Spotlight on AU Museum at Katzen Installation: Updraft America
Although the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center always seems to have thought-provoking and passionate pieces relating to the contemporary cultural climate, there occasionally comes an exhibit that stops you in your tracks. “Updraft America,”on exhibit from September 6 to October 23, is one of those exhibits. Washington D.C. sculptor and former Senate aide Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s frustration with the country’s political state inspired her to create "Updraft America," an installation that uses 10,718 paper airplanes made out of a year of the Congressional Record. There is a clear emphasis on bipartisanship in the piece; red and blue airplanes congregate together in the middle and become a lovely shade of purple, the symbol of unity in politics.
As American University is known for its political activism, the exhibit’s message reflects well in the campus’ culture. Firstenberg approached American University Museum Director Jack Rasmussen, a respected figure in the D.C. art world, in December of 2015 about installing the project. American University students Cory Flax and Maisha Hoque, who also work at Katzen, encourage fellow students to look into the "Updraft America" movement. Both have played important roles in how the exhibit reaches students.
It is important to mention that “Updraft America” discusses the importance of intersectional discussion. The message behind "Updraft America" aims to promote unity in the face of political adversity. It says that political affiliation does not matter—what matters is a shared exhaustion over gridlock and the need for the political system to unite for a better nation. Each and every voice matters, which is why people can make their own paper airplanes when they visit the exhibit.
Firstenberg’s life has been a series of diverse and challenging experiences, but her job as a Senate aide on Capitol Hill was a turning point. “In the summer of 2015, I was working at my Adams Morgan sculpting studio when I heard a news report of yet another threatened government shutdown,” Firstenberg said about her inspiration regarding the installation. “That was the day I decided to use art to address political gridlock because words no longer seemed to make a difference.”
Soon after, she came up with the idea of folding each page of a year’s subscription to the Congressional Record into paper airplanes. Firstenberg began to reach out to friends, colleagues, and anyone who felt similarly about the lack of unity in politics. “People are angry and frustrated,” she said. “This project takes that frustration and transforms it into something positive, something hopeful.” She set a goal of folding thirty airplanes a day to get to the current 10,718, and started to fold everywhere: doctors’ waiting rooms, stoplights, or even airplanes. As her project expanded, more people from all backgrounds started to reach out to her, their frustration echoing her own. Firstenberg began to foster a sense of community among the paper airplane folders, creating a website to encourage others to fold their own. “I formed a bipartisan team. We met with former members of Congress to better understand how people could make the greatest impact,” she said. “The members told us that people must reach out to the candidates to say that they will only vote for those willing to work across the aisle.”
As the project gained more traction, the reaction was universally positive. People were eager to fold their own paper airplane in the name of bipartisanship. However, the movement had a few naysayers whose cynicism was broadcast in the mantra of “this will never work.” To those criticisms, Firstenberg had an answer. “My response to naysayers is that cynicism is a vote for the status quo. Everyone eligible to vote holds responsibility for fixing our political system and possesses the opportunity to create positive change.”
Even the name 'Updraft America' is incredibly significant to the exhibit; Firstenberg wanted the name to define the concepts behind the art. “Stall Recovery” was a preliminary name, as the definition of “regaining positive control by reducing the angle of attack” correlated well with the project. However, she realized that the name lacked a vital kind of positivity that the exhibit wanted to project. Thus, "Updraft America" was born, a name that could not only represent the exhibit, but the ongoing political movement.
Firstenberg wants to continue to expand the movement of "Updraft America" in the future, especially among college students and millennials. “Updraft America’s mission is to give voice and visibility to people who are reasonable in their political stances, people who can loosen their grip on their own ideologies just enough to listen to someone with a differing perspective.”
What was the turning point in your life/career that spurred you to create Updraft America?
Life can be non-linear. Mine certainly has been. After earning an MBA, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry. When I married and moved to Washington, DC, I worked on Capitol Hill as a Senate aide. Then, during motherhood, I did marketing consulting, board work and hospice volunteering. Just six years ago, I accidentally discovered that I am a sculptor. My varied work and life experiences now inform my art. (Implicit here is a note to all students who are wondering what their majors should be: seek a broad range of life experiences. Breadth will add richness and depth to whatever you do.) Who would have guessed that my Hill experience and art would combine to inspire political activism. Some things in life you just can’t plan.
Was it something you’ve wanted to do since you started in politics, or did it manifest as you stayed longer in the field?
In the summer of 2015, I was working at my Adams Morgan sculpting studio when I heard a news report of yet another threatened government shut-down. That was the day I decided to use art to address political gridlock because words no longer seemed to make a difference.
I love the name Updraft America. How did you come up with such a significant name?
Great question! Half of all the hours I devote to my art are spent not in doing, but in thinking. Strong concepts take time to massage, refine, and perfect. I began by researching aeronautical terms since my starting point was paper airplanes. At first, the installation was to be named “Stall Recovery” because I found its definition to be on point: “regaining positive control by reducing the angle of attack.” Then, in the refining stage, I realized that it wasn’t positive enough for my project. In searching for a more aspirational name, I considered the word “updraft” which certainly was moving in the right direction. From there, “Updraft America” became the obvious choice. Of course, in this age of social media and litigiousness, I searched website names and trademarks to make sure the path was clear to gaining control of the name to allow for extension into an actual political movement.
After you started Updraft America, what was the reaction from those around you to the project?
Universally, the description of my project—folding every page of a year’s subscription to the Congressional Record into paper airplanes—has been met with gratifying smiles and laughter. People are angry and frustrated. This project takes that frustration and transforms it into something positive, something hopeful. Was there support, skepticism, doubt, encouragement, and how did that affect the way you moved forward with Updraft America? Here is where it gets tricky. With the installation itself, everyone who had any confidence in their ability to fold a paper airplane asked to help fold. For the political movement, probably 5-10% of those who learn of it respond cynically, saying nothing will work. My response to naysayers is that cynicism is a vote for the status quo. Everyone eligible to vote holds responsibility for fixing our political system and possesses the opportunity to create positive change.
Is there any significance to the number 10,718 (the total number of paper airplanes)?
The paper airplanes represent a year’s work by Congress: August 1st, 2015 through July 31st, 2016. I purchased a year’s subscription to the Congressional Record (the official transcript of the full proceedings and debate of the U.S. Congress) and estimated, based on prior years, how many pages they would produce in the 365 days I was planning to represent in my artwork. I will let you in on a little secret: there are actually 10,752 paper airplanes. After the artwork was already installed in the American University Museum, the Government Printing Office sent out a September issue that included remnants of the last July legislative days. So I quickly folded, painted, and added those pages to the installation on September 15th to ensure that it truly represents a full year.
How did you start to reach out to people to form a coalition of people wanting their voices heard in the name of bipartisanship?
Once I began folding, my goal was to fold thirty airplanes a day, based on an estimated totally of just over 10,000 pages of proceedings. I folded in doctors’ waiting rooms, at stoplights, on airplanes. Slowly, something interesting began to happen. As people learned about my project, they asked to help fold. That is when I realized that people want to have a voice in politics. They are angry, frustrated and feel impotent. Thirty people from twelve states and the District of Columbia helped to fold. Folders span age groups and ethnicities, income brackets and ideologies. I wanted to extend the opportunity to more people, and that is when I came up with the idea to create a website and encourage people to fold their own paper airplanes. I formed a bi-partisan team. We met with former members of Congress to better understand how people could make the greatest impact. The members told us that people must reach out to the candidates to say that they will only vote for those willing to work across the aisle. The impetus for change must come from constituents or potential constituents.
Are there more people reaching out, wanting to join now?
People love the concept of Updraft America, especially millennials. We have a social presence with our website, UpdraftAmerica.org and on Facebook and Twitter. We hope to use social media to maximize our reach. There may be opportunities for internships and even employment down the road.
How did Updraft America come to American University?
American University’s Museum Director, Jack Rasmussen, is a cornerstone of the DC area art world. I approached him with the idea of installing Updraft America in the Katzen Center in December, 2015. Then, I left to spend January in Harbin, China where I and a teammate represented the United States in an international ice carving competition. On the coldest day, after having been on icy scaffolding in zero degree temps with a chain-saw for the better part of the day, I received an email from Director Rasmussen confirming that Updraft America was a “GO” at AU. It was the best news ever. American University is renowned for its programs in government studies, political science and international relations. It is an honor to have my installation on exhibition here. One side note: while in China, sculptors from around the world asked me to implore my fellow Americans to vote with our minds, not our emotions—the effects of our elections are felt around the world. And, interestingly, those sculptors knew more about our political system than do many Americans!
How do you see Updraft America expanding in the future? I know there is definitely interest in establishing a chapter at American University (given the campus climate, it would really benefit us, haha) so I was wondering the project’s expansion plans were based solely in universities or in different kinds of institutions.
Thank you for asking. It fascinates me—and Washington Post published my Letter to the Editor about this—that people are desperate for change, but they fail to realize that the key to change rests at the fingertips of every eligible voter. They must vote only for candidates who are willing to work with the opposition, even if it means they will be more vulnerable in their bids for re-election. It will take more than one election cycle to create the change we want—greater bipartisanship, improved primary systems, non-partisan redistricting—but it has to begin now. College students and millennials offer the greatest opportunity for expanding Updraft America. Through social media we will continue to grow so that our impact will be felt in the voting booths across the nation, not just this election cycle, but we must now lay the groundwork for the next election year.
Updraft America’s mission is to give voice and visibility to people who are reasonable in their political stances—people who can loosen their grip on their own ideologies just enough to listen to someone with a differing perspective. People at the extremes have plenty of rallying points, opportunities to affiliate. Now, using the logo of Updraft America, so, too, will we. On the Updraft America website, we offer logo merchandise so that Updrafters can be visible: tee-shirts, cell phone cases, water bottles, etc. Becoming visible is an important part of establishing Updraft America.
What is the best discussion Updraft America has sparked for you, and how has that affected the way you expand?
The most critical discussion I had was the day I called Debilyn Molineaux of the Bridge Alliance, an organization of over forty groups working to bridge the political divide. I explained to her what Updraft America is and asked to partner with her so that its benefit could go directly to supporting all these grassroots efforts. That day, our partnership began. We will continue to grow Updraft America and build support for the Bridge Alliance, in hopes that the space between Democrats and Republicans will be bridged for our future.
Many thanks to Suzanne Firstenberg, Maisha Hoque, and Cory Flax for their invaluable insight and time.