LOS ANGELES — As we approach perhaps the most consequential presidential election in many of our lifetimes, our right to vote has taken on a new urgency. Despite the sanctity of this civic duty, there are still millions of Americans who cannot legally vote. The majority of these are citizens under the age of 18, but this group also includes noncitizen residents; citizens in territories like Guam and Puerto Rico, who aren’t allowed to vote for president; incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals in some states; and those who are disenfranchised as a result of voter ID laws. It is to these people whom artist Aram Han Sifuentes aims to give a voice with “The Official Unofficial Voting Station,” now online at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Sifuentes, who came to the US with her family from South Korea when she was five, originally conceived of the project around the time of the 2016 election. “I wasn’t a citizen at the time,” she told Hyperallergic. “It was the first election where I felt a deep desire to vote and participate, but I couldn’t.” She has since applied for and been granted US citizenship, a decision she says was due in part to the need for security amidst a rising wave of state-sponsored anti-immigrant sentiment.
The “Voting Station” allows anyone, regardless of eligibility, the chance to cast a symbolic ballot for president, as well as for a number of issues related to voting rights. They can also submit their own ballot initiatives which others can in turn vote on.
“People talk about voting as if it’s the answer. It’s so important, I’m not discrediting it,” Sifuentes said, “but it’s also important to question the system of voting as well, a discriminatory and racist system.”
For Skirball curator Laura Mart, who is working on an upcoming exhibition of Sifuentes’s work titled Talking Back to Power, the project addresses the shortcomings of American participatory democracy. “We have this idea that democracy is of, by, and for the people,” Mart said, “but what does that mean for the 92 million people who can’t participate in this civic duty?”
The Skirball’s virtual station is just one of the project’s sites, which also include the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Denver and the Moody Center for the Arts in Houston, Texas. In collaboration with Sifuentes, artist Carol Zou created Moto Voto, a ballot box mounted to the back of her motorcycle, which she will be driving around Los Angeles until election day. To expand the project’s reach, Sifuentes has also created 50 kits for those who wanted to create their own symbolic voting stations, sending them to anyone who asked as long as they agreed to share documentation of the project and vote tallies.
“The Official Unofficial Voting Station” is not the only project that LA-area cultural institutions have organized around the upcoming election. Another campaign focused on getting out the vote is a series of street-level billboards and posters designed by artist Judy Baca and the Social and Public Art Resource Center’s (SPARC) Digital Mural Lab. Beginning at sites in Brooklyn, SPARC partnered with outdoor advertising company Alchemy Media to place their posters in “areas with low voter turnout, communities of color, areas where they could have an influence,” said SPARC Executive Director Carlos Rogel. The campaign reaches across the country, appearing at over 90 sites in Tampa, Orlando, Miami, and Houston, as well as Venice and Long Beach. Last week, large vinyl banners went up at Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art, which is also an early voting location. The images are available for free download so people can print and post them in their own communities.
Rogel says they chose their sites strategically and targeted their posters for specific communities. In addition to messages inspiring people to vote, several in English and Spanish, the posters contain a QR code which leads to a site allowing people to register in 13 different languages. One particularly eye-catching design depicts a raised fist decorated with colorful Caribbean flags.
“Given Kamala’s background, there’s a lot of excitement about Caribbeans being represented,” said Rogel. For Baca, an iconic LA mural artist who co-founded SPARC almost 50 years ago, the decision to encourage communities of color to vote was a natural one for her and her colleagues at SPARC. “This is who we are as a team, as an art group,” she told Hyperallergic. “We are people of color. It’s not a reach for us. It’s our own folks.”
Voting is one aspect of the election cycle, but what about everything that takes place leading up to that: the campaign? Every four years for the past 36 years, artists Antoni Muntadas and Marshall Reese have been making compilations of presidential political advertisements, splicing them into chronological order and letting the ads speak for themselves. Their latest edition spans almost 70 years, from the first presidential spots to appear on TV in 1952 to this year’s ads.
“There is a parallel story between the president and consumer objects,” Muntadas told Hyperallergic in a Zoom call with him and Reese. He explained that the purpose of advertising was once to inform about a product, which has given way to more competitive ads. “The intention of our film is to see how the evolution of politics and advertising is changing. Over the last 20 years, the disqualification of others [negative ads] is tremendous.”
Some ads are so iconic that they have become memes, being appropriated and remixed by later candidates. Such is the case with Reagan’s slick “Morning in America” spot, which didn’t even feature Regan himself. “People compared it to a Pepsi or Coke ad,” said Reese. “Consumer marketing was really in the forefront. This is what happens when politics becomes an extension of marketing.”
Later takes on that ad were created by Marco Rubio in 2016 to target Obama — titled “Morning Again”— and this year by the Republican anti-Trump Lincoln Project, which renamed it “Mourning in America.”
The role of big money and Super PACS is also one of the biggest recent developments in political advertising. This year is the first time dueling political ads — from Trump and Bloomberg — aired during the Super Bowl, 60-second spots which cost $11 million each. “In other countries, political advertising is forbidden, or limited to a certain amount of money,” said Muntadas. “This is something very American.”
Political Advertisement X: 1952–2020 will premiere at the Getty Museum’s website this Friday, with an online conversation next Monday at 5pm, and subsequent viewings at the Wexner Center, Museum of Art and Design, and other venues.