A new art project has risen from the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic — thanks to the BFA Production and Design cohort at the USC School of Dramatic Arts.
After they were told that their normal theatrical season would be canceled because of the pandemic, the group of design and production students created a digital project instead of staging a traditional theater production.
Their art piece, entitled “Empower the Vote: Suppression to Expression,” consists of an online interactive maze, a fiery mailbox installation and a website with information about the history and prevalence of voter suppression in the United States.
The issue, which remains top-of-mind for many in 2020, has existed as long as voting has, starting with the barring of certain economic classes, genders and races from getting their say.
“I found a lot of people just weren’t educated on the topic,” sophomore Harrison Newton, who worked as assistant project manager, told Annenberg Media.
As part of the installation, Newton, a theater major, designed an eight-foot-tall replica of a USPS mailbox, which he initially set up in Venice Beach.
He and other design students also filmed interviews in Venice Beach — which were later turned into a video uploaded to the website — asking people about their thoughts on voter suppression and the trust issues surrounding mail-in voting.
While displaying the mailbox, Newton said the students received many different reactions from bypassers. That was the goal, he said: to start conversations and incorporate public opinions into their installation.
“I think even there was a clip in the video where I had convinced a woman to register to vote who had recently moved to California and who wasn’t planning on voting,” Newton said, describing a person he interviewed for the video.
BFA design students said they plan to take the mailbox around Downtown Los Angeles over the next couple of weeks to gather more reactions, according to Sabra Williams, executive director of Creative Acts and leader of the project.
Meanwhile, the interactive online maze covers topics such as voter suppression via strict voter ID laws, poll monitoring, vote purging and gerrymandering and the packing and/or cracking of congressional districts to manipulate the outcome of an election.
As viewers complete each question testing their knowledge of voting rights throughout the maze, they complete benchmarks, including “You’ve registered to vote!” and “You feel empowered to vote!”
Williams said switching gears to a digital project was a challenge for design students, who are not performers and are primarily trained for stage management.
“I’m just so proud of them, that they overcame all of that, and were able to create something so amazing and beautiful together,” Williams told Annenberg Media.
Candace House, a freshman majoring in business administration, said she was surprised about how much she learned from the visuals on the website.
“When I first saw [the mailbox], I thought it was real and I thought that someone had put their mail ballots in it and someone blew it up, and I was like, oh no, that’s awful,” House told Annenberg Media. “But then I saw that it was fake, and that it was just their art project, but I thought it was pretty crazy and definitely really creative.”
She said she especially enjoyed the poem -- Yajayra Franco’s “We the People,” recited by many design and performance students of the BFA department -- that was read at the end of the virtual maze.
“I definitely was a bit emotional in the sense that they were really speaking with the truth and how America only caters really, to white people,” House said.
Raina Sheldon, a sophomore majoring in environmental studies and psychology, had a similar takeaway when looking at the website.
“It makes politics more accessible to a wide range of people,” Sheldon said to Annenberg Media. “There are people my age who tried to stay out of politics.”
The “Empower The Vote: Suppression to Expression” project will remain online through the election, according to senior Karlie Teruya, who worked as project manager.