Voting Machines Get Hacked into Interactive Sculptures

In ‘The Choice is Yours’, artist R. Luke Dubois' audiovisual wonders offer a mental reset on the way we vote.

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Nov 7 2016, 1:00pm

Images courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery.

When people aren’t busy arguing over the moral character of the presidential candidates, voters and pundits are growing increasingly paranoid about voter and voting machine fraud. Artist R. Luke Dubois enters this atmosphere of paranoia with a new exhibition that turns mid-20th century voting machines into interactive sculptures—ones that explore choice in the binary elections of Republican vs Democrat.

In The Choice Is Yours, now open at bitforms gallery, Dubois repurposes a series of mechanical voting machines made in the 40s, 50s, and 60s by the Automatic Voting Machine (AVM) Corporation in Jamestown, New York. Using these new Learning Machines, participants vote on a series of choices, all dichotomies or binaries that range from “the poignant to the absurd.” After voting, the machine gives the voter a user-specific audiovisual response drawn from datasets of media developed for and used in machine learning research. Dubois then displays the real-time results from voting in the gallery into an “exit poll.”

The smaller machines work with image, sound, language, and symbols. They pull from datasets like Google images, a large BBC sound effects archive, an archive of text from Project Gutenberg, and a LOGO interpreter that can draw and make sound based on generative grammars. Depending on the machine used, participants will get, as Dubois tells The Creators Project, “a montage of still images, a musique concrète-style mix of sound recordings, a mash-up of text, or an audiovisual drawing/musical piece based on abstract symbolic instructions.”

With the large machine, participants vote on “values,” which are adjectives drawn from Myers-Briggs. On this machine, people can vote on their desires, how they describe themselves, or in various other ways.

“So if you say you want ‘Strong, Beautiful, Dutiful, and Brave’, the machine will look through Instagram and the New York Times for those combinations,” says Dubois. “In a surprising twist that I really love, choosing lots of adjectives tend to yield results like obituaries rather than headline news from the Times.”

Dubois tells The Creators Project that both humans and machines are engaged in learning in The Choice is Yours. The big machine is constantly adjusting based on the aggregate of votes. It “learns” in the sense that it is sensitive to user selections and will reprise previously chosen media at certain intervals.  

“The smaller machines make some adjustments as well,” explains Dubois. “But it’s more about the people in this case, seeing how simple choices can lead to complex and unexpected outcomes, and how choosing over and over can give you insight into how to make better choices in the future.”

Dubois started playing around with mechanical voting machines in 2015. Originally Dubois, a musician as well as an artist, wanted to turn the machines into musical instruments. He imagined a series of works in the vein of Victorian music boxes, but with some controls attached to the machines. But after some thought Dubois realized the voting machines would be great for exploring choice in various ways using large media datasets.

Users trigger machine-generated montages based on choices they make with the pointers. As Dubois explains, since voting machines tend to be all metal, “hacking” them with sensors is tricky because the whole machine conducts electricity. To get around this, the sensing of choices is created with fluorescent nail polishes and cameras on the back of the machine.

To transform these machines into sculptural objects that could hold camera, lights, and a screen, Dubois worked with Joe Vidich from Kin & Company design studio. Dubois’s collaborator Ksenya Samarskaya then developed a “novel, unified typographic style” for the machines that reflects mid-century labeling.

In addition to the Learning Machines, the exhibition features a vitrine with bits and pieces of voting technology, like machine manuals, levers, spare gears, and paper ballots that were used in the Votamatic machines that produced the “hanging chads” from the 2000 election, amongst other ephemera. Dubois’s colleague, Jonathan Soffer, professor of History at New York University, also contributed an essay on the brief history of voting in the United States.

In connecting The Choice is Yours to the coming elections, Dubois wonders if voting in the United States is a chicken and egg question. If we’re only ever offered false dichotomies as choices, is this what polarizes society? Or does the polarization lead to false dichotomies where we have to, as Dubois says, ‘pick a team’?

A Votamatic machine from the 2000 election that produced the infamous “hanging chads”.

“In making the show, I found myself attracted to way these voting machines had such a strong, forceful interface: the pointers lock each other out mechanically to only allow one choice, but they also allow you to leave a choice blank,” says Dubois. “So I was also thinking, at least in metaphorical terms, about how not choosing is also a choice. 

“The media the machines give you when you vote in the show will become thinned out if you only make one or two selections,” he adds. “So depending on what you’re looking for you might decide that’s the best option.”

Dubois ultimately wants The Choice is Yours to be a bit of a respite from this “shitty election,” providing them with a mental reset to think about voting. Hopefully, the participants come away from the exhibition with a greater understanding of choices that we make, not just on Election Day, but every day.

The Choice Is Yours runs at Bitforms Gallery until December 23rd. Click here to see more work by R. Luke Dubois.

Every vote counts, so remember to hit the polls on November 8. Check out the VICE Guide to the 2016 Election here.

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