A Design Challenge: What if Nixon, Lincoln, or Bush Were Running Again?

By Steven Heller

An exhibit on display in New York shows MFA students reinterpreting past presidents' tenures for today.

sheller reelect banner.jpgRe Elect

Now that the GOP finally has chosen its presumptive candidate and the incumbent has begun his official campaign, we, the electorate, deserve an alternative. I'm not talking about Ron Paul, Donald Trump or Alec Baldwin. What this country needs (besides a five-cent cigar) is one of our former presidents back in the saddle. Sweep out the new and bring back the old.

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So, which of the United States' 43 past POTUSes, living or dead, would you vote for today—knowing, of course, what you already know about their respective pasts? Twenty students in the School of Visual Arts MFA Design / Designer as Author and Entrepreneur program, which I co-chair with Lita Talarico, were given the task of retrofitting campaign strategies for 20 of the 43, who were selected at random. Some had to re-cast our mythic heros (George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and JFK), while others celebrated the lesser knowns (Franklin Pierce, Warren G. Harding, and William Howard Taft). One even had to spin a new narrative for the disgraced Richard Nixon. In the mix are one-termers who are getting a second chance, like Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and the assassinated William McKinley. And we have a few former military presidents, Theodore "San Juan Hill" Roosevelt and Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower, who endure satiric scrutiny.

Seen together, the individual displays now on view under patriotic bunting and the title Re Elect: Old Presidents, New Candidates at New York City's Visual Arts Gallery until May 26, provides an exercise in how to brand long-gone leaders and make them relevant today.

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The project was conceived by Kevin O'Callaghan, who is known for his monumental exhibitions of repurposed objects in politically and socially conceptual exhibits. His most famous work, Yugo Next, involved 35 students each transforming a real Yugo automobile into alternative functional objects, including a humungous telephone, functioning barbeque, and an actual Catholic confessional. For Re Elect, he provided each student with a pre-constructed podium on a platform, a 15-foot-high wall with nothing on it, and the name of a president. The students' responsibility was to use the podium as a major or minor element in their design, fill the background with a strong, two- or three-dimensional image, and otherwise have free reign on how they metaphorically caricatured or illustrated their respective candidates.

The George W. Bush podium and all the things representing his tenure are hung from the ceiling, upside-down. The labels are purposely misspelled, as well.

The presentations run the gamut. Miao Zhao's Harry S. Truman podium is actually a large barbeque grill in the shape of the atomic bomb, referencing the president's decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shawn Sprockett's Bill Clinton features two podiums under the banner "Billary," with an iPad app specially designed to promote the Clintons' dual candidacy. Jennifer Lee designed a sequin-studded Ronald Reagan chapel, where devotees could pray at the altar of the GOP god.

The project was also an exercise in civics. Little did Francesco Izzo know that Franklin Pierce, elected in 1853, presided over a country on the verge of civil war and managed to appeal to both factions. "Known for his very social character and charisma, he would likely express his personality by creating a way to gather people and introduce himself to them," says Izzo, who built "Frank's Social Hub," a sidewalk espresso bar, as "[Pierce's] way to entertain constituents over a cup of coffee, discussing with them the nation's issues and priorities."

Jose Fresneda points out that Warren G. Harding still stands as the president who has been elected by the biggest margin over his opponent. "This was mainly because of the fact that he looked like a president and was a very charismatic person," Fresneda says. "His speeches never went beyond his porch, yet they still became events that thousands of people would attend." So, Fresneda postulates that in a modern setting, he would be able to broadcast his whole campaign and reach a wider audience. He created "The Warren G. Show," a morning talk program, "where his personality is able to shine through as he demonstrates his values and beliefs, all over a nice cup of Joe."

William Howard Taft, the 27th President (1909-1913), was the only president to later serve as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court (1921-1930). For this reason, Janine Toro created a campaign called "Taft of All Trades," which highlights his versatility as president. "I played with Taft's humorous accomplishments during his presidency—and made reference to when he got stuck in the White House bathtub," Toro says. Speaking of humor, tragic and otherwise, Nada Seet's George W. Bush is based on the idea that "being a great president does not mean achieving greatness. It does not mean courage. It does not mean world peace." So her Bush podium and all the things representing his tenure are hung from the ceiling, upside-down. The labels are purposely misspelled, as well.

There are more serious, respectful displays. Lizzy Showman's Abraham Lincoln highlights the 16th president's powerful words. Lincoln is represented with excerpts from his best speeches, which literally jump off the wall in 3D with the aid of specially designed glasses. Likewise, Makiko Higashi's Calvin Coolidge display is a tour de force of engineering, made from hundreds of gears, wheels, and cogs. Higashi notes Coolidge was a president during the prosperous and rapidly industrializing period of the 1920s. "'Less Talk. More Action' is a slogan I created to reflect Coolidge's attitude in the fast-changing America of his time," Higashi says. "The scale of the mini-podium and the mechanical parts covering the wall represent the critical role the Coolidge administration played in the modernizing and development of the American economy."

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Some of the displays capture sympathetic views. Jenny Rozbruch revisits the "Accidental President," Gerald Ford, the only commander-in-chief who was never elected to an office higher than Congress. He assumed the vice presidency when Spiro Agnew resigned and, shortly after, became president after Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, and is best remembered for his pardon of Nixon. But his most important role may have been bringing honesty and stability back into the White House after Watergate. "While Ford was often portrayed as an uncoordinated klutz," Rozbruch says, "he was actually one of the most athletic presidents in history. A star football player who was voted MVP at the University of Michigan, Ford maintained a deep love for the game the rest of his life." Her campaign strategy underscores Ford's strengths as an athlete, and uses this theme to highlight his often-forgotten accomplishments as president.

Emotion runs deep in Thai Truong's campaign for Richard Nixon. While acknowledging all the president's misdeeds resulting in the Watergate scandal, Truong's searing display of Nixon as butcher derives from this thought: "Imagine Nixon giving his campaign to a Cambodian designer, a designer whose family were affected by Operation Menu."

Each piece in Re Elect offers a three-dimensional narrative that tells a more or less accurate story. In history, truth does not always win out, but in this reelection opportunity, viewers get a chance to decide which of these candidates they would vote for today—if the absurd metaphysical opportunity to do so arose.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/a-design-challenge-what-if-nixon-lincoln-or-bush-were-running-again/256978/