If your state is already painted in red or blue, voting can feel like a formality for a forgone conclusion, or a symbolic gesture more than a practical one. But The Choice Is Yours—a new installation by R. Luke DuBois at New York’s bitforms gallery—calls such apathy into question. The method? Hacked voting machines.
Inside the gallery, visitors are free to cast their vote on five different official voting machines from U.S. history, the oldest of which is from the 1940s. But rather than loading their ballots with candidates, DuBois has swapped out those choices for images, or even sounds. "So you choose between hearing a roar versus a bang, a whistle versus a hiss, etc," says DuBois. "Once you've voted, the machine pulls sounds together according to your choices and makes a one-minute algorithmic soundtrack just for you." That algorithmic playback is, in essence, the world generated by your vote, offered up in immediate gratification that a four-year presidential term could never match.
"We make choices all the time without having the complete picture of what the outcomes will be, and I think one of the common frustrations we have with the democratic process is that many of us want to vote based on a list of values instead, or characteristics, or outcomes," says DuBois of the project’s motivation. "Life doesn't work that way...the options on the ballot are human beings, and it's a vital leap of faith for a healthy democracy to say that ultimately, we have to decide on the people, however imperfect, who we want to empower and who will hopefully live up to those ideals."
DuBois’s machines—sourced from antique stores and government overstock suppliers, and retrofit with electronics and custom software—allow you to vote on a diverse range of things. One machine lets you vote on text pulled from Project Gutenberg literature, another, the abstract symbols behind LOGO (a computer drawing system). One machine builds its ballot from the values listed in a Myers-Briggs test, and when you’re done, it cross references those words against Instagram and the New York Times, creating a never-ending montage on the screen of your ideals illustrated through the lens of the media. Yes, these concepts trend more than a little abstract, churning out visual poetry that borders on nonsensical—or perhaps, only coincidently meaningful. But DuBois isn’t attempting to portray voting as a simple choice or action. In fact, his point is the opposite.
"I want folks to think about how choice works in our democratic process and in our civil discourse," says DuBois. "It's a beautiful, complex, underrated word that's critical to what happens on [election day], and I've set up an exploration of what it means to me; choices are complex, but to have a choice at all is a tremendous gift, and it's one I hope people use when they have it."
As for those who look at these historic machines and feel their stomachs churn at how deftly the machinery has been hacked by DuBois? He insists that voting machines, as we have them installed across the US, are probably a lot safer than they might seem.
"I think there are many people in this country who are distrustful of the electoral process, which is ironic because the decentralized nature of elections in the USA makes it unintentionally more secure than we give it credit for. If we were going to hack the voting machines in the U.S. today we would need thousands of personnel situated all around the country," says DuBois. "I was more interested in engaging folks who are disillusioned with the choices available, and who say things like 'my vote doesn't matter' or 'these candidates are all the same,' which in 2016 especially is a heartbreaking position to take."
[All Photos: John Berens/Courtesy bitforms gallery, New York]