In 2013, after I had recently (and successfully) warded off the Mayan Apocalypse from my rooftop in a piece of performance art that was broadcast on the local news, I decided to engage in a major piece of serious absurdism.*
My goal was to do something that was beyond politics as usual. I wanted to do more than draw and debate party lines. I wanted to bring the whole city together in probing, but good-natured discussion and creative endeavor. I worked with local artists (and the city ordinance department) to create political signs that were local masterpieces. I would, sometimes, sing my responses to questions at debates. And, yes, as a true serious absurdist, I absolutely was up-to-date on the issues.
I got a significant number of votes, but was eliminated in the primaries. I was upset, but grateful for the learning experience, especially for the insight that I gained from my campaign manager Ian O’Hara, who had previously run numerous campaigns — many much larger than my own. For those times when I was not singing my responses, he helped me formulate replies to questions about issues, replies that were designed to make it so that I could easily transition into the “stump-speech” I would give again and again to drive my key messages home.
Based on what I learned from O’Hara and my experiences in responding to the press, I realized that there is a major flaw in the way that candidates are presented to the public. These are the people who are going to lead us, make laws, and control the purse strings of the government — yet, after the elections, despite all of the attention paid to these individuals, the public still has little knowledge regarding who these people are as people.
Thus began my next serious absurdist endeavor. I rented a theater and set out to get candidates to participate in a theatrical pirate-themed role-playing quest designed to indirectly give insight about the candidates based on the way that they played the game. It was not easy to get candidates (or, more specifically, their campaign managers) to agree to participate — even though I assured them that there would be no gotchas and that the whole thing was designed to let the public connect to candidates on a new level and in a good-hearted way.
I wound up getting four candidates to participate, three from a nearby city council race and a U.S. Congressional candidate. It was great — we had musicians, magicians, mermaids and more, asking candidates a whole array of questions. “Here is a mirror that reflects a person’s highest self, what do you see in it?” was one of my favorites.
The candidates and audience had a positive and memorable experience. Some audience members discovered new things about the candidates that completely changed their minds — for the better. Some attendees from both sides of the political spectrum tell me, to this day, it was the best piece of political theater that they have ever seen. I’d count that as a success.
Some years later, I did a similar event in Grand Rapids, with three City Commissioner candidates. It did not have the same role-playing quest format, but this series of interviews did allow me to ask some interesting questions. “If you could have a superpower, what would it be and why?” was a question that I thought to be really impactful. In fact, I would ask that you, dear reader, to answer that question yourself; then observe how much that answer says about you as an individual. My guess is that it says volumes — and probably much more than your position on any of the issues on the debate floor today.
It is the power of such questions to reveal the character of candidates that makes me want to continue this effort. I want to know — and I believe the electorate has the right and need to know — what candidates value, how they solve problems, how they work with others: who they are as human beings.
I also feel that we deserve representation of the humane in our political decision-making processes. I’d like for the ways we come together to do democracy to be nicer, kinder, still probing — yet in a way that is more joyful and much less stressful.
My guess is that such strivings do seem seriously absurd in today’s political climate. Still, to pursue such lofty aims reflects my training, tradition and heart. I hope you will join me (and the political theorists, performers, and journalists with whom I am now working) on our Facebook page “The Democracy Scene” to see more of our upcoming efforts and events.
*I am the protegee of Arakawa and Gins, the art-science coordinologists, who endeavored to defeat death with specially designed architecture. Arakawa, himself, was the protegee of Marcel Duchamp, world-renown cubist and urinal sculptor. I always had the sense that he and Gins were trying to engage in a form of absurdism that had an absolutely serious aspect to it; they were, after all, trying to defeat death with architecture. Yet, when you went into their office and saw all the drawings they were working on and all of the research that their team was doing, it was apparent that they meant it. You even got the feeling that they were on to something. I still think that their approach is a viable avenue to end the mortal condition.