“Would you like to write a postcard to the President?” This was an initial prompt artist Sheryl Oring used to engage the public on the street in her Creative Capital-supported project, I Wish to Say. In 2006, Sheryl dressed as a 1960s secretary, set up a portable public office complete with a manual typewriter in public areas across the country, and typed birthday cards to then President Bush as dictated by passers-by. The originals were mailed to the White House. Since then, the project has grown exponentially and she has enlisted a number of volunteer typists to take dictation. On April 26, she will bring the piece to Bryant Park as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, and anyone can dictate a letter to the 2016 presidential candidates. We spoke to Sheryl as she prepared the piece for New York.
Alex Teplitzky: Can you describe the project, and specifically the history behind it. How did it come about?
Sheryl Oring: I had been thinking about the idea of doing what ultimately became I Wish to Say for a while. It grew partly out of my experience in newspapers—the idea of the person on the street interview. But there’s a more personal connection as well. My grandmother was a secretary in the Political Science Department at the University of Maryland. She was the kind of secretary who always went to work dressed to the nines. When I was a kid, she let me go into her closet and into her jewelry boxes, her many jewelry boxes, and dress up when I visited. I think that is also one of the sources of the idea for this work.
In 2003 I had been living in Berlin for six years and came back to the country and I felt completely out of touch with the American public and what people were thinking about politics. Many things came together for me when I thought about going out onto the street with a typewriter and asking people what they’d like to say to the President.
I should mention that I Wish to Say also came to be partly because I saw the movie Central Station. There’s a woman sitting in the central train station in Rio taking dictation for people who are illiterate. I was drawn to the idea of a typist taking dictation of letters from strangers in a public space. It also stems from my own biography. I grew up in a very liberal family in North Dakota, which is a pretty conservative place. We were used to interacting with people with different political view points because we were the minority in my hometown.
Alex: Increasingly, in politics, more people are having their individual voices heard—except it’s mostly online. What do you think this person-to-person format does that, say, Twitter or Facebook doesn’t?
Sheryl: I feel very strongly that the human presence has a huge effect on people and has made this project so successful—and it has had this impact because of the prevalence of social media. People just aren’t talking to each other so much anymore. Ask my students. They’d rather text than talk. So talking—and listening—becomes even more powerful.
Alex: What have been your favorite interactions in the event. Do you have any favorite archived messages?
Sheryl: I have had a number of people through the years tell me that it is very much like a therapy session—they feel so much better after they have participated. And I’ll never forget this guy in Chicago, at one of the last shows. He came down to where I was taking photographs and said, “I just want you to know that I am a better American because I participated in your project.” And I said, “Thank you sir, thank you so much.” I was busy taking photographs but he wouldn’t go away and he kept repeating that. It was so important to him that I understand that he really changed by participating in this project. He felt like he had done his civic duty. He had really done something meaningful.
And the other one was a young woman at McCarren Park in Brooklyn who said, “Bring my uncle home. My aunt needs him.” And there are similar messages that were about family members who were serving somewhere overseas in the military and it was very touching.
There are also a lot of cards that have to do with people sharing their views on healthcare and health issues in very personal ways.
Alex: With elections coming up in the fall, and primaries well underway, political discussion is, needless to say, heated (perhaps an understatement). At times it’s even become violent. Do you see I Wish to Say as some way to counteract these tense sentiments?
Sheryl: Yes. This project provides a nonthreatening forum for expression, and in times like these, this seems crucial.
Alex: Where do you see this project going in the future?
Sheryl: There’s a part of me that thinks I’ll do this every election season until I can’t do it anymore, and part of me thinks it’s time to pass it onto other people and free myself up to do some other projects. That said, the project has evolved and changed tremendously this year. By working with a team of 60 university students for the Bryant Park show, the project is serving as a framework for engaging young people in a discussion about politics.
This aspect really intrigues me and it’s been amazing to watch my students dive in and take this project on. I actually have a crazy idea that may end up being the next version. I’d like to find 100 college campuses around the country who will host an I Wish to Say event during the first 100 days of the new administration. If there are 100 participants on each of the campuses, there would be 10,000 messages from students by the end of the first 100 days. Then I would perform as a lobbyist on behalf of our students, who are facing so many critical issues today and as far as I can see, don’t have a powerful way to lobby on their own behalf.
I can tell you that the things students are dealing with today are mind boggling. Mental health issues. Drugs and other addictions. Fractured families and the resulting impact from this. Suicide. Financial stress while in college and a growing debt burden once they’ve left. Rape and sexual violence is a known risk in many college dorms and I’d like to know what we’re doing to make sure young women can walk from the library to their dorms without fear. And the answer is not more security. We need to change mindsets. The list goes on. I think it’s possible this project could help make a small difference and I’d love to see that happen in my lifetime.