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Executive summaries

October 5, 2008

A print from artist'a  R. Luke DuBois's "Hindsight is Always 20/20" exhibition.

The prints in artist R. Luke DuBois's "Hindsight is Always 20/20" exhibition take the form of eye charts based on the most commonly used words in State of the Union addresses.

Weisman exhibition reflects the vision of our presidents

By Rick Moore

Artist R. Luke DuBois has put a new spin on the standard Snellen eye chart found in the offices of optometrists.

Most eye charts have 11 lines of single block letters, and the letters decrease in size with each line to help test our eyes' acuity. DuBois offers a different type of examination. Using a database, he sorted State of the Union addresses from U.S. presidents according to word frequency and put the most common words in eye chart form. The result is an exhibition of 41 prints titled "Hindsight is Always 20/20," which runs at the Weisman Art Museum through January 4.

The 66-word charts reveal the concerns and the vocabularies of our leaders through various eras—westward expansion, slavery, depression, and times of war.

"We wanted to present this exhibition because we're involved in a year-long project at the Weisman that looks at democracy and citizenship," says Weisman associate curator Diane Mullin. "Here's another perspective on those themes—using database technology to create art and to critique how information is presented in a democratic society."

DuBois is a musician and composer by training who lives in New York and teaches at Columbia University and New York University. Presenting lists of information is a theme of his work; other DuBois projects have analyzed the Academy Awards, Billboard magazine's Top 40 charts, and other iconic lists from American pop culture.

"I was trying to represent canonicity—how we make lists of things and in effect canonize them," he says. "I examined how that process works in a democracy, how we ascribe value to things that aren't necessarily democratically chosen. For example, to get a hit on the Billboard charts, you have to have major corporations behind your music. This is fundamentally undemocratic, but we think of these as lists of the best in society, when indeed that's not quite true."

E = ?

The prints in "Hindsight" are arranged throughout adjoining rooms in the Weisman in chronological order by presidency, and the top three lines of each list grab the viewer like a two-inch headline on a newspaper.

James Madison, president from 1809-1817.

Theodore Roosevelt, president from Jr., 1901-09.

Part of the intrigue with "Hindsight" can be jumping around from room to room at the Weisman and guessing the president—or at least the era—based on the top word or the first few words:

As you might guess, that was the number one word in the State of the Union address from Herbert Hoover, who presided over the country during the Great Depression.

Lyndon B. Johnson, during the Vietnam war.

Was that the top word from Abraham Lincoln? No, it was from James Buchanan, who was president from 1857-1861. Lincoln's top word was EMANCIPATION.

And there are some interesting juxtapositions to be found, especially in words that appear together. JOBS AHEAD is in the third line of Franklin D. Roosevelt's print; REALIZE HOPES in the second line of John F. Kennedy's; and VIETNAM TRY in the second line for Lyndon B. Johnson.

Then there is the most frequently used State of the Union word for our first and current presidents. George Washington's is GENTLEMEN, while George W. Bush's is TERROR. In fact, the next three lines for Bush are just as clear in illuminating our era and his presidency:


DuBois is especially intrigued by the comparisons of Washington and Bush. "Had George Washington lost the election 250 years ago, he would have been hanged for treason to the British crown and gone down in history as a terrorist, yet his number one word is ‘gentlemen.'"

"Had George Washington lost the election 250 years ago, he would have been hanged for treason by the British crown and gone down in history as a terrorist, yet his number one word is 'gentlemen.'"

While "Hindsight" is clearly visual—as well as metaphorical—DuBois's work is never far removed from his musical background. "Everything I do I think of as music," he says. "Even these eye charts I think of as music or poetry. I don't think of myself as a visual artist, I think of myself as a composer."

And so it makes sense that another event related to "Hindsight" is focused on music. On October 11 the Weisman will present "HearSIGHTED," an evening of music, dancing, food, and drink in conjunction with the "Hindsight" exhibit. You can hear electronic music performances by U students and catch a special performance by DuBois at 9:30 p.m. For more information, see Hindsight/HearSIGHTED.

Christopher James also contributed to this article.