When the 2000 presidential election turned into a grim burlesque of recounts, chads and litigation, it would have been hard to imagine the voting booths of Florida as the raw material for an art show. Especially an art show that could make you laugh. The stakes were too high and there was something wrenching about how American democracy devolved into a rancorous pig pile over a few million poorly designed ballots in the Sunshine State.
So the first surprise of the Voting Booth Project, an exhibit at the Parsons School of Design in midtown Manhattan, is that it's funny. Sometimes ha-ha funny, sometimes bitter-funny. It's also, in a few places, just bitter, and elsewhere it's poignant. The premise: Give a couple dozen artists an actual voting booth from the Florida fiasco of four years back and let them turn it into anything they wanted.
Nearly all the artists handpicked by the new dean of Parsons, Paul Goldberger, and a group of advisers delivered something delightful. What the artists were given looks like a silver briefcase when sealed shut, but once opened, placed on a stand and tricked out with one of those troublemaking punch-card ballots, it's a voting machine. A Votomatic voting machine, to get particular. (Yes, that's a trademarked name.) Nearly all of the Votomatics for this exhibit were purchased on eBay, according to curator Chee Pearlman, for about $50 apiece.
Some are no longer recognizable. One of them, the work of Michael Bierut and James Biber, has been flattened by a 1.5-ton steamroller and looks like a mangled garbage can. On top of this squashed mess there's a tiny toy elephant. Get it?
Not surprisingly -- these are artists and this is New York -- the anti-Bush sentiments here aren't subtle. Stephen Doyle lined his Votomatic with red felt and placed a red felt snake in the machine. "Who knows what evil lurks in a typical voting booth from Florida," reads the nearby placard. Rick Finkelstein put his Votomatic in what looks like a gym locker that he wrapped with police tape and appended with a sign that says, "Be suspicious of anything unattended." Some choice words from the Constitution are taped to the inside of the locker door.
Other artists tried to capture the dark absurdity of the Florida vote. Abbott Miller suspended his Votomatic high on a set of silver stilts, with dozens of those plastic toy monkeys that link arms cascading from the bottom of the machine to the floor, into bright red barrels. You think back to those armies of volunteers examining those dimpled ballots and suddenly this ludicrous spectacle seems apt.
Wackier still, Nancy Chunn and Mark Rosen turned their machine into a spaceship, with streams of humanlike figures walking down some gangways. These are "alien voting poll observers," we're informed, on their way to creating pandemonium.
James Stewart Polshek transformed his Votomatic into a slot machine titled "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas." This is intended as a symbol of optimism about the future as well as "fear that the upcoming election will become another farce, preventing a desperately needed change."
That notion seemed wishy-washy compared with the efforts of Sagmeister Inc., a graphic design firm. The company pulverized the machine into an assortment of colored powders, then poured them into an arrangement that looked like a welcome mat emblazoned with the words "How long will it take?" That's a quote, it turns out, from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's book "Plan of Attack," excerpted on a nearby card:
"We're going to kill them," CIA counterterrorism official Cofer Black said, according to the book, which details the Bush administration's build-up to the Iraq war. "We're going to put their heads on sticks. When we're through with them they will have flies walking across their eyeballs."
Bush's reply: "How long will it take?"
Voters also get needled in this exhibit, which runs through Nov. 15. Robert Stern, the celebrated architect, seemed to be urging citizens to simply think a little. His Votomatic comes equipped with more than a dozen rear-view mirrors. Stand before it and you see a dozen images of yourself.
There's a ballot for simpletons sitting in the machine of Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler. It has "KERRY" in huge letters on one side and "BUSH" on the other side, plus a square to check off either candidate. You look at it and you're torn between laughing and thinking that somebody ought to put this thing into mass production, soon.