In the shadow of DNC, artists gathering ideas on big philosophical questions

What makes the good life? What are our truths?

These are the philosophical questions that underlie many of our larger political debates.

And they are also the centerpieces of two portable, interactive art installations in the city this week that seek to foster a more productive civic dialogue among Philadelphians.

What is the Good LIfe?

To Aristotle, the goal of politics was to provide individuals and society at large with “the good life.”

So what are the pillars of that life?

South Philadelphia’s Meg Saligman studios created an exhibit that offers ten ideas.

Set up in the lobby of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central branch on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is the installation “Our Common Ground: Vote for the Good Life.”

“Each tower represents an element of The Good Life, so things like ‘Jobs and Income, or ‘Education,’ a ‘Clean Environment,'” said Lizze Kripke, a lead artist at the Saligman studio.

To vote, participants select a slip of colored paper based on party affiliation — blue for democrat, red for republican, yellow for independent.

And participants then write what they think can help force change, put the paper in a clear ball and drop it into one of the transparent pillars.

The exhibit was in Cleveland last week for the Republican Convention, and now after a few days in Philadelphia for the Democratic counterpart, each pillar is filled with a healthy blend of colors.

“So it tells us that perhaps there’s some sort of consensus on what the issues are that we should be focusing on,” said Lipke, “even if there’s no consensus on how to arrive at a positive change.”

Northeast Philly’s Frank Coyne voted. He runs a men’s prayer group at a Catholic parish, and cares about issues facing the poor.

“I voted twice. One for jobs, and one for fair government,” he said.

Jobs, he says, give people the power to improve their own lives, and fair government helps level the playing field.

But Coyne, who usually votes for Democrats, has been disapointed thus far about the larger political discourse about poverty.

“None of them are focused on the problems of the poor. None of them,” he said. “A few years back they talked about the poor a little bit. This year and the past few national elections, they’re talking about the middle class. The poor have been forgotten.”

Although he wasn’t initially bowled over for Clinton, he says his daughter has been lobbying him hard. “She just said, as far as she was concerned, and what she knew of me, there was no way I could back Donald. And she was right,” he said. “But she also said that I should be more enthusiastic for Hillary. So I’m becoming more enthusiastic for Hillary.”

An event Tuesday sponsored by Project HOME tried to illuminate discussions about “the good life” by opening up a dialogue with those who often feel cast aside by society.

“I shared my story of being homeless with three children, going from different shelters to transitional housing,” said Erica Brown.

Brown talked about how she was able to land on her feet after more than eight years of struggle. She said Project HOME gave her something crucial:

“Stable housing, a safe place for me and my children to live while I worked on my mental health, my education and my addiction.”

Brown now works for Project HOME as a literacy instructor. Her eldest daughter is a junior at Kutztown University, and her two other children are in high school.

After more than 8 years as part of Project HOME, last month she moved into her own place in South Philadelphia.

“I saw it as an opportunity to get out of the way, to help somebody else that’s in the same situations that I was in before,” she said.

After hearing Brown’s story, and participating in the exhibition, Mt. Airy’s Sharon Browning walked away feeling better about humanity. “[It] really recognized in a deeply mutual way that we’re all valuable, that we all have stories. And people said it again and again, we just have to listen to each other.”

The exhibit will be in the Free Library lobby for the rest of the week, and will be showcased in September at a final exhibit at Moore College of Art and Design.

Getting to the truth

Up the street, in the sweltering heat on Eakins Oval, there was no missing the Truth Booth — a giant thought bubble rigged with recording equipment.

Emann Odufu, who’s traveling with the portable art installation on a 50 city tour, was there to breakdown how it works.

“The only requirement is you start with, ‘The truth is…’ and then you have up to two minutes to say pretty much whatever you want to say about anything.”

East Falls resident Ted Ongirski talked about growing up tormented by an abusive father, leaving home at 14, and later forgiving his dad after joining a born-again Christian church.

“When you forgive somebody, it releases a heavy load. Just like god forgave me, I forgave him and I don’t hold it against him anymore,” he said.

Asked about the larger political debate occurring in the city right now, Ongirski, a social worker in a half-way home, said he’s been torn.

“It’s been a struggle because Donald has a lot of good points, and then Hillary has some good points also, but I’m kinda biased because Hillary is also kinda corrupt, I believe. And I hate to say that, but that’s how I feel,” said Ongirski, a registered Republican. “And Donald also kinda has some things going on too, but Donald might be the better choice, I think, at this point.”

Back in the Truth Booth, Robert Burdge talked about the need for elected officials to understand the plight of the homeless.

He now has a place in North Philly, but says he lived on the streets for years.

“They need to get out of their office, and get out on the street and see what’s going on,” he said.

Kingsley Ibeneche, a dancer originally from Camden who lamented the decline of arts education in public schools, came away with catharsis.

“It was really liberating and really relaxing,” he said. “It was nice to just get some thoughts out of my head.”

The Truth Booth tour will be on Independence Mall on Wednesday and then in North Philly on Thursday.

The Philadelphia Mural Arts project will incorporate the viewpoints collected this week in some of their public works and youth media education initiatives.

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