Returning the Joy to Voting

During a time of political fatigue, a community project hopes to stimulate public interest in the 2016 election with a range of interactive activities.

Evan Prunty

It would be easy, watching the muscular man roll around on a wrestling mat while video of his strange movements plays on the screen above him, to wonder what this has to do with voting.

It would be easy, watching the young woman on the opposite mat, eyes fixed on the screen, trying to make her video image grab his video image, to wonder how this fits into America’s democracy narrative.

It would be easy, listening to the artist who came up with this high-concept romp, to wonder how it will change anything.

It would be easy, in fact ridiculously easy, to dismiss the title of the effort that inspired it, “The Joy of Voting,” as a bitter oxymoron—this season more than ever.

But Megan Young is not making this easy. She is one of dozens of artists, activists, community organizers, and the like that have come together for the project to try to inspire the electorate—the engaged and the disengaged—to find greater vibrancy in the process. Young believes in what she’s doing, believes so ardently in the value of engagement that she only makes art that involves audience participation.

She runs barefoot into the middle of the wide-open, battered wood floor of this dimly lit theater in Akron, Ohio, where those two carefully placed mats, about 15 feet apart, are under the lenses of two surveillance cameras that simultaneously broadcast the participants’ movements so it looks like they are wrestling each other. A member of the theater staff, Kix Williams, squares up on the other mat and, with electronica playing in the background, they attempt to make their projected images grapple with one another.

Young’s project, called “Unsuccessful Wrestling,” can be read as a metaphor for political wrangling. But its meaning almost doesn’t matter. The point, Young told me, is to get people in this age of alienation to connect. “I’m doing work that doesn’t exist without other people,” she said. “As an artist, I want people to remember they matter.”

With less than a week to go until Election Day, Young’s friends are helping test the setup, adjusting it and working out bugs before she opens it up to the general public, who will be invited to take turns “wrestling” on the mats. She hopes the event, which is scheduled to take place Friday and Saturday, will engage the core audience of the Balch Street Community Center. The center, located in a working class neighborhood, houses the theater and will serve as a polling place on Election Day.

Young has been canvassing the neighborhood, trying to build awareness and audience for “Unsuccessful Wrestling.” Some neighbors, she said, were standoffish at first, conditioned by the political season to expect a political pitch. While she’s not sure what the turnout will be this weekend, she’s expecting quite a few local political activists, who obviously are already engaged, and who at this point could use a little fun. “They are fatigued,” she says. “In Ohio, you can really feel the battle.”

“The Joy of Voting” is a project launched by Citizen University, whose founder, Eric Liu, believes in reinvigorating the electorate by conjuring up those bygone days when the American voting process was accompanied by a raucous spectacle of parades, outdoor theater, soapbox debates, drinking games and the like—a wild spirit of community.

Funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, “Joy of Voting” projects have been playing out this fall in four cities: Miami, Philadelphia, Wichita, and Akron. They cover a wide range—graffiti performances, dance parties, a scavenger run, an “I Voted” sticker design project, an interactive video game.

In Akron, a group called Wandering Aesthetics solicited short plays and poems, and cobbled them together into a performance that toured various community events, staged on a flatbed truck. The productions included a soapbox where audience members could chime in. During the act, the performers handed out voter registration forms and postcards reminding people to vote.

They opened their events with a poem written collectively by a group of nine ESL students at a migrant camp in nearby Hartville, Ohio. Titled “The Joy of Voting,” the direct, plainspoken poem concludes, “Voting gives me a voice and power. I can stand up and do something.” Voto Latino, a nonpartisan group that works to engage young Latinos, later adapted the poem as part of a public service announcement about the importance of voting.

The Wandering Aesthetics have also found plenty of ground-level reaction. Benjamin Rexroad, the managing artistic director, said the performances, which took place in the weeks leading up to Ohio’s October 11 voter registration deadline, drew audiences from about a dozen people to around 50, not counting the passersby who may or may not have picked up their message.

At one performance, he said, a ward councilman, who thought they were mocking the political process, heckled them.

“But then he brought us a pizza.”

As Rexroad works to invigorate his local electorate, he has also found himself changed.

“I’ve been an ardent follower of politics my whole life,” he said. But the recent grind of negativity, especially in the presidential race, had him feeling alienated. “Engaging with individuals has helped me re-buy into the system. It got me reinvigorated.”

In the theater, Young pauses to catch her breath after a vigorous round of wrestling, while two others duck, jab, and sway into a sort of dance, communicating in an improvised language.

She acknowledges that because her contribution to this project is confined to the theater space, it might not connect with the general populace the same way as, say, a truck-drawn stage moving through a neighborhood. This year, however, Young has noticed a scarcity of discourse, among friends, and even among the politically active, so any opportunity to draw people together and to deliberately inject, yes, joy into the election season, is an accomplishment.

“The end goal,” she said, “is there’s a conversation.”