 100 people in a series of workshops hosted by arts and activist spaces around DC, the 2016 adaptation of the text seeks to reflect contemporary realities of injustice in the United States. “In 1992, the political silence around the AIDS crisis spoke volumes about how the system devalued those most impacted; today, a similar acceptance of the lives lost or derailed by the injustices of our criminal justice system and biased policing was an issue that came up at every workshop,” Grayson says. A line that originally read “I want a president who lost their last lover to AIDS” was adapted to “I want a president whose son was shot by police.”

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IWAP-DC participants, “I want a president… (a collective adaptation)” (2016)

“One goal is to call attention to how circumscribed our political expectations are, in ways we rarely even consider,” Grayson continues. “When we talk about the horse race, we tend to get stuck in pragmatics — who can raise money, who can get party support or the right mix of demographics, who can survive the media onslaught — but this is a chance to think about what qualifications would serve to represent the experiences of ‘we the people’ rather than suit the needs of the electoral contest.”

And if we can’t have a dyke for president just yet, maybe this year we can at least have someone who’s not a sexual predator.

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From “I want a president… (a collective reading – DC)” workshop, cohosted by Bread for the City in conjunction with What’s Going On: Voices of Shaw (2016)
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From “I want a president… (a collective reading – DC)” workshop, cohosted by Bread for the City in conjunction with What’s Going On: Voices of Shaw (2016)
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From “I want a president… (a collective reading – DC)” workshop, cohosted by Bread for the City in conjunction with What’s Going On: Voices of Shaw (2016)

The collective reading of “I want a president…” will take place on October 16 from 5:30 to 6:30pm in front of the White House (pedestrian section of Pennsylvania Avenue, just south of the Peace Tent & Lafayette Square).

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