Stacey L. Kirby found a lot of inspiration right here in North Carolina for her 2014 work, Power of the Ballot. In this installation and performance-based work, she asks the public to interact with an election in the gallery. The work is about obstacles that come between the ballot box and ordinary citizens. Political experiences in North Carolina have greatly influenced the artist, who is based in Durham. She describes Amendment 1 as a prominent moment for her, as a person and artist, in her video.
“I think another prominent moment is the Planned Parenthood exchange with Governor McCrory, outside of the governor’s mansion, where he baked cookies, or someone on his staff baked cookies and gave them cookies, rather than having a conversation with people about what was going on with women’s health in North Carolina,” Kirby said. “And that type of lack of conversation is frustrating, so I was just feeling like I wanted to give an opportunity to everyone to voice what they feel is happening in North Carolina to them, or how they don’t have the ability to share their voice. That’s kind of how that came about for me, because I didn’t always make political work. I think being an artist is political in some ways, inherently, but I think in the beginning I just wanted to make a connection with people and hear what they had to say and what their experience in life was like. It’s gotten more pinpointed to subject matter in the political climate that exists in this country right now, but I feel like I’m just a mirror of what’s going on. It’s not that I’m going to make political work for the rest of my life, but just right now, that’s what I feel like I need to mirror and create conversation around.”
We asked Kirby about the use of humor in her work.
“I think I use humor as a way to, I guess, put everyone on the same level in the work, including myself,” Kirby said. “ … I think the surprise element of the hand coming out of the ballot box is [funny]. I mean, I knew it was going to be a surprise, but I didn’t realize people were going to yell out loud, like, ‘Oh my god! What is that?’ …There’s a little bit of fear walking into the curtain, too. They don’t know what is going to happen to them, so when the hand comes out, it creates this moment of release. They just appreciate this moment of engagement with something very unusual that they don’t experience day to day. Other funny moments─I think interacting with children is really funny, because as you know, they just say whatever they want, whatever pops in to their heads, so it’s been interesting that they don’t know how to ring the bell. The bell’s vintage, you know, so I’ve had to train the kids and the parents train the kids, so there’s a little bit of humor there of this really old, really basic thing that they don’t know how to use. For some reason that’s really funny to me and its really funny to the adults, too, in the scenario.”
The ballot boxes are funny, we said.
“Yes, there’s this humor in the fact that ballot boxes are made out of cardboard─there’s no weight to them,” she said. “It’s something that seems so disposable to us, yet the idea of a ballot box has so much weight. So I really did want to play with that, and also, the humor comes in with my character. I do take myself seriously, but every time I introduce myself as the Chief Precinct Officer, people laugh at me, and I’m like, ‘What is so funny?’ But yeah, at the same time, you can smile and still be serious about your job and engage people in the process.”
We asked her to describe a few notable experiences with visitors in the Nasher Museum.
“Okay, let’s see,” she said. “Yesterday, I had a couple come up to me and I did my kind of spiel to get them into the groove with the work, and the gentleman said, ‘Well neither one of us can vote so it doesn’t really matter.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, I’d love for you to participate anyway, and they still weren’t interested, but I was still curious. So I said, ‘Why can’t you vote?’ And he said, ‘Well I’m a felon,’ and he didn’t explain why the woman couldn’t vote either, but that’s the first person I’ve ever had admit to me that they are a felon, and not want to participate and walk away. I actually felt bad for him, because he obviously still has a voice even though he’s made mistakes in his life and he’s obviously paid for them because he’s standing in the Nasher now, and done whatever the judicial system asks us to do, and yeah, that was interesting. That was the first time I’ve had that experience. … I think the Family Day at the Nasher has been really engaging. Giving kids the opportunity to take part in voting is really empowering for them, and also having the conversation with the parents and the child about whether or not their parents voted in the midterm election is really fun and starts the conversation. … The kids start talking about their experiences standing in line with their parents. And then you also start getting people in the gallery talking about who’s talking about actually working at the polls and the poll workers’ perspectives, which has been very insightful about how important that process is to them and how they trust the system because they are part of it. They would like more people to trust the system and trust them. …They don’t want people to listen to this misinformation that’s being put out there that the system isn’t actually trustworthy. It is.”
Portrait of Stacey L. Kirby by J Caldwell.