This election cycle has been louder than most, with red-faced screaming, epic shout-downs, and showers of insults pummeling over political decorum. The Choice Is Yours, a new art show grown out of the clunky mechanical levers of cumbersome voting machines, feels unusually quiet by comparison, almost to the point of being meditative.
“I thought it would be fun to turn them into these choice machines,” the artist, R. Luke DuBois explained. “Maybe it makes you think twice when you get into an actual voting booth on Tuesday.”
At the interactive exhibition, guests of Bitforms Gallery are implicated in what can sometimes feels like a voter psychology experiment. For the task, DuBois has made use of automated vintage ballot castors which were manufactured by a Philadelphia-based company, the Shoup Voting Machine Corporation, for nearly a century. “They stopped making them in the ’80s, but we were still using those machines in the 2000s,” he explained.
The partway throwback vibe is an interesting choice for DuBois, who’s part of a new breed of data-driven artists whose work feels more at home with Google Analytics than Gagosian. With his rectangular glasses, pasty complexion, and penchant for heather grey jersey and V-neck zip-ups, DuBois even sort of looks like a data scientist plucked straight from Silicon Valley (actually, you can catch him at NYU, where he’s a professor of engineering within the Integrated Digital Media program).
But DuBois’s distinct digital stylizing comes through loud and clear once you start casting your “votes” on the Automatic Voting Machines (AVM). With the help of metal workers, typeface designers and others, DuBois retrofitted the AVMs with small screens and speakers that deliver a private presentation based on your choices. It feels a little bit weird at first, as if one little mistake could send the machine into an epileptic fit screaming, “ERROR! ERROR!” That initial anxiety slips away once you get used to the gently clicking levers.
“Instead of voting for candidates, you’re deciding on colors and classifications of sounds, or things you don’t understand quite what the results are going to be,” DuBois explained. “They’re classic black boxes–you flick the switches and pull the lever, but you don’t really know what the hell is going on.”
A bright, government-blue-colored contraption (Learning Machine #3) presents a choice between “Act” and “React.” Selecting one or the other is the equivalent of voting down the party line, but clicking through micro-decisions–roar/bang, whistle/hiss, whisper/mumble, screech/buzz– amounts to mixed-party voting.
Some prompts can feel like a personality test, and there’s good reason for that: DuBois tapped the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for Learning Machine #1, the largest AVM in the room, a bullet grey box the size of an industrial oven. Cordoned off by a scarlet red curtain, it’s an imposing, vampirical presence that resembles the villainous air conditioner from The Brave Little Toaster. With 228 individual choices to make– starting with achieving/adaptable/adoring, and running through intrepid/introspective/introverted, finally ending with witty/worthy/young/zealous–the machine straight-up looms. It’s a testament to the fact that democracy, a system that might seem relatively straightforward, is actually exceedingly complex.
I won’t lie, after finishing my first ballot, I pushed the completion-lever left and flinched a bit, waiting for the blow. But what DuBois has designed the machines to deliver– in sound, slowly drifting still images, and video that he’s pulled from a variety of databases such as Google Images, the New York Times, and Instagram–is actually sort of pleasant.
“It’s meant to be a little lyrical, like you’re kind of playing with these boxes as you’d use a musical instrument,” DuBois explained. “It also recreates the experience of just learning to navigate a system that you’ve never seen, so what comes out is kind of unexpected.”
I found myself searching the images, trying to discern a solid message from the pulsating orbs, brief flashes of familiar shapes and human forms flickering across the black screens, but could never decide what, as a whole, I was looking at. The sense that you’re dealing with a “black box” is only magnified by the mysteriousness contained within those hyper-digitized animations, streetscape sounds, and tinkling piano composition.
According to DuBois, there’s some solid reasoning behind the data systems that spit out the resulting media. “It’s based on the work of a guy who died this year, Seymour Paper– he was one of the first pioneers of artificial intelligence but also computer science education. He made this whole language in the ‘60s called Logo, it was meant to help kids learn the computer by teaching them how to draw.”
Even with the playful interactivity, I couldn’t help feeling that something sinister was lurking beneath The Choice Is Yours. It all came together for me while watching what DuBois called the AVM manufacturer’s “propaganda video.” For the most part, it’s a typically hokey corporate video from the ’50s, only the company makes grand claims about having created a machine that’s impervious to voter fraud, and therefore tyranny itself. In fact, there’s a lot going on at the show that’s creepy– there’s the ominous physicality of the machines, the probing indicators attached to levers leading straight into your soul, and of course, the dark shadow cast by the elections.
However, DuBois never explicitly points to a Democrat/Republican divide. Instead, he drops strong hints by way of juxtaposition– something that’s repeated throughout the show. The most obvious is on Learning Machine #2, where the choice is between red and blue, colors that are portrayed as polar opposites. Many of DuBois’s dichotomies can feel somewhat arbitrary when it comes to a split between conservatives and liberals (Frankenstein/Dracula). Other moments seem to have somewhat more solid ties to conservatives, but only in relation to their opposite (e.g. “fulfillment” is either “pride” or “tropic”).
“I didn’t want to make a show so much about this specific election,” he explained. “I wanted to make something that had staying power beyond 2016. So the thing I was sort of thinking about, really, was the idea of choice, and how people don’t necessarily value as much that we have these choices.”
In a way, it’s a nice departure from an election that seems to have creeped into every aspect of everyday life. At once, it makes the decision that many of us will have to make on Tuesday a much more pressing, realer one, with immediate, lasting consequences. It’s a hefty decision, and it weighs heavily on these obsolete machines, which were once marketed as fool-proof.
“The dirty little secret is that they were hackable, and they were hacked. So there’s this pretty persistent rumor that’s been going around for years that in Chicago in the 1960s, the Mayor put pencil lead in all the Republican gears to try and rig the election for Kennedy,” DuBois said. “So when people voted for Nixon, the gears would jam, and it would underreport the vote.”
Taken with the artificiality of DuBois’s voting machines and the choices they present, as well as these oafish, outdated machines, this represents the inadequacy of technology in the face of democracy, what’s essentially a very human, messy, and naturally chaotic process.
The Choice is Yours is on view now through December 23 at Bitforms Gallery.