New York artist/educator Luke DuBois brings data science and politics to the world of visual arts at SITE Santa Fe's upcoming ninth edition of the ongoing SITELab series, Luke Dubois: A More Perfect Union. Opening this Friday Jan. 19 and running through Wednesday April 4 (1606 Paseo de Peralta, 989-1199), the prospect might sound un-sexy, but is actually cool as hell. DuBois synthesized the State of the Union addresses of 41 American presidents (George Washington through George W Bush), identifying their most-used words and presenting them as eye charts. DuBois also hacked mid-20th-century voting machines to create interactive art pieces, has a musical performance planned and is now our new best friend.
Do you have a political background? Student body politics or something?
Not really. I guess one thing is that I grew up overseas in England. In college my parents moved to Tokyo, so home for a couple years was Japan. I grew up in a context where I was the immigrant, and I got a little bit of a lens on the United States at a distance. I took a trip to the Soviet Union when I was in eighth grade; I remember my pop and I flew to Berlin right after the wall fell; I remember being in Bosnia before the whole thing caught fire—I've seen some things, and I think a lot of the art I'm making is about trying to figure out how to make portraits of the US that get people in the US to think and ask questions and be as little more aware of what we are as a culture; the words we use, the decisions we make.
We hear a lot about the responsibility of the artist, especially in dark times. Do you feel you have a responsibility?
Yeah, sure. I think it's very important now, possibly now more than ever—well, it's actually always shady to say now is a more important time than the last time but, in this case, it might actually be true—when we managed to elect a shady real estate guy from Queens who eats pizza with a fork—and no disrespect to the great borough of Queens. I think one of the problems is that he's not only the least-qualified president we've ever had, he's the least-qualified person you or I could think of to be president. And it's not that I'm so single-mindedly intent on taking down Donald Trump, but I do think I have a specific skill set that gives me the ability to comment on him.
Did anything particularly notable emerge from the synthesis of the State of the Union addresses?
Washington's number one word is "gentlemen," and [George W] Bush's is "terror." So the question is: How do you get from gentlemen to terror in 43 steps? The whole thing was kind of a surprise because it just kind of worked, and it's impressive because I didn't make it up and didn't have to move shit around. You can do cool things with statistics. Some of my favorites are, like, Nixon's most-used words were "truly," "environment" and "vision," and I figured out it was because one of his main speechwriters was William Safire, who was this amateur linguist and he had a column in the New York Times that people would write to to find out why we have a word like "defense" and not "fense;" so with Nixon, that was no accident. Lyndon Johnson's number one word was "tonight," because he was the first to give the address on prime time television. The State of the Union was originally just, like, this document and was really long and kind of boring, but around the Civil War, you got this bump. Lincoln's number one word was "emancipation."