"Designers Redefine The Political Machine"
The New York Times, October 7, 2004
By Gwenda Blair

A old voting machine might seem as interesting as a used gum wrapper. But a year ago, when André Balazs, the hotelier, saw one of the portable voting booths used in Florida in the 2000 presidential election, he was intrigued.

''I was struck by the pathetic flimsiness of the machine,'' Mr. Balazs said. ''But with those long space-alien legs and the bluish fluorescent light, it's also a strikingly interesting sculpture, like something by Jeff Koons.''

Mr. Balazs said he bought the booth, known by the trade name Votomatic, for $15 at a flea market in Miami (it was still clogged with chads) and then bought 100 more at $10 each on eBay.

As the Smithsonian Institution's acquisition of another Votomatic indicated, Mr. Balazs had bought pieces of history, which he proceeded to give away as birthday presents. The first one went to Robert Kennedy Jr., and a second to Ken Lerer, the chairman of the Public Theater. When Rick Finkelstein, an artist, saw the booth in Mr. Lerer's dining room, he envisioned an art installation. So did Paul Goldberger, the dean of the Parsons School of Design, who suggested an exhibition in the school's gallery.

''It was a great opportunity to show that design is about more than whether something has a pretty shape,'' Mr. Goldberger said. ''These little machines prove that design really does have an impact on the world.''

In August, Parsons asked 50 prominent designers and artists, including Christo, David Byrne, Diane Von Furstenberg, Robert A. M. Stern and Chip Kidd, to reimagine these booths. Those who accepted the challenge were given a Votomatic and one month. The works go on display at Parsons tomorrow through Oct. 27, when a silent auction of the works will be held to benefit Parsons and Declare Yourself, a nonpartisan voter registration project. (For information, 212-229-2101.)

First used in 1964, the Votomatic weighs 20 pounds and fits into an aluminum attaché case. When opened, it turns into a cubicle containing a prescored punch-card ballot, a small stylus or needle for poking a hole, and four screw-in aluminum legs. Larry Bird, a curator of political history at the National Museum of American History, said the Votomatic and various knockoffs were still in use in about one-fifth of the country's voting precincts in 2000, when the poorly designed butterfly ballot created a national crisis.

The common thread in ''The Voting Booth Project,'' as the Parsons show is titled, is the importance of voting and the many threats to this right. Milton Glaser, who calls his creation ''Gilded Democracy,'' turned the Votomatic into a precious object by covering it with gold leaf and attaching two tags, reading, ''Fragile'' and ''Contains Democracy.''

In ''Bellow,'' the architecture firm Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis evoked voter fatigue, transforming the Votomatic into an accordion-size bellows that heaves a weary sigh as it opens and closes. ''We didn't want to just reproduce the same criticism that was already exhausted in the media,'' said Paul Lewis, a partner in the firm. ''We wanted to make the machine come alive in a new way.''

Other participants looked more specifically at how to prevent a repetition of the ballot problem. Hardly surprising, Christo wrapped the apparatus in clear plastic and tied it with twine. His wife and collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, asked, ''What else could he do? Smash it?'' There was one innovative touch: a small metal fastener, like those used on wine bottles, seals the twine.

''That machine had a problem in the 2000 election,'' Christo said. ''I wrapped it and put the seal on it, so that no one can use it any more.''

For ''Crushed,'' the designer Michael Bierut, who installed the show, and the architect James Biber, partners in the firm Pentagram, drove a 1.5-ton steamroller over the machine, then positioned a tiny elephant on the flattened remains. In ''Good vs. Evil,'' the designers Bonnie Siegler and Emily Oberman, partners in the firm Number Seventeen, provide a more practical alternative: a huge foolproof ballot with a box for each candidate and a giant pencil for making a check mark. To make their own preferences clear, they pasted a cherub by the Kerry box and a devil by the Bush box.

Going one step further, the architect David Rockwell eliminated the Votomatic altogether, leaving in its place a delicate ghostlike skeleton made of wood splinters painted to resemble matches. ''We wanted to convey a process that is both incendiary and fragile,'' Mr. Rockwell said.

Although Mr. Goldberger said that the show was ''not conceived to make a particular political statement,'' he acknowledged that most Bush supporters would not find the exhibition to their taste.

The one openly Republican participant, Makoto Fujimura, kept his political affiliation to himself in ''Nagasaki Koi Voting Booth.'' Peering through a small slit in the dark fabric which covers the booth, viewers glimpse a video of multicolored Japanese carp swimming in a pool near the spot where atomic bombs fell on Nagasaki in 1945. ''This piece is about history and tension and the issues we face today in this atomic age,'' said Mr. Fujimura, who lives near ground zero in Manhattan. ''I wanted to create a hopeful image, an image that wasn't sarcastic or even political but that reflects the private moment of voting. I consider it an almost spiritual event.''