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What have the challenges been, and the successes? What is the institutional relation between art and politics during the pandemic?

  • Nov 26 2020
  • Eliza Levinson
    is an artist and writer based in Berlin. Her work has been featured in publications including Artforum, The Nation, The New Inquiry, Hyperallergic, and ArtReview.

As the election approached, I set out to talk to people living across the US to get a better sense of what was going on. I wanted to see if Get Out The Vote activists, as well as those in the arts community, would be able to give me a glimpse of the country’s futureor, for that matter, its presentwhich remained, in my eyes, maddeningly opaque. 

These notes are daily exercises covering the days before, during, and after the US election in 2020. Several of these interviews specifically deal with some of the work done by activists to “Get Out The Vote” in the US: because American citizens are not automatically registered to vote by the government and do not automatically receive ballots in the mail, this historically significant election during the pandemic offered a uniquely challenging number of hurdles to American voters. 

To complicate matters further, every US state has different laws regarding how voters should register. For many of these states, there is a long-standing legacy of racially-motivated voter suppression through unnecessarily complicated laws. This year, several state governments implemented new, restrictive laws to ballot access –– in Missouri, for example, any citizen who voted by mail had to submit a notarized statement along with their ballot, while in Wisconsin, the national Supreme Court, now with a strong Republican majority, mandated that ballots received after Election Day would not be considered legitimate, even if they had been postmarked before November 3. 



Alice Herman, Winnebago County Republican Party, spotted in Oshkosh, Wisconsin



Thursday, 29 October

Days until Election Day: 4

Today, my interview subject is Dawn Schluckebier, who is responsible for overseeing civic initiatives on behalf of Think Tennessee, a non-partisan think tank focused on public policy based in Nashville. One of Think Tennessee’s central priorities is elections, researching issues like voter registration, voter turnout, election security, and absentee voting. 

When I spoke to Dawn, I wanted to understand: how is the voting landscape currently in Tennessee? And what’s stopping people there from voting? 

"When it comes to civic engagement, Tennessee consistently ranks below almost all other states on voter registration and voter participation. In midterm elections, we were 50th in turnout [out of 51, the 50 US states and DC]. In the last Presidential election, we were 49th in turnout, and 45th in registration. And we want to understand why. 

Back in 2018, we hosted a series of community conversations where we went to six different communities around Tennessee to ask that question: why do you think people aren’t participating? And generally, they fell into those two buckets, the structural issues that people perceived as barriers –– things like, you know, we have a voter registration deadline –– and then there are also sort of those individual barriers, things like people not really caring about who their city councillor is or their county clerk is.

This year, the number of people who vote early and vote absentee in the previous two presidential elections has broken records, but every day that percentage goes down. And so, we’re not sure if it’s the pandemic impacting the fact that people want to vote early or if more people are voting this year. I am particularly looking forward to seeing if that carries through. Or if it’s just a sign of people doing it earlier."


Friday, 30 October

Days until Election Day: 3

Today, my subject is Anjali Enjeti, a writer based in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. Anjali has been active in Get Out The Vote activism since Trump’s election in 2016, and is particularly passionate about working to get out the vote within the Asian-American community, and more specifically, the South Asian-American community, something Anjali concretised by co-founding the Georgia  chapter of They See Blue in August 2019. 

"Since March, obviously, it’s been challenging. We have a Governor, Brian Kemp, who has not mandated any statewide policies for mask-wearing. We were the last state to close when the pandemic reached Georgia, and we were the first state to open. It’s been really hard for folks. People are losing jobs, there’s very little child care available for people who do have jobs to work, and our COVID-19 infection numbers are going up.

I live in an area north of Atlanta that was Republican for many years, and in 2018, we flipped three seats. So, we are mixed. We are barely blue. I mean, it’s very obvious here, to me, the people that are very conscientious about wearing masks and social distancing tend to be people who disagree with our federal government and our state government. 

I also live in an area that’s very, very diverse. My city is –– if it’s not a majority-minority city, it’s pretty close to it. It’s lots of brown folks, Black folks, and around 30% of our residents are foreign-born. We have a lot of people with roots in other countries who are Chinese, and are Korean, and they have governments who are locking down the country to control the virus. So they’re from places where it’s being taken more seriously and where they have family members living, and they’re seeing the disparate response between those governments and ours. 

There’s no one from the top engaging in the kind of leadership that is necessary in this moment. And I think we would be more uniform in our response if we had someone above us saying, this is what we need to do. And this is what we’re going to do. Instead it really is every person out for themselves. 


"Our first day of early voting, we had folks waiting 10 and 11 hours to vote. What kind of democracy is that?"


I’ve been involved in non-partisan, progressive circles and movements for more than half my life, but it didn’t become partisan until Trump. Like, I didn’t do a whole lot with the Democratic party. I’m pretty left of the Democratic party, so it was really Trump that made me be, like, okay, I think I need to do a little bit more partisan work, especially since I live in a red state. 

With the community I’m working in to register voters, everybody is worried about whether their vote is going to count, because it’s such a complicated process in Georgia to vote. This is something that takes days, if not weeks, of planning. I can’t tell you how many voters tell me, well, three of my family members got their absentee ballot; mine didn’t come. They all live in the same house. And they’re not getting their ballots. And then what do they do? How do they vote in person? Well, if you didn’t get your ballot, you go vote early, but you have to have your ballot cancelled, and you have to sign an affidavit, and then you can go vote on the machines. It’s very, very complicated here. And deliberately so, I feel. And then we have COVID. 

For the most part, I’m ignoring the polls. I think the polls right now are being far more optimistic than things really are. For polls to be accurate, two things have to happen. One is, you have to know that the voter you’re talking to is being honest about how they’re voting. Two is, you have to look at what’s happening in the context of voter suppression. 

People are just mainly worried about having their voice heard in this system when every day, they’re hearing about catastrophe after catastrophe happening in Georgia. Our first day of early voting, we had folks waiting 10 and 11 hours to vote. What kind of democracy is that?"


(c) Jess Wolinsky


Wednesday, 4 November

Day after Election Day;

Joe Biden’s Electoral Votes: 253

Donald Trump’s Electoral Votes: 213

Electoral Votes Needed To Claim Presidency: 270

Today, as the country continues waiting for the election results, I speak with Jessica Wolinsky, a volunteer for Democrats for Florida. Jess is currently staying in a suburb of Orlando, Florida, but primarily lives in Los Angeles. Because of Florida’s decisive role in the 2000 and 2016 elections, the state was assumed to be a swing state to watch for this election. Instead, Florida ended up being one of the few swing states decisively called, won by Donald Trump with 51.2% of the popular vote on the night of November 3. 

"The night before the election, Democrats for Florida hosted a huge Zoom training with over 500 people, which was pretty awesome. We were told that we could set up at least 150 feet away from the polling site, and we would be just passing out water, snacks, and candy, and report if there were lines. 

So at 6.30 in the morning, we went and got the table with tons of water and snacks and hand sanitizer and masks, because you have to have a mask to be able to vote. In our training, they said, be nice; kill them with kindness. Show them that Joe Biden will be everyone’s president. So, we would go up to people and ask, do you want water and snacks? Are you supporting Joe Biden? And for a lot of them, it was: nope. This older man, around 80 years old, looked at us and said, [grunt] “Here comes antifa.” And then he said, “Please don’t touch my vehicle.”


"If Joe Biden wins the election, you know, knock on wood –– there will still be 63 million white supremacists in this country. I think if Trump had denounced white supremacy, that would have been one thing, but he didn’t. So." 


At one point, a local politician who was running Republican showed up with his entire family around mid-day. And one of the women with them, a white, middle-aged woman, was waving a Trump flag, you know, but the other ones were keeping it very lowkey. Eventually, his dad comes over to us, and starts mouthing to us, [whispering] “I voted for Biden. And so did my son!” We started seeing a trend: for a lot of people who showed up, when we asked, “Are you gonna vote for Biden?”, they’d answer: “That’s private.” There was an embarrassment in Trump voters, where they really would say things like, “It’s private,” “I’m not telling you,” “That’s none of your business” –– like, they are embarrassed to say they are voting for this man. And I think that’s why people are so surprised that the number of people who voted for him is so high, because people are secretly supporting this monster person. And that’s the problem. If you’re embarrassed or need to be secretive about something, then you shouldn’t be voting for that person.

I feel anxious because I think that Republicans who support Trump won’t back down from the fight. I feel like they are told just so many lies. Last night, Trump said, we basically won the election. That’s what he said. And we basically won this state or this state. I feel nervous, because I don’t think it’s gonna be over until Joe Biden is sworn in. 

If Joe Biden wins the election, you know, knock on wood –– there will still be 63 million white supremacists in this country. I think if Trump had denounced white supremacy, that would have been one thing, but he didn’t. So." 


Sunday, 1 November

Days until Election Day: 2

I spoke with the team behind Housing, an art space founded by KJ Freeman in 2017, freshly relocated to a small gallery (300 square feet) in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in June of this year. A central tenet of Housing’s philosophy is the centering of artworks made by people of colour, particularly Black artists. Over the summer, Housing offered 5 grants of $1,000 each to Black women artists. They also offered their space as a safe haven during the peak of the summer uprisings, when a COVID-19 curfew meant that people living in Brooklyn but protesting in Manhattan would need a place to shelter overnight. 

When talking to the team at Housing –– KJ Freeman, founder, director, and curator; Zenobia Marder, gallery manager; and Shani Strand, director –– I wanted to get their insights on working within New York’s art world during the pandemic; the challenges and ambitions of a gallery space run by Black women; and how they’re responding, personally and curatorially, to this political moment. 

Marder: I feel like the struggles of running our gallery at this time, in a way, are more indicative of just being a Black-owned gallery in the Lower East Side at any time, other than being specifically about the election. 

Strand: The pressure is consistent, regardless of the election or not. New York’s probably gonna spike again. Shows are limited, but we have hand sanitizer and masks. The first show we did, during the summer, was a window viewing, by appointment only.

Freeman: In the ‘90s, the government kind of stopped putting so much funding into the National Endowment of Arts, so everything became so privatized. So, it’s still like that, but there are more opportunities to access funds rather than before. When we were running our space, it was all based on commercial sales. Because it is private, there’s more of a loss in the type of programming that you do, rather than in Germany where you can go off the rails and do whatever you want, ‘cause you have this safety net of state funding. When you’re working with private funders, private collectors, it really comes down to their opinion most of the time: are you doing what fits into whatever ethos they want to support? 

SS: In terms of the art world’s relationship to Black art, there is a relationship to trendiness, and I mean, point-blank, like, Black figurative works are considered Black art because they represent Black people. And because they’re representational images of Black people,as opposed to work just made by Black artists. So, figurative work has a different market value, that I think really affects and limits Black artists and Black galleries.

SS: Hard Opening: Vigil For Black Death was also a vigil. It’s very much about the political climate, aside from COVID, for Black people. The opening was a vigil with candles and memorials. We're a 15 minute walk from the precinct, so that was especially a hostile place during protests.

ZM: I feel like large institutions feel a lot of guilt, but also there’s a lot of efforts to take advantage of the fact that they can just spend so much less money, for example, and the fact that art fairs and book fairs and exhibitions are happening online –– there’s more money to be made and less money to be spent. 

SS: There’s a lot of wanting to be involved politically, and make your exhibitions political, but there’s definitely also a lot of fear and guilt. 

ZM: And there’s efforts by people to absolve themselves. In a way that feels really inauthentic.

Eliza Levinson: Can you talk a bit about the election? 

ZM: This election is a lose-lose situation for Black people, regardless, and they should not even be pressured to vote. 

SS: Especially in New York, which has none of the electoral college if you combine the population of the city. I think this is with every election: the President of this country is dependent on white voters. And people need to be honest with themselves about that. It’s not just  about reaching out to Black and POC peers and young people. It’s actually just, like, white people, it’s your problem. I’m also like, y’all need to abolish the state now. I definitely think that people feel radicalized, and I think it’s kind of ironic, because I don’t think a lot of people that feel radicalized are as radical as they imagine themselves to be. 

ZM: During this time, everyone seems so incredibly fixated on finally centering Black voices and narratives, but we as a gallery still have continued to feel incredibly silenced. We’re just gonna be open election night for a space for people to come to if they need.


"This election is a lose-lose situation for Black people, regardless, and they should not even be pressured to vote." 


Tuesday, 17 November

Joe Biden is President-Elect, Kamala Harris is Vice-President-Elect

Trump has not conceded election

I followed up with Anjali Enjeti, who worked at her polling place near Atlanta, Georgia. Georgia has become Senate Democrats’ last hope of reclaiming control of Congress, and all eyes are on an ongoing run-off in the state which could play out into January of next year. 

"I was a poll worker for Fulton County. So I had a good 15 hour day. My polling place wasn’t as busy as I would’ve expected, so part of me was a little bit disappointed that more people weren’t at my polling place. I had a lot of other friends who were poll workers and poll observers and they were telling me the same things; that there were long periods of time without a voter coming in, so I wasn’t sure: was it because we had so many people vote early, or was it because, you know, people just weren’t interested in the election anymore? Before I went to bed that night, what I’d heard was a picture that wasn’t as optimistic as a lot of the polls had been. Florida wasn’t looking as close as we thought it would be. Arizona was looking good, but not really the huge gap. I had been really optimistic about Texas, and North Carolina. The numbers coming in were not as promising as I’d hoped they would be.

On Thursday morning, I remember waking up at 4.30 or 4.45 in the morning and checking my phone and realising that Biden had overtaken Trump in Georgia by just –– it was just a little bit by then, it was maybe just a few hundred votes, or maybe a thousand votes? But when that happened, I just –– I knew that it was gonna stay that way. So, it was a great feeling. It’s kind of frustrating to deal now with this hand-count for the recount, and then possibly another recount after this, and so I wish it would be over-over. But it feels good knowing that we did it, and hopefully those are the results that will be certified, and we can just focus completely on the runoff election. 

I was surprised it was called on Saturday. We were just so thrilled. That evening, I went to sort of a very spur of the moment party at a park with some activist friends and we just met up and there was a DJ and we danced, and –– it was really fun.  

But still, this whole event for me has been very sobering, right? So many people voted for Trump. I can’t say that totally surprised me, but it was a reality that one couldn’t ignore while celebrating. Just looking at that Presidential electoral map, and seeing how many states were red, and  that a lot of them were easily red –– there wasn’t even much of a contest in some of these states where we thought there would be more of a contest. I mean, that’s disheartening."



They See Blue Georgia Sign Waving Rally (c) Debashri Sengupta



Wednesday, 18 November

Joe Biden is President-Elect

Trump has not conceded election

I spoke with Lauren Coryell, senior manager of visitor operations and experience at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, California. The Hammer is one of LA’s only museums that’s 100% free to the public, a decision made in 2014. Due to state-mandated closures intended to slow the rise in Corona virus cases, the Hammer has been locked down since the spring, but was able to open –– briefly –– to serve as a polling place to the local community. 

"Our director, Ann Philbin, sees museums as town halls, and so we’re really proud to be a voting center. And it is really exciting to be part of the voting process. More than that, I think we always strive to be more than just a venue. 

There was a moment in time where we weren’t sure if we could still be a voting center I’m obviously incredibly biased about the experience at the Hammer, right, [laughs] but –– in the end, we had an incredibly safe space, because we put the voting center in the Susan Bay Nimoy and Leonard Nimoy studio, which is in our courtyard. It’s a very large space, and you can open one of the main walls almost like a garage door, so visitors were getting direct air flow. 

We had a number of safety protocols, and then we had also created a complete line management system in case there were a ton of people on-site, you know, in case over 250 people showed up all at the same time. And we have social distance markers everywhere.

Election Day was the first time that we opened our doors since the shutdown, so we were all quite excited. We were able to have the frontline team come back and support the museum as they normally would: as greeters, as line managers, and – we were able to welcome them back into a safe environment. I think prior to the pandemic, we knew we were most likely going to be a voting center, but we were starting to plan: how do we get people to vote and then come see the show? That was the only thing that was really hard; that the show was almost fully installed, but we couldn’t let them into the galleries. It’s kind of bittersweet, but at least they were in the building and at least there were people that came to our voting center that maybe hadn’t visited the Hammer before.

We also had a partnership with New York Magazine where they gave us artist-designed stickers for voters, and people loved that.

We had a lot of first-time voters that spanned ages, which was really exciting. Sometimes people would be taking photos, and I’d ask and they’d say, “Oh, I’m a first-time voter.” Our first voter, on the first day, was a very loyal Hammer member. Our first voter on the last day was a woman in her 90s who hadn’t left the house since the shutdown. 

I think it just goes back to the Hammer being a community center. It is super important to us to have accessible programming, like screening the World Cup or mindful meditation on Thursdays, this type of approachability for the community, which feels important because sometimes contemporary art can feel alienating. 

Looking forward, I think that we’re just going to continue to innovate. I think that what's difficult about it is that it’s not up to us if we can open the doors or not. But at the same time, that opens up an opportunity for incredible innovation for all of our teams, of how to bring the show, the programming, and Hammer hospitality into the homes of our audience.

I think that all of us wanted to believe that we would be open by now, even if it was limited to a very strict capacity. All summer, we worked on implementing a ticketing system to safely reopen, so I think that that was the hope. Now it is November and, I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to LA County, but [the Corona numbers] are not great. So now it’s, like, okay, well, this is where we are. How do we pivot?"




Disclaimer: All interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.




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