‘To The Polls’ wants to harness Instagram for voter registration

An exhibition of murals by local artists urges people to register to vote.

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It’s not enough to register to vote. You need to urge your friends to register to vote.

That’s the message of “To The Polls,” an exhibition of ten large-scale paintings inside a former bicycle factory at 448 N. 10th Street in Philadelphia. Ten local artists were asked to create a new work on plywood panels exactly 8’x8’.

“They’re that size, and square, so that they are perfect for Instagram,” said Conrad Benner, the show’s creator. “They are perfect to take selfies in front of.”

Benner is the creator of the popular street art blog, StreetsDept.com, which for the last seven years has deftly chronicled Philadelphia graffiti and street art — both illegal and legal. For the last few years he has been generating art projects in public spaces related to civic engagement.

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“In the 21st century the public space is Instagram,” he said. “It’s my goal that people come out here, take a bunch of Instagram photos and share it on their social media networks.”

With the support of Mural Arts Philadelphia, Benner rallied ten artists to create these selfie-ready pieces that do not advocate for any one candidate or party, but rather for the importance of voting itself. People will be able to register to vote right there in the gallery.

The show closes on October 3. The deadline to register to vote in the upcoming mid-term election is October 9 in Pennsylvania (Oct 13 in Delaware, October 16 in New Jersey).

It’s not the only cultural space proactively urging people to vote. Eastern State Penitentiary – the historic prison museum in the Fairmount neighborhood – has a voter registration table set up right in front of its box office.

Many of the pieces in “To The Polls” rely on simple imagery and bold colors to carry over into the shrunken pictures that can quickly flash past a cell phone screen in seconds. The artist known as Blur made a pattern of open, red mouths over laid by white, bold text: “AREN’T YOU TIRED OF BEING SILENT?”

Marisa Velazquez-Riva made a black-and-white illustration of the famous image of WWII soldiers raising a flag at Iowa Jima, but instead the soldiers are Latino people raising a flag reading “We Belong.”

Nilé Livingston re-created a well-known 19th century painting by George Caleb Bingham called “The County Election” (1851), which depicts a crowd gathered outside a building to cast their votes. All of them are white and male. Livingston’s version is populated entirely with African-Americans figures who advocated for civil rights throughout American history.

“It’s not just historical, it’s also contemporary,” she said. “You might see the portrait of Obama by Kehinde Wiley. You might see Ruby Bridges from Norman Rockwell, ‘The Problem We All Live With.’ There is iconic work, and lesser-known work.”

Livingston has a long history with polling places. “My grandfather was elected to work the polls, so I used to go as a kid.”

Later, both of her parents were elected to work the polls. Now Livingston is a member of Walnut Hill Community Association and works the 46th Ward, 22nd Division.

Her artwork often involves African-American figures — sometimes in collage — but is not overtly political. Her piece for “To The Polls” is a little more pointed than what she usually does.

“Our society is still recovering from institutional racism,” she said. “It all has to do with African-American representation.”

The artists in the show were selected to represent the demographics of the city. The group has an even gender split, and includes members who are immigrants, queer, handicapped, and from a variety of races and nationalities.

“We live in a city that is majority non-white, so I wanted to have an art show that is majority non-white,” said Benner. “The arts world in Philadelphia can be pretty white, so it was important to me to have that.”

The show, like voting, is free.

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