Beating Around the Bush

Bert Bertonaschi contributed to "The Voting Machine," but the purse she wears around town is her most provocative piece.

This election is gonna be a brawl. There are a whole lot of people riled up on both sides -- and all points in between. Politics is in the air, and people are finding creative ways to express their viewpoints. Political art, conscious or unconscious, can be found all over the city. It's happening in Houston's arts spaces with projects such as "The Voting Machine," and it's happening in a decidedly more partisan fashion in and around Houston's lawns, highways and polling places.

I got a big whiff of the zeitgeist when I went to vote early. People were giving subtle and not-so-subtle visual cues: One woman wore a discreet pin that said "WAR" with a big red mark crossing it out; a guy wore a T-shirt that said "Army"; a middle-aged woman held a biography of Hillary Clinton; and a young woman in a wheelchair had taped a pastel-colored, laminated sign to the back of her chair that read, "I WANT TO WALK. SUPPORT STEM CELL RESEARCH."

On the highway home, things got more expressive. In a weird convergence of traffic and politics, I found myself part of a three-party convoy -- and confrontation. I was in my minivan (don't ask) sporting a selection of pro-Kerry bumper stickers along the lines of "John Kerry: Bringing Complete Sentences Back to the White House." Ahead was an SUV with the words "Flip Flop" on the back window between two pictures of John Kerry in a giant bunny suit. A pair of flip-flops was attached to the rear windshield wiper, changing positions with every turn. I vowed to be more creative with my minivan. In front of me was an art car painted with earnest slogans like "Be an active citizen, our democracy needs you" and "God bless everyone -- no exceptions," along with a Green Party bumper sticker. I was going to honk and wave at the Green guy when someone honked at me. I turned my head to see a middle finger in silhouette through a tinted window. Okay, so I should be bigger than this, but the next thing you know I'm honking back, steering with my knee and giving them a double-barreled middle finger as they show me their "W" sticker. It was a quintessentially Houston moment, and not a proud one for either of us.


"The Voting Machine"

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While there's extreme political performance art happening on Houston's highways, things are calmer, more circumspect and more mature at Houston's arts organizations -- they have to be. While the First Amendment covers the artists they show, nonprofits can endanger their 501(c)(3) status if they appear to be partisan. They can lobby for issues, but they cannot electioneer -- something some nonprofit churches in the Houston area seem not to know. Arts spaces may also remember the FBI's visit to the Art Car Museum because of an anti-Bush artwork.

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So many of them came together for the collaborative, multivenue, multimedia series "The Voting Machine," which focuses on "seeking to ignite healthy debate and mobilize the city toward participation in democracy and voting," with lectures, essays, performances, discussions, exhibitions, films and 'zines.

Glasstire, the online arts magazine, ran an essay on electoral college reform. Lawndale Art Center, closed for remodeling, produced 500 copies of Sprawl, an eclectic 'zine with politically active yet nonpartisan contributions. Among them were cut-n-assemble finger puppets that caricatured both Bush and Kerry and bright orange fake tickets for gas-guzzling SUVs, along with a list of the worst offenders, such as the "I have a small penis" Hummer, which gets 6.8 miles per gallon, and the Ford Excursion, which clocks in at 10.8 mpg.

At DiverseWorks, Margaret Crane and Jon Winet's installation 2004 - America & the Globe uses footage the duo shot at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. They've created a bipartisanly creepy environment of the convention aftermath environment, with deflating balloons and an abandoned makeshift TV studio. A giant screen presents interviews with people, Democratic and Republican, speaking in their own words without editorial comment.

Among other things, Aurora Picture Show presented Laura Harrison and Charlotte Lagarde's film Voting in America, nine shorts that address voter disenfranchisement and disaffection across the country. Aurora and Lawndale also brought in the antiglobalization performance artist the Reverend Billy. The bane of the Starbucks chain, he uses the style of a Baptist fundamentalist preacher to address the evils of globalization. He does this while wearing an Episcopalian priest's collar. (An Episcopalian fundamentalist?!) Anyway, the Reverend Billy led a performance at the dueling Starbucks stores on West Gray. Participants went in both shops and talked loudly to each other on their cell phones repeating "I am at the Starbucks on West Gray, where are you?" Helpful patrons tried to explain that there were two Starbucks right across from each other.

The Reverend Billy was one of the edgier aspects of "The Voting Machine," but overall, you felt like a lot of the artists and organizations were holding back. The whole "Voting Machine" thing is trying to objectively address larger issues and flaws in the political system, but it seems a little tame, and it's pretty much preaching to the choir. It's not that art and polemics are or should be the same thing, but there's an energy that happens when you put art into the street, when there's expression without any feeling of constraint, by both artists and nonartists. Project Row Houses presented "Post It Up: Political Posters from the Margins" in its offices, and work by Karen "Bert" Bertonaschi was included. But Bertonaschi's most provocative work/performance is a hot pink shoulder bag she made and wears around town. "FUCK BUSH VOTE" is stenciled on the side of it. It ain't subtle, but it's honest.

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