“The Voting Booth Project: Where art and democracy collide…” was the title of a benefit exhibit at Parson’s School of Design that I was being invited to. Curator Chee Pearlman gathered fifty designers and artists to give each artist the infamous portable voting booths (with “chads” still inside!) from Florida in the 2000 Presidential elections, and was asking us to do whatever we desired to transform it.
Initially, I was reluctant to partake, being an apolitical artist, but after looking at the photo of the booth (strange, awkward but intriguing device), and learning that it was to benefit Declare Yourself, a bi-partisan voter registration organization chaired by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, I decided to participate.
When I received the booth and set it up, I was struck by both the simplicity of the device and fragileness of it. It came as an aluminum suitcase, and four folding legs unwound themselves to be attached in the bottom four corners. The blinders, that created privacy to vote, were then opened to attach to the edges of the suitcase. Sure enough the chads were still there, gathering with dusts in the corners, a flimsy reminder of an historic election. I also noticed that the plastic enclosure that would have the voting cards inside reflected quietly from the dark enclosures of the booth. The florescent lamps, attached at the top, would have lit the punch cards as it was inserted, but in my booth, they did not work.
My art has been about precious materials refracting, and how that quite emanation speaks to both our souls and eyes. But faced with this device, I had no idea how I would begin to create. I did not want to paint it, nor deal with it in some plastic terms.
For The Splendor exhibit at Kristen Frederickson Contemporary Art in New York City, I had been developing a language of refraction into a video installation using a video I took in Nagasaki last December. It is a close up of Japanese Koi carps swimming in a pond near where the second atomic explosion took place. I had purchased small TV monitors to include the video in a boat like container.
I decided to have a cloth cover for the booth, and asked a friend, who happened to have graduated from Parson’s fashion school, to help. She was delighted to contribute to this effort, and created a grey veil for the booth. The idea was to enclose the booth, to make it even more private. I wanted to place the small screen inside, with the images of Koi inside, and let it reflect off the plastic enclosure of the all-important voting cards.
I wanted to create a sort of a prayer room in which enormity of individual decisions can be reflected (or refracted) by the images used. When a New York Times reporter contacted me, I found myself trying to explain what I had decided to do.
“So you received the booth, and set it up in your studio,” she asked me, “and then what happened?”
“Well, I began to think about the privacy when we vote. I mean we are all alone in there, in this darkness. We are supposed to cast a vote, which is a statement of a kind of faith, faith if not in a person, at least in a process of democracy.”
I later thought how much like a confession this whole process of voting could be, too. The issue of honesty, or integrity is involved in making a decision, however polarized and imperfect the decision.
“It’s an beautiful video that you installed…it is from Nagasaki?” The reporter continued.
“Why Nagasaki? “
“I am a ‘ground zero’ resident now, living three blocks from the towers, and after 9/11, I really was troubled by the use of this term. I later realized that in a sense all of earth is ‘ground zero’ in a sense that our failures and conflicts invade every aspect of our experience, leaving scars. Ever since, I have been dealing with this term in my work. I believe that artists can be an agent for renewal and healing, to play a small part in rebuilding the world…”
“So it’s not a political piece…but you are one of the few conservatives, or even considered Republican, are you not?”
“Yes…but in my work, I try to go beyond the screaming matches of culture war. I want art to be a place of dialogue.” I then emailed her an essay I wrote for The Splendor catalogue (partly because I felt so tongue tied during the interview).
A few days later, in the New York Times the reporter recaptured what I said:
“The only 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 pieces 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.”
I was surprised by the respect (despite her ‘angle’ of needing to interview the only conservative in fifty artists they chose) she’d given to what I said. Actually, she articulated what I said more succinctly than I could have surmised myself. I felt, as I always do in these newspaper interviews, forced to articulate what I had only began to understand intuitively. She even gave me the last paragraph of a long article in which she quotes Christo, David Rockwell and other luminaries. Evidently, I had a friendly interpreter, this time.
We may feel just as awkward walking into a voting booth. The flimsy voting booth may damage our trust for the process of democracy, or, in the future, the uncertainty of untested devises may create concerns. But then this lack of precision in the process should not prevent us from casting a vote. Voting forces us to chose, to put closure to decisions we may have been vacillating about. By casting our vote, we do put into motion into a world a stamp of an intention of our hearts. No matter how perfect the voting machines may become in the future, this act will always require a type of faith. Our small voices do end up refracting into a swirl of political and chaotic world. But even then, we may trust that these voices of privacy and, perhaps, our prayers for a better world, can be registered. Even in the awkward and biased refractions of our intent, in voting or in a newspaper interview, the core value of what we believe can still be manifested.