Extract

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Contemporary Art Daily].

Artist Spiros Hadjidjanos has been using an interesting technique in his recent work, where he scans old photographs, turns their color or shading intensity into depth information, and then 3D-prints objects extracted from this. The effect is like pulling objects out of wormholes.

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Contemporary Art Daily].

His experiments appear to have begun with a project focused specifically on Karl Blossfeldt’s classic book Urformen der Kunst; there, Blossfeldt published beautifully realized botanical photographs that fell somewhere between scientific taxonomy and human portraiture.

[Image: By Spiros Hadjidjanos, via Stylemag].

As Hi-Fructose explained earlier this summer, Hadjidjanos’s approach was to scan Blossfeldt’s images, then, “using complex information algorithms to add depth, [they] were printed as objects composed of hundreds of sharp needle-like aluminum-nylon points. Despite their space-age methods, the plants appear fossilized. Each node and vein is perfectly preserved for posterity.”

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed].

The results are pretty awesome—but I was especially drawn to this when I saw, on Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed, that he had started to apply this to architectural motifs.

2D architectural images—scanned and translated into operable depth information—can then be realized as blurred and imperfect 3D objects, spectral secondary reproductions that are almost like digitally compressed, 3D versions of the original photograph.

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed].

It’s a deliberately lo-fi, representationally imperfect way of bringing architectural fragments back to life, as if unpeeling partial buildings from the crumbling pages of a library, a digital wizardry of extracting space from surface.

[Image: Via Spiros Hadjidjanos’s Instagram feed].

There are many, many interesting things to discuss here—including three-dimensional data loss, object translations, and emerging aesthetics unique to scanning technology—but what particularly stands out to me is the implication that this is, in effect, photography pursued by other means.

In other words, through a combination of digital scanning and 3D-printing, these strange metallized nylon hybrids, depicting plinths, entablatures, finials, and other spatial details, are just a kind of depth photography, object-photographs that, when hung on a wall, become functionally indistinct from architecture.

Shell

[Image: “Vaulted Chamber” by Matthew Simmonds].

While writing the previous post, I remembered the work of Matthew Simmonds, a British stonemason turned sculptor who carves beautifully finished, miniature architectural scenes into otherwise rough chunks of rock.

[Image: “Sinan: Study” by Matthew Simmonds].

Simmonds seems primarily to use sandstone, marble, and limestone in his work, and focuses on producing architectural forms either reminiscent of the ancient world or of a broadly “sacred” character, including temples, church naves, and basilicas.

[Image: “Basilica III” by Matthew Simmonds].

You can see many more photos on his own website or over at Yatzer, where you, too, might very well have seen these last year.

[Image: “Fragment IV” by Matthew Simmonds].

Someone should commission Simmonds someday soon to carve, in effect, a reverse architectural Mt. Rushmore: an entire hard rock mountain somewhere sculpted over decades into a warren of semi-exposed rooms, cracked open like a skylight looking down into a deeper world, where Simmonds’s skills can be revealed at a truly inhabitable spatial scale.

(Previously: Emerge).

The Drowned World

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

Artists Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton’s project Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime simultaneously explores the history of different geographic projections—including how these have been used to misrepresent and distort the earth’s surface—and at the future of that earth in an era of rising sea levels.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As Factum Arte explain, their chosen geographic projections offer “a way of engaging with the Earth from different points of view, and reflect historical ways of mapping the world from the Greeks to Google Earth.”

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

The projections are milled into beautiful 3D topographic models, with the vertical axis exaggerated to allow for changes in altitude to become visible.

The Andes, for example, become an abrupt spine of skyscraping pinnacles on the edge of an otherwise dead-flat continent, and deep-sea plains become spiky fields of underwater needles and pins.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

As the artists write, “distortion was used because without it the globe’s surface would appear almost totally flat”—which interestingly suggests that representational distortion, with a great deal of irony, is actually central to giving our planet geographic legibility.

To map it or to know it, the implication seems to be, you must first alter it.

[Image: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

This is only half the project, however.

The artists refer to Terra Forming as “a cartographic response to the advent of the Anthropocene“—which is why the resulting topographic models are then flooded.

[Images: From Terra Forming: Engineering the Sublime by Adam Lowe and Jerry Brotton].

“The installation will mimic the passage of time as well as space,” Factum Arte write, “by flooding the world with water over several days, until we reach current sea levels; the world will then be flooded completely, leaving us with a drowned world, a prescient image for those parts of the world facing rising sea levels, as well as those such as parts of the Arabian Peninsula which is trying to reclaim land from the sea.”

You can watch a short video of the project’s gradual submergence on Vimeo—or embedded below.



And you can read much more about the project over at Factum Arte.

This Is Only A Test

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

Photographer Daniel Stier has a new book out, and an accompanying exhibition on display at the kulturreich gallery, called Ways of Knowing.

Skier’s photos depict human subjects immersed in, or even at the mercy of, spatial instrumentation: strange devices conducting experiments that function at the scale of architecture but whose purpose remains unidentified.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

In Stier’s words, the overall series is “a personal project exploring the real world of scientific research. Not the stainless steel surfaces bathed in purple light, but real people in their basements working on selfbuilt contraptions. All shot in state of the art research institutions across Europe and the US, showing experiments with human subjects. Portrayed are the people conducting the experiments—students, doctorands and professors.”

In recent interviews discussing the book, Stier has pointed out what he calls “similarities between artistic and scientific work,” with an emphasis on the craft that goes into designing and executing these devices.

However, there is also a performative or aesthetic aspect to many of these that hints at resonances beyond the world of applied science—a person staring into multicolored constellations painted on the inside of an inverted bowl, for example.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

Ostensibly an ophthalmic device of some kind, it could just as easily be an amateur’s attempt at OpArt.

In a sense, these are not just one-off scientific experiments but spatial prototypes: rigorous attempts at building and establishing a very particular kind of environment—a carefully calibrated and tuned zone of parameters, forces, and influences—then exposing people to those worlds as a means of testing for their effects.

[Image: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

In any case, here are a few more images to pique your curiosity, but many, many more photos are available in Stier’s book, which just began shipping this month, and, of course, over at Stier’s website.

[Images: From Ways of Knowing by Daniel Stier, on display at the kulturreich gallery].

(Originally spotted via New Scientist).

Art Arm

[Image: “Untitled #13,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

San Francisco-based designer and architect Andrew Kudless is always up to something interesting, and one of his most recent projects is no exception.

For a new group of small works called “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014), Kudless is exploring how robots might make visual art—in this specific case, by combining the instructional art processes of someone like Sol Lewitt with the carefully programmed movements of industrial machinery.

[Image: The robot at work, from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

In Kudless’s own words, “The work is inspired by the techniques of artists such as Sol Lewitt and others who explored procedural processes in the production of their work. The script, or set of rules, as well as the ability or inability of the robot to follow these instructions is the focus of the work. There is almost a primitive and gestural quality to the drawings created through the tension between the rules and the robot’s physical movement. Precisely imprecise.”

[Image: “Untitled #16,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

These giant robot arms, he continues, “are essentially larger, stronger, and more precise version of the human arm. Made up of a series of joints that mimic yet extend the movements of shoulder, elbow, and wrist, the robot has a wide range of highly control[led] motion. The real value of these robots is that, like the human arm, their usefulness is completely determined by the tool that is placed in its hand.”

So why only give robots tools like “welding torches, vacuum grippers, and saws,” he asks—why not give them pencils or brushes?

[Image: “Untitled #6 (1066 Circles each Drawn at Different Pressures at 50mm/s),” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

The results are remarkable, but it’s specifically the unexpected combination of Lewittian instructional art with industrial robotics that I find so incredibly interesting. After all, Kudless ingeniously implies, it has always been the case that literally all acts of industrial assembly and production are, in a sense, Sol Lewitt-like activities—that conceptual art processes are hiding in plain sight all around us, overlooked for their apparent mundanity.

It’s as if, he suggests, every object fabricated—every car body assembled—has always and already been a kind of instructional readymade, or Sol Lewitt meets Marcel Duchamp on the factory floor.

With these, though, Kudless throws in some Agnes Martin for good measure, revealing the robot arms’ facility for minimalist lines and grids in a graceful set of two-dimensional drawings.

[Image: “Untitled #7 (1066 Lines Drawn between Random Points in a Grid),” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

Kudless explains that “each of the works produced in this series was entirely programmed and drawn through software and hardware”:

None of the lines or curves was manually drawn either within the computer or in physical reality. Rather, I created a series of different scripts or programs in the computer that would generate not only the work shown here, but an infinite number of variations on a theme. Essential to the programming was understanding the relationships between the robot and human movement and control. Unlike a printer or plotter which draws from one side of the paper to the other, the robot produces the drawings similarly to how a human might: one line at a time. The speed, acceleration, brush type, ink viscosity, and many other variables needed to be considered in the writing of the code.

Various drawing styles were chosen to showcase this.

[Image: “Untitled #15 (Twenty Seven Nodes with Arcs Emerging from Each),” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

[Image: “Untitled #3 (Extended Lines Drawn from 300 Points on an Ovoid to 3 Closest Neigh[bor]ing Points at 100mm/s)” (2014) from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

[Image: “Untitled #12,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

[Image: “Untitled #14,” from “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 1” (2014) by Andrew Kudless].

There are many more drawings visible on Kudless’s website, and I am already looking forward to “Scripted Movement Drawing Series 2.”

You can also purchase one of the prints, if you are so inclined; contact the Salamatina Gallery for more information.

(Very vaguely related: Robotism, or: The Golden Arm of Architecture).

100 Views of a Drowning World

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

I’ve mentioned the work of artists Kahn & Selesnick before; their surreal narratives are illustrated with elaborately propped photos that fall somewhere between avant-garde theater and landscape fiction, with mountain glaciers, salt mines, alien planets, utopian cityscapes, and, as seen here, the slowly flooding marshes of an unidentified hinterland.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

These images are from a new project, called Truppe Fledermaus & The Carnival at the End of the World, that opened at New York’s Yancey Richardson gallery last week. “Utilizing photography, drawing, printmaking, sculpture and performance,” the gallery writes, “the artists create robust mythic realities for each project, building imaginary, character-driven fictions from kernels of obscure historical truth.”

Kahn & Selesnick’s latest project follows a fictitious cabaret troupe—Truppe Fledermaus (Bat Troupe)—who travel the countryside staging absurd and inscrutable performances in abandoned landscapes for an audience of no one. The playful but dire message presented by the troupe is of impending ecological disaster, caused by rising waters and a warming planet, the immediate consequences of which include the extinction of the Bat, in this mythology a shamanistic figure representing both nature and humanity. In one sense, the entire cabaret troupe can be seen as a direct reflection of the artists themselves, both entities employing farce and black humor to engage utterly serious concerns.

The particular scenes shown here, all on display until July 3, 2014, are from a sub-series within the project called “100 Views of a Drowning World.”

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

Eccentric residents of a drowning landscape live lives indistinguishable from absurdist stagecraft, as they wander through seemingly wild landscapes that are actually ruins and that will eventually all disappear beneath the deceptively placid tidal flats flowing around them.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

These anonymous coastal dwellers simulate a nature that is already artificial—a kind of maritime grotesque of overgrown animal forms and humans buried beneath ropes and seaweed—and they set off on doomed expeditions through terrains whose original inhabitants have long been forgotten.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

Lone figures in boats look out into what will soon be sea, attempting to navigate land as if it is already an ocean.

[Images: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

And others attempt to escape into some new strain of Romanticism, witnesses of large-scale terrestrial change who know that this moment on the Earth is rare—though not unique—for the extraordinary transitions that lie over the horizon.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

In the end, then, the idea is not that these characters’ actions somehow represent or propose a new humanist response to climate change, or that the artists are offering us any sort of practical or ethical insight into what futures might face us in a drowned world, but that these absurd rituals and dreamlike antics instead simply illustrate “a world that is sinking into a marsh.”

It is, as the show’s title suggests, just a carnival at the end of the world.

[Image: Kahn & Selesnick, courtesy Yancey Richardson].

The Yancey Richardson gallery is on W. 22nd Street, over near the High Line; be sure to stop by before July 3. Here is a map and here are more images.

Roentgen Objects, or: Devices Larger than the Rooms that Contain Them

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

An extraordinary exhibition last year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured mechanical furniture designed by the father and son team of Abraham and David Roentgen: elaborate 18th-century technical devices disguised as desks and tables.

First, a quick bit of historical framing, courtesy of the Museum itself: “The meteoric rise of the workshop of Abraham Roentgen (1711–1793) and his son David (1743–1807) blazed across eighteenth-century continental Europe. From about 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s, the Roentgens’ innovative designs were combined with intriguing mechanical devices to revolutionize traditional French and English furniture types.”

Each piece, the Museum adds, was as much “an ingenious technical invention” as it was “a magnificent work of art,” an “elaborate mechanism” or series of “complicated mechanical devices” that sat waiting inside palaces and parlors for someone to come along and activate them.

If you can get past the visual styling of the furniture—after all, the dainty little details and inlays perhaps might not appeal to many BLDGBLOG readers—and concentrate instead only on the mechanical aspect of these designs, then there is something really incredible to be seen here.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

Hidden amidst drawers and sliding panels are keyholes, the proper turning of which results in other unseen drawers and deeper cabinets popping open, swinging out to reveal previously undetectable interiors.

But it doesn’t stop there. Further surfaces split in half to reveal yet more trays, files, and shelves that unlatch, swivel, and slide aside to expose entire other cantilevered parts of the furniture, materializing as if from nowhere on little rails and hinges.

Whole cubic feet of interior space are revealed in a flash of clacking wood flung forth on tracks and pulleys.

As the Museum phrases it, Abraham Roentgen’s “mechanical ingenuity” was “exemplified by the workings of the lower section” of one of the desks on display in the show: “when the key of the lower drawer is turned to the right, the side drawers spring open; if a button is pressed on the underside of these drawers, each swings aside to reveal three other drawers.”

And thus the sequence continues in bursts of self-expansion more reminiscent of a garden than a work of carpentry, a room full of wooden roses blooming in slow motion.

[Images: Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The furniture is a process—an event—a seemingly endless sequence of new spatial conditions and states expanding outward into the room around it.

Each piece is a controlled explosion of carpentry with no real purpose other than to test the limits of volumetric self-demonstration, offering little in the way of useful storage space and simply showing off, performing, a spatial Olympics of shelves within shelves and spaces hiding spaces.

Sufficiently voluminous furniture becomes indistinguishable from a dream.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

What was so fascinating about the exhibition—and this can be seen, for example, in some of the short accompanying videos (a few of which are archived on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website)—is that you always seemed to have reached the final state, the fullest possible unfolding of the furniture, only for some other little keyhole to appear or some latch to be depressed in just the right way, and the thing just keeps on going, promising infinite possible expansions, as if a single piece of furniture could pop open into endless sub-spaces that are eventually larger than the room it is stored within.

The idea of furniture larger than the space that houses it is an extraordinary topological paradox, a spatial limit-case like black holes or event horizons, a state to which all furniture makers could—and should—aspire, devising a Roentgen object of infinite volumetric density.

A single desk that, when unfolded, is larger than the building around it, hiding its own internal rooms and corridors.

Suggesting that they, too, were thrilled by the other-worldly possibilities of their furniture, the Roentgens—and I love this so much!—also decorated their pieces with perspectival illusions.

[Image: Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

The top of a table might include, for example, the accurately rendered, gridded space of a drawing room, as if you were peering cinematically into a building located elsewhere; meanwhile, pop-up panels might include a checkerboard reference to other possible spaces that thus seemed to exist somewhere within or behind the furniture, lending each piece the feel of a portal or visual gateway into vast and multidimensional mansions tucked away inside.

The giddiness of it all—at least for me—was the implication that you could decorate a house with pieces of furniture; however, when unfolded to their maximum possible extent, these same objects might volumetrically increase the internal surface area of that house several times over, doubling, tripling, quadrupling its available volume. But it’s not magic or the supernatural—it’s not quadraturin—it’s just advanced carpentry, using millimeter-precise joinery and a constellation of unseen hinges.

[Images: Photos courtesy of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art].

You could imagine, for example, a new type of house; it’s got a central service core lined with small elevators. Wooden boxes, perhaps four feet cubed, pass up and down inside the walls of the house, riding this network of dumbwaiters from floor to floor, where they occasionally stop, when a resident demands it. That resident then pops open the elevator door and begins to unfold the box inside, unlatching and expanding it outward into the room, this Roentgen object full of doors, drawers, and shelves, cantilevered panels, tabletops, and dividers.

And thus the elevators grow, simultaneously inside and outside, a liminal cabinetry both tumescent and architectural that fills up the space with spaces of its own, fractal super-furniture stretching through more than one room at a time and containing its own further rooms deep within it.

But then you reverse the process and go back through in the other direction, painstakingly shutting panels, locking drawers, pushing small boxes inside of larger boxes, and tucking it all up again, compressing it like a JPG back into the original, ultra-dense cube it all came from. You’re like some homebound god of superstrings tying up and hiding part of the universe so that others might someday rediscover it.

To have been around to drink coffee with the Roentgens and to discuss the delirious outer limits of furniture design would have been like talking to a family of cosmologists, diving deep into the quantum joinery of spatially impossible objects, something so far outside of mere cabinetry and woodwork that it almost forms a new class of industrial design. Alas, their workshop closed, their surviving objects today are limited in number, and the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is now closed.

Captive America: An Interview with Alyse Emdur

[Image: Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur].

Earlier this year, Venue published an interview with Los Angeles-based photographer Alyse Emdur discussing her project Prison Landscapes. I thought Emdur’s work—a look at the unexpected landscape paintings used as photographic backdrops in prison waiting rooms throughout the United States—deserved a second look, so I am re-posting the interview here.

Venue, of course, is a joint project between BLDGBLOG and Nicola Twilley of Edible Geography, and it is supported by the Nevada Museum of Art‘s Center for Art + Environment.

The full interview, along with its original introduction, appears below.

[Image: Prison Landscapes, published January 2013 by Four Corners Books].

Some of the most unsettling examples of contemporary landscape painting in the United States are to be found in its prison visiting rooms, where they function as visual backdrops for family photographs.

[Image: James Bowlin, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur. Note the fake trout].

Ranging in subject matter from picturesque waterfalls to urban streetscapes, and from ski resorts to medieval castles, these large-format paintings serve a dual purpose: for the authorities, they help to restrict photography of sensitive prison facilities; for the prisoners and their families, they are an escapist fiction, constructing an alternate reality for later display on fridge doors and mantlepieces.

With nearly 2.3 million Americans in prison today—an astonishing one out of every hundred adults in the United States, according to a 2008 Pew study (PDF)—this school of landscape art is critically overlooked but has a mass-market penetration comparable to the work of Thomas Kinkade. And, like Kinkade’s work, these backdrops—which are usually painted by talented, self-taught inmates—are simultaneously photo-realistic and highly idealized. Cumulatively, they represent a catalog of imagined utopias: scenes from an abstracted and perfect elsewhere, painted from behind bars.

[Image: Prison Visiting Room Backdrop, Shawangunk Correctional Facility, New York; photograph by Alyse Emdur. Unlike the family portraits, Emdur’s own large-format photographs deliberately show the prison context that surrounds the backdrop landscape, for an unsettling contrast].

Several years ago, artist Alyse Emdur was looking through a family album when she came across a photo of herself as a little girl, posing in front of a tropical beach scene while visiting her elder brother in prison. She spent the next few years exploring this surprising body of vernacular landscape imagery, tracking down examples across the United States.

[Image: Emdur family photo in front of prison visiting room backdrop; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

At first, she wrote to prison administrators to ask permission to photograph the backdrops herself—a request that was inevitably firmly denied. Instead, she joined prisoner pen-pal sites, asking inmates to send her pictures of themselves posed in front of their prison’s backdrops; through this method, Emdur eventually assembling several hundred photos and more than sixteen binders full of correspondence. Finally, in summer 2011, she gained permission to visit and photograph several prison visiting room backdrops herself.

[Image: Michael Parker and Geoff Manaugh looking at Alyse Emdur‘s correspondence and work in Emdur’s studio space; photograph by Venue].

Venue visited Emdur’s studio in downtown Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, as she was collecting all this material for a book, Prison Landscapes, published in January 2013 by Four Corners Books. After a studio tour conducted by her partner, artist Michael Parker, we followed up with Emdur by phone: the edited transcript of our conversation follows.

• • •

[Image: Alyse Emdur‘s large-format photographs of prison visiting room backdrops on her studio walls; photograph by Venue].

Nicola Twilley: From the hundreds of photographs that prisoners sent you, as well as the ten or so backdrops that you were able to photograph yourself, it seems as though there is almost a set list of subject matter: glittering cityscapes, scenes of natural landscapes, like beaches and sunsets, and then historical or fantasy architecture, such as medieval castles. Did you notice any patterns or geographic specificity to these variations in subject matter?

Alyse Emdur: You do see some regional realism—so, prisons in Washington State will have evergreen trees in their backdrops, prisons in Florida will have white sand beaches, and prisons in Louisiana will have New Orleans French Quarter-style features. There’s also the question of where the prisoners are from: one thing that I’ve observed is that in upstate New York, for example, many of the prisoners are actually from New York City, so many of the backdrops in upstate New York prisons show New York City skylines.

Fantastical scenes are actually much less common—from what I gather from my correspondence, realism is like gold in prison. That’s the form of artistic expression that’s most appreciated and most respected, so that’s often the goal for the backdrop painter.

[Image: Brandon Jones, United States Penitentiary, Marion, Illinois; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

Twilley: Do you have a sense of how you get to be a backdrop painter—do inmates chose amongst themselves or do the prison authorities just make a selection? And, on a similar note, how much artistic freedom does the backdrop painter actually have, in terms of needing approval of his or her subject matter from fellow inmates or the authorities?

Emdur: That’s one of the questions that I’ve asked of all the backdrop painters who I’ve been in touch with over the years. The answer is always that if you are a “good artist” in prison, then you’re very well-respected within the prison—people in the prison all know you. You’ll be making greeting cards for people or you’ll be doing hand calligraphy for love letters for friends in prison—you’ll be known for your skills. The prison administration is already aware of the respected artists, because they shine within the culture, and so they are usually the ones that are chosen. And when you’re chosen, it’s a huge honor.

[Image: Genesis Asiatic, Powhatan Correctional Center, Statefarm, Virginia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

Something to keep in mind, though, is that backdrops do get painted over. In some prisons, the backdrop can change a few times a year.

One of the artists I’ve kept in touch with is Darrell Van Mastrigt—I interviewed him for the book, and he painted a backdrop for me that was in my thesis show. In the prison that he’s in, the portrait studios are organized by the NAACP. He said that the NAACP had seen his paintings in the past, and when they selected him, they gave him creative control over what sort of landscape he chose to paint.

Obviously, there are some rules. The main restriction is that you can’t use certain colors that are affiliated with gangs. So, for instance, Darrell painted a mural with two cars and they had to be green and purple—they couldn’t be red or blue. But, from what Darrell has told me and from what I understand from other painters, they don’t get much input from other prisoners. At the same time, they’re very conscious of wanting to please people and maintain their status within the prison, of course, and they get a lot of pleasure out of doing something positive for families in the visiting room.

One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].

Another interesting thing a painter told me was that she was very conscious of not wanting to do a specific, recognizable cityscape, because she knew that not everyone in the prison was from the city. So she deliberately tried to paint a more abstract landscape that she thought anyone could relate to. And a lot of imagery they work from is from books in the prison library, rather than just their memories.

Twilley: In some of the photographs you were sent, the prisoners are in front of off-the-shelf printed backdrops—some offering multiple pull-down choices—rather than hand-painted ones. Are these standardized commercial backdrops gradually replacing the inmate-produced landscapes?

Emdur: The backdrop-painting tradition is definitely still vibrant and strong, but my sense is that these store-bought backdrops are becoming more and more common.

For one thing, the hand-painted backdrops are not always as realistic as a photograph, and, often, the prisoners and their families are looking to create the illusion that they really are somewhere else. So, the more realistic, the better. When I went to photograph a backdrop in one New York State prison, I found an amazing hand-painted mural of a New York City skyscraper with a cartoon-like Statue of Liberty in front—she almost looked alive. But it had been completely covered up by a pull-down, store-bought, photographic backdrop of the New York City skyline. I tried to photograph the backdrop in Fort Dix Federal Prison in New Jersey and they told me that they had just painted over the hand-painted backdrop and replaced it with a commercial photography backdrop.

[Image: Small prints of Emdur‘s backdrop photographs on her studio wall, alongside a few examples of her extensive collection of self-help books; photograph by Venue. Note the hand-painted cityscape featuring the Statue of Liberty on the left].

Of course, another thing is that it’s easier to buy a backdrop than it is to engage with a prisoner, you know? And attitudes vary from prison to prison. In some prisons, you’ll find murals throughout the facility, not just in the visiting rooms. I went on a tour of a privately-operated women’s prison in Florida, for instance, that lasted four hours because there were paintings everywhere—in all the hallways, dorm rooms, and offices. The PR person who assisted me on that tour explained that having prisoners paint murals is really a way to keep them busy and out of trouble, so they saw it as a really positive activity.

Of course, I see these paintings as a way for people in prison to temporarily escape the architecture and culture of confinement, and that’s what makes them so important for me.

[Image: Antoine Ealy, Federal Correctional Complex, Coleman, Florida; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

Twilley: There’s an uncomfortable overlap between the escapism of the landscapes and then the other purpose of the backdrops, which is to not allow photographs of the prison interior to get out.

Emdur: Yes—I found that really concerning. The prison administration either thinks that photographs of the interior of the prison could help inmates escape or, at the very least, the administrators are trying to control the imagery of the prison that reaches the outside world.

During my research, I’ve been trying to figure out how long these kinds of backdrops have been used. From prison administrators to PR people to wardens and prisoners, everyone told me they don’t even remember—these kinds of painted backdrops have been used in visiting rooms for as long as they can remember. I’ve spoken to a sixty-five-year-old warden who just said, “You know, they’ve been here longer than I have.”

[Image: Robert RuffBey, United States Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

I do know that at some point in the last twenty years, companies came along that would charge inmates to substitute in a different backdrop. If you’re a prisoner and you have a photograph of yourself or yourself and your kids in front of the painted backdrop in the visiting room, then you could send your photograph to one of these companies and they would take out the painting and then put in a Photoshop background. That’s not very common at all, but it’s pretty bizarre—one fake landscape being replaced by another.

Going along with that is the replacement of Polaroid with digital photography. All these portraits were Polaroid up until the last five to ten years, I would say. Some prisons still use Polaroids, but from what I gather, it’s basically all digital now.

[Image: One of sixteen binders full of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].

One thing to remember is that all the prisons have slightly different rules and they all organize their prison portrait programs differently. In most state and federal prisons in America, the only place where a prisoner can be photographed is in front of these backdrops, and the only time they can be photographed in front of the backdrops is when they have a visitor—but, then, there are all these exceptions.

At some prisons, for instance, you can get your picture taken at special events, like graduations or holiday parties. Then, some prisons have murals elsewhere in the prison, not in the visiting room, that you can sign up once a month or something to have your picture taken in front of.

[Image: Kimberly Buntyn, Valley State Prison for Women, Chowchilla, California; photograph courtesy Alyse Emdur].

This question of the kinds of images of prisons that are allowed out is quite interesting. In fact, I’m working with a photographer who’s been in prison for almost 30 years in Michigan, on what I think will be my next book. In the 1970s and 80s, he ran the photo lab in Jackson Prison, and he was in charge of developing and printing all the inmates’ photographs. At that time, the rules of photography were very different in prison—there just weren’t as many rules, basically. This guy has hundreds of photographs from all over Jackson State Prison.

It’s just fascinating to see the differences between these very staged and framed visiting room portraits and the reality of the prison as seen through this guy’s eyes—through an insider’s eyes. I think his situation was extremely rare when it happened, but today it’s totally unheard of. The majority of photographs that come out of prisons today are these visiting room portraits. I suppose some prisoners are smuggling cell phones with cameras into prison, but those images aren’t easy to find!

[Images: Sixteen binders’ worth of letters and prisoner portraits have been mailed to Emdur over the course of her project; photographs by Venue. Several of Emdur‘s pen-pals adopted the so-called “prison pose“—a low crouch—while others incorporated props or flexed their muscles].

Geoff Manaugh: Both Nicky and I were amazed by the amount of correspondence you’ve gathered in the process of researching these backdrops—binder after binder organized and shelved in your studio—but I can’t imagine that it’s been easy to edit it all down into a book, or to get releases from all the prisoners, for example. How has that process worked?

Emdur: It’s been really tough. With 2.3 million Americans in prison today, just think how many of these portrait studio photographs there are circulating in family albums and frames all across the country. A big part of me wants to document more and more and more. But, for a book, I figured it was really important to step back a little bit and not go crazy, and instead try to focus and pull out the different genres of backdrops and the different poses and the stories.

In terms of the process of getting releases, that was a huge effort. As you know, I collected the images through contacting prisoners on pen-pal websites. I sent out something like 300 letters and about 150 inmates responded really quickly with photographs of themselves in front of these backdrops.

A lot of prisoners are looking for engagement with the outside world, so it was very easy to collect the images. The challenging thing was getting releases for publication. Tracking down people who’d been released was one thing. For minors, we wanted to get our release approvals from both the incarcerated parents and also from the non-incarcerated parents, and that really was challenging.

[Image: A binder of letters and prisoner portraits mailed to Emdur; photograph by Venue].

But, really, the most difficult thing for me about this project is just how emotionally challenging it is—how draining it is—to correspond with hundreds of people who have a very different reality than I have and live a very different life than I do and who don’t have the privileges that I would normally take for granted.

The relationship between the incarcerated and the free is a very complex relationship, and that’s something that I’m interested in showing in the book, and that I hope comes out in the correspondence.

• • •

For more Venue interviews, focusing on human interactions with the built, natural, and virtual environments, check out the Venue website in full.

Meanwhile, Michael Parker—the artist who showed us around the studio space he shares with Alyse Emdur—has some projects of his own worth checking out, in particular, his work Lineman, which documents, in film, photographs, and interviews, “an electrical lineman class at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College” where adult students learn “how to become power-pole technicians.”

Awakener

A few examples of landscapes waking up after long periods of time lying dormant have been in the news recently.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

First, there is artist Maria Thereza Alves’s “ballast seed garden” project, called Seeds of Change, which arose from a moment of revelation:

Between 1680 and the early 1900s, ships’ ballast—earth, stones and gravel from trade boats from all over the world used to weigh down the vessel as it docked—was offloaded into the river at Bristol. This ballast contained the seeds of plants from wherever the ship had sailed. Maria Thereza Alves discovered that these ballast seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years, but that, by excavating the river bed, it is possible to germinate and grow these seeds into flourishing plants.

While Alves seems not to have literally dug down into the old layers of the river in order to harvest her seeds—instead sourcing contemporary examples of species known to have sprouted from mounds of ballast over the last few hundred years—her project nonetheless has the character of a long-lost landscape waking up, popping up like a refugee amidst the rubble in a return to visibility.

[Images: The ballast garden, via Facebook].

This idea of accidental ballast gardens—heavily detoured landscapes-to-come lying patiently in wait before springing back to life several centuries after their initial transportation—is incredible; I might even suggest parallels here with such 21st-century problems as how we might sterilize spacecraft before sending them offworld, to places like Mars, lest we, in a sense, bring along our own bacterial “ballast” and thus unwittingly terraform those distant locations with escaped landscapes from Earth. Might we someday culture “ballast gardens” on other planets from the tiniest of remnant organic compounds found on our own ancient and dismantled ships?

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

Meanwhile, in a headline that reads like something straight out of Stanislaw Lem or H.P. Lovecraft, we read that “Nunavut’s Mysterious Ancient Life Could Return by 2100 as Arctic Warms.” In other words, forests that thrived in the hostile conditions of “Canada’s extreme north” nearly three million years ago might return to re-colonize the landscape as the region dramatically warms over the next century due to climate change.

This is a relatively mundane resurrection—after all, it is just a forest—but even the suggestion that future climate conditions on Earth might re-awaken ancient ecosystems, dormant environments in which humans might find it less than easy to survive, is an incredible cautionary tale for the future of the planet. That, and this story offers the awesomely mythic image of human explorers wandering across the thawing earth of the far north as strange and ancient things bloom from cracks in the ground around them.

[Images: Various herbaria pages].

In both cases, I’m reminded of an essay published in Lapham’s Quarterly a few years ago, by novelist Daniel Mason. There, Mason writes about “nature’s return,” a scenario in which dormant and waylaid seeds thrive on the rubble of the present-day landscape. “In the dusty cracks between the concrete, seedlings would germinate, grow,” Mason writes, heralding unpredictable landscapes to come.

[Images: More herbaria pages].

However, referring to these remnant seeds left over from older landscapes, Mason writes that “most would not germinate straight away,” even if given free rein over an empty field or cracked streetscape. “Rather,” he adds, these seeds “would lodge in microscopic nooks and crannies, some to be eaten or crushed, others to be paved over, but most, simply, to wait. A square meter of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of seeds persisting in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be woken from their slumber. After the fire brigades rescued the London Natural History Museum from German incendiaries, Albizia silk-tree seeds bloomed on their herbarium sheets, liberated from two hundred years of dormancy by the precise combination of flame and water.”

A square meter of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of seeds persisting in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be woken from their slumber. In Mason’s words, this return of dormant life “suggests the parallel existence of a hidden world, fully formed, simply awaiting the opportunity for expression.”

Whether dredging up old riverbeds full of ballast from previous centuries, or watching new storms form over the Arctic, bringing back climates unseen for millions of years, what might yet wake up from the ground around us, return from dormancy, resurrect, as it were, and make itself at home again on a planet that thought it had since moved on?

(Ballast garden link spotted via Katie Holten).

Striper

Speaking of the accidental artistry of colorful street markings, artist Simon Rouby became fascinated by the ongoing painting and repainting of traffic lines on the freeways and streets of Los Angeles, like some vast and unacknowledged readymade art project.

[Images: Photos by Simon Rouby for “Yellow Line“].

Could this huge urban painting apparatus be temporarily repurposed, Rouby wondered—leading him to contact Caltrans directly and embark upon a project with the rather straightforward name of “Yellow Line.”

That project, Rouby explains, introduced him “to the California Transportation ‘Striping Crew.’ I followed them while they poured miles of yellow paint onto the concrete of Los Angeles. With them I got to know the biggest and most congested network of freeways in the United States, and built my understanding of Los Angeles, a gigantic city where people meet everyday, but at 60 miles per hour on the freeways. Millions of cars per day, from which 75% drive alone, despite traffic and smog.”

“We also did canvases,” Rouby adds, “painted directly with their trucks.”

[Image: From “Yellow Line” by Simon Rouby].

Nonetheless, it’s not those canvases but the project’s most basic conceptual move—putting the Caltrans striping crews into the same context as, say, Jackson Pollack or Marcel Duchamp—that interests me the most here, implying new possibilities for interpretation, even whole new futures for art history and landscape criticism, with this recognition of avant-garde projects going on disguised as the everyday environment.

[Image: From “Yellow Line” by Simon Rouby].

Pushing this further, the transportation system itself becomes an earthworks project that dwarfs the—by contrast—embarrassingly unambitious Michael Heizer or Robert Smithson, revealing Caltrans, not Field Operations or any other white-collar design firm, as one of the most high-stakes landscape practitioners—a parallel civilization of mound builders hidden in plain sight—at work in the world today.

In any case, Simon Rouby’s “Yellow Line” is on display at the Caltrans District 7 Building—100 South Main Street, Los Angeles—until 28 September 2012.

Star Wheel Horizon

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

After posting a project by Jimenez Lai back in January, Lebbeus Woods got in touch with an earlier project of his own, called Horizon Houses (2000).

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

In his own words, the Horizon Houses are “are spatial structures that turn, or are turned, either continuously (the Wheel House) or from/to fixed positions (the Star and Block Houses).

They are structures experimenting with our perception of spatial transformations, accomplished without any material changes to the structures themselves. In these projects, my concern was the question of space. The engineering questions of how to turn the houses could be answered by conventional mechanical means—cranes and the like—but these seem clumsy and inelegant. The mechanical solution may lie in the idea of self-propelling structures, using hydraulics. But of more immediate concern: how would the changing spaces impact the ways we might inhabit them?

These self-transforming, perpetually off-kilter structures would, in a sense, contain their future horizon lines within them, as they rotate through various, competing orientations, both always and never completely grounded.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

Each house in the series thus simultaneously explores the visual nature—and spatial effect—of the horizon line and the vertical force of gravity that makes that horizon possible.

As Woods phrases it, “Gravity is constantly at work on the materials of architecture, trying to pull them to the earth’s center of gravity. An important consequence is that this action establishes the horizon.” However, he adds, “in the absence of gravity there is no horizon, for example, for astronauts in space. It is from this understanding that Ernst Mach developed his theory of inertia frames, which influenced Albert Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity”—but, that, Woods says, “is another story.”

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Star House, seen immediately above and below, was what brought Woods to comment on the earlier post about Jimenez Lai; but the other “ensemble variations,” as Woods describe them, while departing formally from the initial comparison with Lai’s own project, deserve equal attention here.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The circular form of the Wheel House, for instance, literalizes the stationary-but-mobile aspect of the project.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

It also compels the house always to be on the verge of moving again, unlike the jagged, semi-mountainous points of the Block and Star Houses.

[Images: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

The Block Houses appear to be in a state of barely stabilized wreckage following an otherwise unmentioned seismic event—which is fitting, as the rest of Woods’s descriptive text (available on his website) offers seismicity as a key force and generative parameter for the project. If the earth itself moves, what sort of architecture might embrace and even thrive on that motion, rather than—unsuccessfully—attempt to resist a loss of foundation?

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

To say that these buildings thus exist in a state of ongoing catastrophe would be to fixate on and over-emphasize their instability, whereas it would be more productive to recognize that each house rides out a subtle and unique negotiation of the planet—where “the planet” is treated less as a physical fact and more as a gravitational reference point, an abstract frame of influence within which certain architectural forms can take shape.

In other words, the urges and pulls of gravity might nudge each house this way and that—it might even pull them over into a radically new orientation—but the architecture remains both optically sensible against its new horizon line and, more importantly, inhabitable.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods (with additional design and modeling by Paul Anvar)].

Taken together, this family of forms could thus roll, wander, and collapse indefinitely through the gravitational fields that command them.

[Image: From Horizon Houses (2000) by Lebbeus Woods].

For a bit more text related to the project, see Woods’s own website.