The Wreckage, The Collapse

I’ve been thinking about two art installations lately—one from the 1980s, the other from 2008—that remain interesting beyond their admittedly obvious metaphoric value.

The first is the aptly named Samson by Chris Burden, an installation piece from 1985.

[Image: An installation view of Samson (1985) by Chris Burden, courtesy Zwirner & Worth].

Samson was “a museum installation consisting of a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The 100-ton jack pushes two large timbers against the bearing walls of the museum. Each visitor to the museum must pass through the turnstile in order to see the exhibition. Each input on the turnstile ever so slightly expands the jack, and ultimately if enough people visit the exhibition, Samson could theoretically destroy the building.”

The idea that attendees might not know this—that they could continue to visit the gallery unaware of the purpose or function of this massive device sitting there in the middle of the room, disastrously expanding millimeter by millimeter with every click of the turnstile—haunted me for days after first studying this back in college. Perhaps the artist gets drunk on the night of the opening and doesn’t fully explain what the piece does, or perhaps far more people show up than anyone had expected, the wall-text is obscured by human bodies, and the outward pressure of the machine relentlessly builds. And builds.

The end is built into the very working of the machinery, even while the moment of its long-promised collapse remains impossible to anticipate.

The other is the technically and aesthetically fascinating slow-motion car crash of Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle.”

The “sculpture is a machine that advances two full sized automobiles slowly into one another over a period of 6 days, simulating a head on automobile collision. Each car moves about three feet into the other. The movement is so slow as to be invisible.”

The tectonic effects of the ensuing collision are incredible to watch; this would be hugely useful, it seems, in a geology lab, for demonstrating the movement of faults. Slow it down even more—not days, but weeks, months—and you could watch whole mountain ranges, basins, folds, and troughs form in stressed and crumpling landscapes of different materials over the course of an entire semester.

Two forces, oppositely oriented, appear at first glance to be still, their mutual ruination—gorgeous, unstoppable—already underway.

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).

Art + Environment, Landscape Futures, and a Million Reasons to Visit Reno

[Image: From Modeling the Universe by Linda Fleming, courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art].

The Nevada Museum of Art’s Center for Art + Environment—which, three years after its founding, “remains the only research institute in the world devoted to the subject of creative interactions with natural, built, and virtual environments”—is hosting its second Art + Environment Conference this year.

The line-up is incredible. From 29 September-1 October, at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, expect to hear from Edward Burtynksy (whose extraordinary Oil series will be on display at the museum in 2012), Chris Jordan, Amy Franceschini, Fritz Haeg, Jorge Pardo, Alexander Rose of the Long Now Foundation, Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison, Leo Villareal, William L. Fox, and nearly two dozen others, including a panel featuring architects Liam Young, from Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today, and Mark Smout & Laura Allen, authors of Pamphlet Architecture #28: Augmented Landscapes, moderated by none other than Bruce Sterling.

Expect to hear about such topics as “Designing for Longevity,” “Designing the Wild and Cultivating the City,” “Designing Architectures for Environmental Change,” “Farming in the Future,” and “Altering the Landscape,” among many others, including an announcement from Nicola Twilley and I about a major cultural and landscape research project we will be undertaking together in 2012.

The Museum has also recently announced a discounted student rate for conference tickets, so definitely consider attending; Reno is presumably not a city you would otherwise find yourself passing through on a regular basis, but it’s not a bad drive up from San Francisco, Las Vegas, or even Los Angeles, and there will be tons to see and do.

Also on display at the Nevada Museum of Art during the conference, for instance, will be a massive show called The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment, whose gorgeous, full-color catalog published by Rizzoli and featuring contributions by Lucy Lippard and W.J.T. Mitchell, will also be available at the Conference.

[Image: The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment edited by Ann M. Wolfe].

You can then walk down the hall to see Fog Garden: The Architecture of Water. Quoting at length:

People have been using dew from fog as a source of drinking water for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that scientists in Chile and elsewhere began measuring the moisture content of clouds and designing structures to collect it.
During the last five years, several groups of architects have been testing small models of fog collectors in the Atacama Desert, a place where it has not rained in recorded history, and fog is the only source of moisture.
Working with the Atacama Desert Center and students from the Catholic University in Santiago, architect Rodrigo Pérez de Arce is overseeing the creation of models for a large-scale complex of structures, the Fog Garden, that would collect enough water to both support a garden and satisfy the needs of a nearby village. This exhibition is the first time these structures have been displayed, and along with sample building materials and documentation, form an archive that is important to artists, architects, and scientists.

And then onward from there to see Shirin Neshat’s film Passage

[Images: From Passage by Shirin Neshat, courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art].

—before stopping in to see Linda Fleming’s awesomely intricate “models of the universe.”

[Image: From Modeling the Universe by Linda Fleming, courtesy of the Nevada Museum of Art].

And that’s barely half of what will be on display during the conference.

You’ll also be able to see Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation by Newton & Helen Mayer Harrison; that will consist of “a 30-foot-long map of the mountain range, topographical sketches of its seventeen principal watersheds, and aerial photographs of sites in the Truckee and Yuba watersheds.”

Australia’s Murray River, a “series of sustainable design solutions” exploring “overlaps and adjacencies between architecture and landscape” by conference presenter Richard Black, will also be on display nearby.

Not last—as there will be several smaller exhibitions up, as well—and, I hope, also not least, is Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions. Landscape Futures features work by a group of absolute all-stars:

—David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang from The Living
—Mark Smout & Laura Allen from Smout Allen
David Gissen
—Mason White & Lola Sheppard from Lateral Office & InfraNet Lab
Chris Woebken
Liam Young

[Image: “Electric Aurora” by Liam Young, from Specimens of Unnatural History].

I am especially honored to be the curator of this exhibition, able to have commissioned new work from many of the exhibitors, and to be the editor of a forthcoming book that will document the exhibition in full, including last winter’s Landscape Futures Super-Workshop. That book will feature several outside contributions, and is being designed by Atley G. Kasky of, among other things, but does it float.

I will be writing more about both the exhibition and the book soon, but keep it on your radar, if it sounds like something that might be of interest.

[Image: From The Active Layer by Lateral Office; photo by Michelle Litvin].

In any case, there are a million reasons to attend the Center for Art + Environment Conference this year, as I hope the above post makes clear; consider getting a group of friends or colleagues together to spend the weekend up in Reno, a city you might not otherwise be visiting any time soon (and where you can wear bald eagle t-shirts with abandon and gamble till the sun comes up—not to mention visit the National Bowling Stadium), and dive into an incredible range of exhibitions, talks, and programs.

Further, if you’re a student or educator, also think about the possibility of bringing a whole class to attend; between the conference participants and the museum’s exhibitions, think of it as a weekend super-workshop for art, architecture, and the global environment.

Read more at the conference website.

Extreme agricultural statuary

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I mentioned a recent issue of Mark Magazine the other day, but I deliberately saved one of the articles for a stand-alone post later on. That article was a long profile of the work of Philip Beesley, a Toronto-based architect and sculptor, whose project the “Implant Matrix” BLDGBLOG covered several years ago.

In issue #21 of Mark, author Terri Peters describes several of Beesley’s projects, but it’s the “Endothelium” that really stood out (and that you see pictured here).

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Peters refers to Beesley’s work as a “lightweight landscape of moving, licking, breathing and swallowing geotextile mesh” – a kind of pornography of ornament, or the Baroque by way of David Cronenberg. “Inspired by coral reefs,” she continues, “with their cycles of opening, clamping, filtering and digesting,” Beesley’s biomechanical sculpture-spaces are “immersive theatre environments” in which “wheezing air pumps create an environment with no clear beginning or end.”

I’m reminded of the penultimate scene in James Cameron’s film Aliens, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) meets the alien “queen.” The queen is laying eggs, we see, through a gigantic, semi-prosthetic, peristaltically-powered external ovarian sac – and the scene exemplifies the encounter with the grotesque in all its H.R. Giger-influenced, sci-fi extremes. Put another way, if organisms, too – not just buildings – can reach a point of ornamental excess, then James Cameron’s aliens are perhaps exhibit number one.

[Images: Screen grabs from James Cameron’s Aliens].

In any case, Beesley’s work is a fascinating hybrid of advanced textile design, geostructural modeling, and rogue biology experiment. Peters’s descriptions of the “Endothelium” are worth quoting at length:

[The structure consists of] a field of organic “bladders” that are self-powered and that move very slowly, self-burrowing, self-fertilizing and are linked by 3D printed joints and thin bamboo scaffolding. The bladders are powered using mobile phone vibrators and have LED lights. It works by using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile.

This latter detail – “using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile” – brings to mind something at the intersection of an improvised explosive device (or IED) and a green roof: you hire Philip Beesley to design a landscape-machine for installation atop a new building downtown, and, over the course of many decades, it vibrates, yeast-bursts, rotates, crawls, and grows through extraordinary cycles of grotesque architectural fertility. A solar-powered landscape of mold and microroots, generating its own soil. Within a few years, the original sculpture it all came from is gone, archaeologically undetectable beneath the vitality of the forms that have consumed it.

One wonders what Philip Beesley would think of the mushroom tunnel of Mittagong.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Elsewhere in the article, Peters writes:

Endothelium is an automated geotextile, a lightweight and sculptural field housing arrays of organic batteries within a lattice system that might reinforce new growth. It uses a dense series of thin “whiskers” and burrowing leg mechanisms to support low-power miniature lights, pulsing and shifting in slight increments. Within this distributed matrix, microbial growth is fostered by enriched seed-patches housed within nest-like forms, sheltered beneath the main lattice units.

I’m a bit rhetorically stuck on “between” statements, I’m afraid, but it’s as if Beesley’s work falls somewhere between a loaf of sourdough bread and a sculpture by Jean Tinguely.

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’m curious, meanwhile, if you could bury a Philip Beesley sculpture in the woods of rural England somewhere, and allowed it to articulate new ecosystems slowly, over the cyclic course of generations. In fact, I’m reminded of an article in the New York Times last week, spotted via mammoth, in which we learn that two abandoned landfills in Brooklyn have since been used as unlikely foundations for new ecosystems:

In a $200 million project, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection covered the Fountain Avenue Landfill and the neighboring Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill with a layer of plastic, then put down clean soil and planted 33,000 trees and shrubs at the two sites. The result is 400 acres of nature preserve, restoring native habitats that disappeared from New York City long ago.

“Once the plants take hold,” the article adds, “nature will be allowed to take its course, evolving the land into microclimates.” But what if those weren’t landfills down there but sculptures by Philip Beesley? Strategically sown seed-patches and gel packs of yeast wait underground for new roots to rediscover them.

It’s living geostatuary, buried beneath the surface of the earth – a kind of extreme agriculture, with soil-preparation by Philip Beesley.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’d genuinely like to see what Beesley might do if he was hired by, say, a NASA R&D program dedicated to terraforming other planets. Could you fly a modular, self-unfolding Philip Beesley sculpture into the depths of radiative space, land it on a planet somewhere, and watch as revolting pools of bacteriological mucus begin to coagulate and form new fungi?

Beesley’s whiskered vibrators begin to shiver with signs of piezoelectric life, as small crystals surrounded by radio transmitters and genetically engineerined space-seed-patches imperceptibly tremble, evolving into mutation-prone “organic batteries” unprotected beneath starlight. Give it a thousand years, and vast infected forests, the width of continents, take hold.

You’ve colonized a distant planet through architecture and yeast.

For more, check out Mark Magazine‘s issue #21. Beesley’s also got a book out, called Hylozoic Soil, that I would love to read.

Milled landscapes / Michael Heizer

The question is whether you could hook-up a milling machine to the earth itself. Rather than exact, laser-cut incisions made into boards of hardwood, you would mill entire landscapes out of the open surface of the earth.

This could start small – cutting foundations, bore holes, etc. – but should immediately expand to include larger examples of terrestrial engineering: landscape architecture, earthworks, gardens, perhaps even dikes, dams, and other flood containment systems. The earth-miller could be operated like an ordinary, programmable milling machine today: you input the design required, the exact sequence and dimensions of the cuts, and the machine sets out, milling a new landscape into existence.

In a recent *New York Times Magazine* profile of earthworks/land-sculptor Michael Heizer, we read about “‘City,’ [Heizer’s] own version of Easter Island or Angkor Wat: a modernist complex of abstract shapes – mounds, prismoids, ramps, pits – to be spread across the valley. It was to be experienced over time, in shifting weather, not from a single vantage point or from above but as an accumulation of impressions and views gathered by walking through it. (…) ‘City,’ in its vastness, was meant to synthesize ancient monuments, Minimalism and industrial technology. The work derived inspiration from Mississippian tumuli (ancient North American mounds), the ball court at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan and La Venta in southern Tabasco… At the same time, it suggested airport runways and Modernist architecture.” (Michael Kimmelman, “Art’s Last, Lonely Cowboy”: 6 Feb 05).

Despite – or perhaps because of – the size of Heizer’s “City” (somewhere between the Washington Mall and Central Park, apparently), it’d be perfect for an earth-miller. Several programmable machines with self-sharpening mechanical grinders, pavement saws and rock sanders – and perhaps viab/nozzles, mentioned in an earlier post – set to work. It takes days, weeks even, but then it’s done: the milled landscape of a new earth, abstract volumes glowing in the sunlight.

‘Animaris Mammoth’

At the risk of repeating another article, I’ll just quote liberally instead: Lakshmi Sandhana writes in *Wired* (24 Jan 05: *Wild Things Are on the Beach*) about Theo Jansen, an artist ‘evolving an entirely new line of animals: immense multi-legged walking critters designed to roam the Dutch coastline, feeding on gusts of wind.’ ‘His latest creations contain lemonade bottles in their body structure into which the wind is slowly pumped, enabling the creature to walk for a couple of minutes afterward. (…) He says a future version – a 12-ton behemoth, big enough to have several rooms inside – could be called the Animaris Mammoth.’
A friend of Jansen’s, Carl Pisaturo, another robotics designer, refers to a collapsed Jansenian creature as ‘a tipped-over, short-circuited machine half-buried in beach sand’ – surely outdoing the end of *Planet of the Apes*, or at least competing.
So could you do that with a building? It captures wind in huge flexible sacks that gradually return to normal size, pumping the air into a complex network of pneumatic tubing; these then power the elevators, vents, and whatever else you need. The plumbing perhaps. When you go through the doldrums of a windless Spring, the building effectively shuts down. But in a windstorm, you’d be forgiven for thinking the building was artificially intelligent. Constant motion, unpredictable internal rearrangements.
Artificial intelligence through wind. An architectural version of the Aeolian harp. Covered in sails and windsacs. A huge architectural lung, traveling slowly over the coastal landscape, fourteen thousand years after humans have gone extinct.
And then it collapses…