An estimated thirty-two million adults cannot vote in presidential elections because of citizenship status, felony disenfranchisement or because they reside in a U.S. territory. Millions more are cut out of the process because they lack proper identification, are under the age of eighteen or have been purged from the voter registration rolls. Artist Aram Han Sifuentes makes work for these people, people rendered invisible in our democracy.
She has a personal stake in the issue. Sifuentes emigrated to the United States in 1992 from South Korea, and until recently she was among the disenfranchised.
“I’ve noticed that the last few big projects I’ve been working on, over the last ten years really, have focused on confronting white, Western liberalism—in terms of talking about citizenship and what that means, or talking about protest and voting, in terms of, again this rhetoric that gets used over and over again, when people are like, ‘Oh if you’re upset, just go protest,’ or, ‘We could change everything by voting,’” Sifuentes says. “That language may seem very casual but at the core of it, it further makes those who can’t, who don’t feel safe going to protests because maybe of their immigration status or people who can’t legally vote, it makes us even more invisible.”
The 2016 presidential election was a particularly difficult one for Sifuentes to sit out. She knew there was a lot at stake for immigrants. “I was really frustrated and really thinking through that,” she says. “So in 2016, I started looking into who can’t legally vote.”
Sifuentes was shocked at the numbers she found: more than ninety-one million people without the right to vote, or one in every three people. In response, she created “The Official Unofficial Voting Station,” a site-specific series of participatory installations for anyone to vote in, but with a particular focus on reaching the disenfranchised. Working with the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, Sifuentes collaborated with artists, educators, activists and immigration lawyers to set up imaginative voting stations around the United States and Mexico. The collaborators were given one prompt: if you could create your own voting station, particularly for people who can’t legally vote, what would you do?
The results varied wildly. In Acapulco, organizers Cecilia Aguilar Castillo and Erick Fernández Saldaña had effigies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; participants voted by stabbing them with a wooden cross. At Handwerker Gallery in Ithaca, New York, people could “whack the vote” by hitting piñatas of the candidates. For Hull-House, Sifuentes created a glittery, nightlife-inspired station, with pink-and-purple ballots, soundscapes by DJ Sadie Woods and a disco ball.
For the 2020 election, Sifuentes wanted to take the voting stations in a new direction, inspired in part by her ongoing project, “The Protest Banner Lending Library.” After Trump’s election, the artist began sewing political banners as a way to voice resistance. Her private banner-making turned into public workshops, and soon she had so many banners that she created a library of them, for people to check out, use at a protest and then return. The making of banners was especially resonant for non-citizens, who might not feel safe going to a protest but would like to take part in some way.
“What was so exciting about that project for me was that work being activated—made and activated by people I completely never knew before,” Sifuentes says. “I wanted to open it up to make it where anyone can request a voting station, and just see where that goes.”
The new project, “Voting Kits for the Disenfranchised,” will be a pedagogical toolkit that will allow anyone to stage their own voting station. It consists of items created by Sifuentes and other artists, including voting stickers made by Cute Rage Press, a vinyl record of protest recordings by Sadie Woods and screen-printed posters by William Estrada. Each kit will also include infographics created by Sifuentes on who can’t vote in the United States, info on how to use the kits, and two ballot boxes: one for candidates and one for issues. Sifuentes raised money to create the items in the kits—the goal is to make fifty—via 3Arts. Anyone who requests a toolkit can receive one, incorporating whichever elements they want.
Chicago is rife with artists and collectives working on immigration issues; the voting kits are a wonderful amalgamation of them. The work of Undocumented Projects is perhaps the most kindred to Sifuentes. Made up of a small collective of artists and community members, Undocumented Projects formed in response to the Trump administration’s abrupt decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) in 2017. Since then, they’ve created zines with resources for undocumented students, put together a survival kit-artist book to help get these students through college, as well as staging interventions such as sending typewritten, anonymous postcards to legislators. Sifuentes and Undocumented Projects first worked together at an iteration of the voting station at the MCA on election night in 2016.
Sifuentes learned about their wristbands, printed with: “If We Could Vote, We Would!” which are made to look like the traditional bands given after you’ve cast your ballot. In a last-minute request, Joseph Josué Mora, one of Undocumented Projects’ organizers, brought over the wristbands and handed them out to participants.
“I literally cut class, I didn’t go to class and I printed so many at SAIC,” he says. “Then I went to the MCA to be part of that.”
Undocumented Projects have created a version of the wristbands for this year’s voting toolkits. For Mora, working on projects that bring awareness to political issues is more important than ever. “A lot of people are doing self-advocating projects, public art, bringing awareness to issues. And I think it’s because our times are asking for it, because we are being targeted,” he says. “How can we use art as a tool to create resources and conversations so that we can change and start conversations around why undocumented issues are important?”
Bringing awareness to the realities of voting is one of the goals for Sifuentes as well. “I recently got my citizenship, so now I’m able to vote,” she says. “But during election season and beyond, we hear rhetoric that’s like, ‘We just all need to go vote.’ Which is obviously very very important. But we sort of forget the part of the conversation that’s like—wait, ninety-two million people can’t legally vote. If you really look at it, it is very racially charged. So just let’s be aware of that part, that this vast population can’t legally vote. Go vote if you can, and then let’s take some action to expand voting rights for people who can’t legally vote.”
The voting stations also function as a challenge to radically re-envision what voting could be, if it were more accessible or more joyous. “How can we reimagine it so it really is for everybody?” (Kerry Cardoza)