Doing Better at Doing Good

UNC-Greensboro prof carves out space for civil public discourse

September 1, 2012 

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NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 09: Handwritten responses to the question, "What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?" are collected in a box at Bryant Park September 9, 2011 in New York City. Submitted by members of the public, the answers are part of an interactive art project called "Collective Memory," by artist Sheryl Oring. Volunteer typists will be on hand for two hours a day on Saturday and Sunday to record park visitor responses. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

CHIP SOMODEVILLA — Getty Images

As the U.S. presidential election approaches, the airwaves and Internet are full of venom for both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney. In this climate, how many people are still willing to offer truly thoughtful replies about politics and the state of the country?

Sheryl Oring is going to Charlotte to find out, just in time for the Democratic National Convention.

An assistant professor of art at UNC Greensboro, Oring attracted widespread media attention last fall for “Collective Memory,” a public-art project she arranged in Manhattan’s Bryant Park to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ten typists sat in the park with manual typewriters and recorded replies that passers-by offered to this question: “What would you like the world to remember about 9/11?”

Over three days, the typists collected more than 300 verbatim responses, some of which came from friends and family of those who died in the attacks. A couple hundred visitors wrote out their own answers, all of which were later displayed at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum. The New Yorker, New York Daily News and ABC’s World News Tonight all took note.

Monday, on the opening day of the national convention, Oring will stage a similar event from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Charlotte’s Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, as part of the CarolinaFest food and culture festival. Under Oring’s direction, a team of five typists will give festivalgoers a chance to answer this question: “If I were the President, what would you wish to say to me?”

The performance is part of Oring’s “I Wish to Say” initiative, through which she has toured the United States creating spaces for public discourse. Her innovative work has been displayed in cities ranging from San Diego and Chicago to Boston and Berlin and earned her several prestigious fellowships.

Civility reigns

In 2006, Oring visited eight cities around the country, including a stop in Raleigh at the State Fairgrounds, to collect wishes for President George W. Bush in advance of his 60th birthday.

Oring’s event Monday in Charlotte won’t be the first time she’s set up shop at a major political gathering. In 2004, she conducted a similar project in New York City during the Republican National Convention.

“I got radically different responses from people based on where I was,” Oring says. “Near the convention site downtown, people assumed I was Republican and talked with me that way. When I went up to Harlem, people thought I was a protester.”

No matter where she went in the city, a common thread emerged in the answers that were dictated to her: civility. Even when the questions she poses at her performances are sensitive, most people are well reasoned and respectful in their replies, Oring says, in stark contrast to what you might expect from today’s poisonous political climate.

Withholding judgment

On the Internet, we can shout our opinions as loudly and crudely as we like – and many of us do. But “people are much more tempered and thoughtful when they say it to a person,” Oring says. “It’s a very powerful experience having someone sit down and listen to you carefully, especially in a Facebook society where we’re never really sure if someone actually is listening.”

Part of the effect, she says, comes from the fact that the typists are not judging what’s being said. And there’s power, too, in hearing the click of the manual typewriter keys and knowing that what’s being said is being recorded for posterity. And, in this case, for public viewing as well.

Oring is still working out the details but hopes to put the responses on display this fall in North Carolina. If they live up to the quality she’s expecting, we might do well to view them for a reminder of what public conversation sounds like when the volume is turned down and the thoughtfulness is turned up.

Christopher Gergen is founder of Bull City Forward & Queen City Forward, a fellow with Fuqua’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and the author of “Life Entrepreneurs.”

Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, is author of the forthcoming book “The Messy Quest for Meaning” and blogs at www.messyquest.com.

They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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