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Performance artists type people’s messages to the president

CHARLOTTE, N.C. At first glance, you might have thought the secretarial pool from “Mad Men” had time-traveled to CarolinaFest.

As soon as the five women stepped out of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in their beehive hairdos and slim 1960s dresses, passersby began to notice. Each woman carried a little case that she opened to reveal a manual typewriter. Once the five situated themselves at their tables on the Bechtler plaza, typewriters and paper at the ready, the curtain was up on “I Wish to Say.”

The three-hour performance attracted a stream of spontaneous collaborators from the crowd. A greeter asked people: What would you say to the president of the United States if you had the chance?

The typists took down their statements in duplicate. One copy goes to the While House. The other – produced with the help of carbon paper, like long ago – will go into an exhibition by the project’s creator, Sheryl Oring.

Oring, an assistant professor of art at UNC Greensboro, has been staging “I Wish to Say” since 2004. On her website – iwishtosay.org – she explains that the performances “grew out of my concern that not enough voices were being heard about the state-of-affairs in this country and my belief in the value of free expression that is guaranteed under our Constitution.”

The typewriters and 1960s outfits help draw that out of people, Oring said Monday.

“It creates an opening,” Oring said. “They’re surprised. And they come to you with a certain attitude – curiosity.”

It evidently worked on Monday, when the typing brigade had dozens of respondents.

“You might be the one in a million where they pick it up and say, ‘Oh!’ ” said Pamela Bivens of Durham.

Bivens said she told the president to win the election so she can work with his administration promoting science and technology in education. The president got a thank-you for pushing through health-care reform from a woman who didn’t want to give her name, because she works for a Charlotte health-care business.

The comments weren’t necessarily adoring. Carol Sawyer of Charlotte said she told the president to change his education policies, which she thinks are undermining public education and promoting “the insanity of testing.”

Afterward, Oring estimated that she and her crew had gathered around 200 statements to add to the 2,000 or so she has sent to Washington. She hopes to mount an exhibition of the new ones in Charlotte. The Arts & Science Council, which helped sponsor the performance, is trying to help arrange that, vice president Robert Bush said.

Despite the flurry of typing, Oring said, a few of Monday’s statements stood out.

A child thanked the president for being a role model. A woman who had been stymied in getting health care because of a pre-existing condition said she had finally been able to get help. And a girl of about age 7 wondered what it’s like to be president.

“She said, ‘I wonder if you have to type fast. I wonder if there’s a lot of paperwork. I wonder if you sleep in a big bed.’

“She was so engaged,” Oring said. “It was wonderful.”

Brown: 704-358-6194
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