In The Infinity Engine (2014 - 2017), artist Lynn Hershman Leeson offers a concentrated experience of the contemporary debate over the implications of genetic modification and other emerging biotechnologies. The multimedia installation traces the movement of these technologies through society from inception in the laboratory to eventual acceptance into living human bodies. For me, a layperson, the The Infinity Engine awakens a disheartening awareness of the uncertainty of our biological future and my own lack of agency.
Visitors enter The Infinity Engine through a two-channel video installation depicting a bioengineering laboratory. The video evokes in me a complex and contradictory emotional response: curiosity and frustration, suspicion and guilt. One channel shows a drab, dimly lit hallway blocked at the end by a pair of closed doors. Over the slow course of several minutes, the camera approaches the end of the hallway, rebounds, and retreats backwards, always keeping the closed doors in view. The long sojourn in the empty hallway, combined with the tantalizing glimpses beyond the door are a cinematic shell game, an obvious ploy that nonetheless makes me feel both curious and excluded.
Next to the projection of the empty hallway, a second video channel shows the laboratory itself, a cluttered maze populated by scientists in white lab coats. Admittance to the inner sanctum piques my curiosity, but also, paradoxically, makes me feel more excluded. The camera, held at waist level, makes me feel like a child lost in the laboratory. The space is full of machines that look like sophisticated dishwashers and refrigerators and boilers as well as inscrutable countertop appliances that tremble and twirl. A dramatic close-up of a fleshy triangular object — a bioengineered nose — reveals the ultimate product of the scientists’ efforts. The purposeful movements suggest a complex coordination that is hidden from view. Yet we are ostentatiously excluded from understanding the way that the activities of the scientists converge to produce this miracle. The video is silent, and the faces of the scientists are rendered unreadable by deep shadows added in post-production.
I can hardly disclose my foiled curiosity without also mentioning the dreadful suspense I feel as I watch the video. The inescapable gloom of the long hallway, the blue-green tint of the laboratory, and the faceless people in white robes all contribute to this sense of foreboding. It is a mark of our times (or perhaps merely of my acculturation into the enthusiastic technoculture of the Bay Area) that I feel guilty at my unease. I feel that I am doubting the beneficence of science, assenting to a nebulous anti-scientific skepticism. And how different, I wonder, is this skepticism from the much-ridiculed skepticism of the anti-vaccer or creationist?
Passing through the video installation into the main room of The Infinity Engine, I’m surprised at the persistence with which the installation is grounded in the ethical uncertainties and constraints of the present. Hershman Leeson muses in an interview about The Infinity Engine, “you have have designer babies…and in a sense that’s’ biological censorship…there’s one company that can erase part of your memory…if they can erase memories, maybe they can put in memories.” Yet in the installation itself, she eschews the vivid dystopias of Brave New World and the more recent Black Mirror. Instead, The Infinity Engine juxtaposes the concrete benefits already afforded by emerging biotechnologies with contemporary struggles over access, control, and ownership.
The emotional intensity of The Infinity Engine comes from the sincerity of Hershman Leeson’s engagement with scientists and cynics alike, as well as her characteristic use of irony. The iconic wallpaper catalogs bioengineered crops and farm animals, each captioned with the motivation for their development: “Increase milk production” — “Reduce the population of the dengue fever based mosquito” — “Resistance to slugs.” Interviews with biologist Elizabeth Blackburn show the Nobel laureate still shining with quiet excitement as she relates the details of her 1984 co-discovery of telomerase. I was genuinely inspired by a promotional video for regenerative medicine, produced by Hershman Leeson, in which Luke Masala, a healthy 19 year-old boy mowing the lawn shirtless in the summer heat, reveals that he was given an artificial bladder grown from his own cells when he was 9 years old. Elsewhere, in reports from the OECD, FDA and WHO with titles like “Safety Considerations for Biotechnology” and “Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology,” and in interviews with sociologist Troy Duster and artist Oron Catts, the installation gives voice to earnest criticisms and proposed solutions for the problems of biotechnology.
Yet always, the struggle to harness the potential of biotechnology is dominated by experts: scientists and engineers, economists and judges, all of whose activity is made to seem incomprehensible. In the video of the laboratory, the scientists’ movements are emptied of meaning by silence, fragmentation, and by careful framing that keeps the material transformations of chemicals into living tissue hidden just out of sight. In the next room a tongue-in-cheek invitation — “Visitors are welcome to read through the patent infringement cases” — belies the overwhelming prospect of hundreds of pages of patent filings, Supreme Court opinions, and technical reports, labeled clearly, but unordered and without any explanation. The only amateur response to biotechnology modeled by the installation is Luke Masala’s uncritical “woooow!” Likewise, the aestheticized 3D-printed ear and tank of genetically modified fish offer visitors an opportunity to practice passive, uncomprehending amazement, but little else.
Irony and sincerity jostle against each other in The Infinity Engine. Hershman Leeson has long used irony in her work. In her 1975 Roberta Breitmore Construction Chart, Hershman Leeson annotates a photographic portrait of her eponymous alter-ego with “suggested alterations”: “reshape lips” and “add: false eyelashes.” The satisfying bite of the Construction Chart comes from the sharp contradiction between the cosmetic instructions and their intended interpretation. In The Infinity Engine, a science fair poster situates contemporary “biomaterials” in a historical lineage of medical intervention beginning with ancient Egyptian wooden prosthetics — earnestly illustrated with a grotesque photograph of a desiccated, mummified foot. Another poster advertising an experimental regenerative medicine program for ‘Wounded Warriors’ leaves untouched the senseless violence of war itself. By far the most dramatic ironic gesture is the floor-to-ceiling riff on The Creation of Adam, reinterpreted for the laboratory with gloved hands and syringes. This brazen, kitschy image touches at once the opposition of religious groups to genetic modification, the hubris of scientists — and, more subtly, suggests that, left alone, scientists will create the future in their own image.
I leave The Infinity Engine the way I came, past the eerie video installation. On my way out, I catch sight of myself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors opposite the projection, where it looks like I, too, am walking purposefully through the laboratory. Feeling uncertain and helpless, I wonder again where I fit into the laboratory and its bioengineered future. Perhaps the resignation of The Infinity Engine would be a comfortable relief. Yet somehow, against this “laugh that leaves one with no breath at all,”1 I am determined to cling to the possibility of ethical action in the face of scientific progress.
1: Sontag, Susan. “The Aesthetics of Solitude” in Studies of Radical Will. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
Winston Churchill once said, “We make our buildings and afterwards they make us.” The same is true of technology. Linear perspective,1 the printing press,2 the camera,3 the computer;4 these technologies have changed irreversibly the way the world appears to us, how we relate to each other, and the way we see ourselves. Digital display technology is poised now to effect a similar transformation in the way that we see the world. Already ubiquitous on cellphone screens, digital images will become increasingly inseparable from physical reality with the spread of augmented and virtual reality technologies. In her show of digital installation art at the Stanford Art Gallery, artist Camille Utterback offers a critique of the digital screen and a hopeful exploration of the possibilities of an augmented reality which is deeply based in the physical world.
The digital screen aspires to be both universal and invisible, a transparent window onto the world. In the conference room and classroom, smooth white projection screens roll down from the ceiling; on laptops and cellphones, retina displays and anti-glare film and vanishing bezels suppress the material presence of the screen. Limited in its early days by low resolution and color depth, the contemporary screen claims to contain all images: pornography as well as piety, gore as well as graphs. Utterback’s glass projection sculptures in Sustaining Presence dismantle the false neutrality of the digital screen and expand the possible meanings of the digital image.
In fact, transparency has become (or always was) essential to the definition of the digital screen. Radiant Cache presents video footage of trees is projected into thick glass tablets - rectangular, like most screens the world over. The projected images are hazy and punctuated by ghostly bubbles and impurities beneath the surface of the glass. In one tablet, a charcoal-dark cloud inside the tablet nearly extinguishes the moving image. This dark blot reads clearly as an interruption of the screen. Other impurities are puddles of frosted white glass which focus and sharpen the projected video. The consistency of movement across the tablet indicates that the entire video is captured from the same scene. The folk wisdom that order gives way to disorder (but rarely the other way round) identifies the most precise patches of the image as those which are most faithful to the original scene. The fragments of frosted glass appear as the source of truth, the real window onto the subject of the image; in other words, the screen. The body of the tablet, conversely, is demoted to a mere backdrop, caught in limbo between screen and non-screen.
Light Field further undermines the transparency of the screen by highlighting the two-dimensionality of the projection surface. The title of this piece puns on the double meaning of “field” as both the flat, grassy habitat shown in the video footage, and, in physics, as a physical quantity present at all points in space (like the electromagnetic field, which gives rise to light). Visible from all sides, Light Field dissolves the illusion of the screen as a window. The slivered screens seem almost to offer slices of space and time carved out of another world and suspended in glass. Yet the video shows a head-on landscape view of the field, not a sectional cut through it. The rhythmic swaying of grass and wildflowers moving laterally across the screens traces the flat surface of the picture plane. In one glass orb, the projected footage follows the curving wisp of opaque glass through a smooth 180° turn. Paradoxically, the dramatic three-dimensionality of this screen heightens the apparent flatness of the projected image. Critic Clement Greenberg in 1961 framed a history of Modernist painting around the discovery of flatness as the defining quality of the medium.5 New media raise new questions. Today, the rapid proliferation of new kinds of illusionistic, three-dimensional depictions in augmented and virtual reality resurrect the question of flatness.
In Radiant Cache and Holding Water, the overlap between the visual forms of image and screen challenges the supposed universality of the screen. In Radiant Cache, footage of trees is projected into thick glass tablets - rectangular, like most screens the world over. But the projected images are hazy and punctuated by ghostly bubbles and impurities beneath the surface of the glass. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if regularities in the moving image come from the video, or the screen. In one tablet, charcoal-dark smudges in the glass which seem to extinguish the moving image masquerade as shadowed tree trunks. The videos appear clearly only in the small patches of each tablet where opaque frosted glass focuses the projected light. Closely-spaced stripes of opaque glass in one tablet seem to reveal the image of a palm leaf swaying in the wind. Yet, on close inspection, it’s hard to separate the fringe of the palm leaf in the video from the glass fringe under the surface of the screen. Video and screen blur and become entangled. Screen and video are uniquely suited to each other; separately, they would be diminished.
In Holding Water, oversize glass drinking vessels with frosted cups serve as screens for video footage of water projected from above. The functional associations of these drinking vessels reinforce the projected illusion of water, only to be undermined by the waterstriders and twigs skimming the surface. The videos fill the bottoms of the cups evenly, like real water, conjuring a “surface” where the projection ends. Between this imaginary riparian surface and the bottom of the cup is a space which could not exist on a classroom projection screen - the volume of the improbable virtual water itself. The piece offers yet another contradiction in the rightmost vessel, which is tilted so that the surface of the projected water hangs improbably at an angle, defying the physics which make the other projections so convincing. This pulling-apart reveals the latent tension between the presumed universality of the screen and the specificity of the image. This tension will find its resolution in augmented reality, where image and screen can fuse together in an inseparable media symbiosis.
Beyond the play of light and the movement of waves which constitute the illusion of water, the videos in Holding Water are dominated by shadows and reflected colors. The blue aura which recalls the glow of a computer screen in a dark room is surely that of the sky. In the tallest vessel, a yellowish-green gradient suggests trees leaning over the river, as do dark forms poking into the leftmost cup. The central goblet is filled with the trembling reflections of rushes swaying in the wind. The surface of the water is both a projected illusion in the gallery and, in nature, a screen for the reflected images of grass and trees. This duality is both a critique, and a comfort. Through the double distance of reflection and projection, Holding Water creates a self-conscious augmented reality which contains its own critique. Yet, in the analogy between natural reflection and artificial projection, Holding Water also reminds us that representational illusion long precedes augmented reality, and that it is a fundamental feature of the way we inhabit and interpret the world.
Marshall McLuhan writes that, “the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.”6 Augmented reality is here to stay; projects like Hololens, Magic Leap, and Oculus Rift will make sure of that. It remains to be seen what change of pattern or scale augmented reality will bring. In the words of anthropologist Sherry Turkle: “what remains timely is finding ways to work with simulation yet be accountable to nature.”7 In Sustaining Presence, Utterback has given us a good start.
Thanks to Abby LaPier for a wonderfully productive conversation which suggested many of the ideas in this piece.
When I first saw Sohei Nishino’s map of San Francisco at SFMOMA, I felt an inexplicable, irrational sense of resentment. Behind me, a teenager crowed to his friends: “I don’t even have to look at the label, I can tell that one is San Francisco.” Nishino’s map of San Francisco is instantly recognizable from a distance, but as I inspected its details, I felt indignant in spite of myself. Nishino’s city wasn’t the San Francisco that I knew. Missing were the familiar sights that dominate my memories of the city: Mission Street’s shabby bodegas and dollar stores; the bookshops and taquerias fronting on narrow, shaded sidewalks along 24th Street; the cliffs of Thornton State Beach, draped with spiky succulent sea fig.
Nishino’s Diorama Maps combine mapping and photography, two of our most powerful technologies for producing truths about places beyond our immediate experience. In recent decades, scholarship in critical cartography and widespread awareness of digital manipulation in photography have revealed each medium as purposeful and duplicitous. Yet this knowledge has done little to shake our faith in the truthfulness of either medium. Nishino’s show of cartographic photocollages now on view at SFMOMA explores the ease with which maps and photographs so often appear under the guise of truth. The two mediums are joined in Nishino’s work by an insight from cognitive psychology. Decades of research in the psychology of spatial perception have shown that maps, photographs, and lived experience linger and accumulate in the mind to form spatial mental models called cognitive maps. In his photocollages, Nishino uses cartography and photography to visualize his own cognitive maps. By combining these familiar media in pursuit of the internal and intangible cognitive map, Nishino sheds new light on the apparent truthfulness of maps and photographs.
Each of the artist’s Diorama Maps depicts a single city through thousands of his own photographs. Nishino wanders through the city on foot, snapping pictures from sidewalks and rooftops with a film camera. He uses every single photograph in the resulting collage, cutting and pasting contact prints to construct an expansive and personal image of the city. Nishino explained in a 2016 interview, “I create [my maps] based on my individual experiences and observations…everyone has a map of certain cities in their minds, depending on their experiences. That’s what I’m trying to capture.”
The notion that everyone has “a map of certain cities in their mind” was first systematically explored in the 1950s by urban planner Kevin Lynch. Using the tools of the psychologist, rather than the artist, Lynch and his collaborators interviewed dozens of city dwellers, asking them to sketch maps from memory or give instructions for traveling between two familiar places. Lynch synthesized the results of these surveys in schematic diagrams (below). These diagrams are tantalizing: they suggest that the accumulated experience of the city might be summarized and grasped at a glance. Lynch wrote that, “It was as if the map were drawn on an infinitely flexible rubber sheet; directions were twisted, distances stretched or compressed, large forms so changed from their accurate scale projection as to be at first unrecognizable…[but] the map was rarely torn and sewn back together in another order.”1 Lynch’s diagrams are remarkable in the way that they materialize mental maps, but are also narrow, inflexible, and purposefully stripped of emotional depth in favor of abstraction. Nishino’s procedure provides a new model for visualizing cognitive maps which is evocative and open-ended.
Nishino’s maps recall their cognitive counterparts in their deviations from textbook geography. Each Diorama Map is partial, fragmentary, and distorted. As in Lynch’s “rubber sheet” diagrams, landmarks, roads, and natural features are magnified, duplicated, misplaced, or omitted entirely. In Nishino’s map of San Francisco, Golden Gate Park and the Presidio are vastly enlarged, swollen with frisbee players and intrepid bathers, while the entire Southern half of the city is squeezed into a sliver at the bottom. The famous Victorian Painted Ladies match City Hall in height, and Twin Peaks appears twice, from different perspectives, as befits a landmark visible throughout the city. Each of these images is individually lifelike and credible. The distortions and omissions in the map arise from relationships between photographs. Indeed, the map is nothing more than a gestalt which emerges from the patterns of light and dark in the assembled images. The photographs wholly constitute the map. This extreme intimacy of map and photograph is novel, and it dramatizes the differences between the truth claims of each medium.
Susan Sontag wrote that, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality.”2 Historian of film Tom Gunning described this quality as photography’s truth claim. Gunning argued that the credibility of photographs as “miniatures of reality” arises from their unrivaled visual accuracy and their construction as the causal end-product of a deterministic physical process3. That is, Gunning argued that our scientific knowledge of the interaction between light and photographic chemicals endows the photograph with the appearance of objectivity. Nishino’s Diorama Maps extend Gunning’s argument by emphasizing that photographs claim a particular kind of truth: every photograph announces a personal, past experience. A painting or drawing may be inspired by past events, but it has no necessary connection to the past; the painter is free to show the never-was and the yet-to-be. Photographs are different. Our knowledge of the causal relationship between the photograph and the event it depicts marks the photograph as a representation of a past moment. Photographs are also distinctive for their mimicry of human visual perception. Produced by lenses which recall those in the human eye, photographs capture many of the essential features of human vision, like linear perspective. These qualities, familiar from our own visual experience, cue us to recognize the photograph as a representation of another person’s experience. In this way, photographs are always personal.
Maps, by contrast, claim universal truths. Where photographs invite empathetic identification, map projections show the world from a disembodied bird’s-eye. Divorced and abstracted from any corporeal vantage point or particular past time, the map seems unbound from particular human experiences. The impersonal map announces its contents to all viewers indiscriminately (it is precisely the universal quality of maps that give rise to disputes like this one on OpenStreetMap about whether Jerusalem should be labeled ירושלים or القدس). Further, maps derive authority from their usage in everyday life. We use maps to figure out when to leave or stay, where to go, and how to get there. There are other kinds of maps - historical, statistical, fantastic - but it is as navigation aids that maps are most widely and actively used. Unlike a photograph, which intrinsically represents the past, the map-as-navigation-aid is a promise about a place which anticipates future action. Such maps are useful only insofar as they correspond to the physical world they represent, and each map-aided journey completes a feedback loop which confirms the map as a truthful form by testing it against the real world.
By organizing his photographs in the shape of a map (or, alternatively, by populating each map with photographs), Nishino establishes a tension between the truth claims of these different mediums. The photographs personalize the map, making it a record of Nishino’s unique experience. At the same time, the map universalizes Nishino’s photographs so that each photograph appears as the truth of a particular place.
Standing in SFMOMA, it’s the overreaching photos, not the distorted maps, which I resent in Nishino’s Diorama Map of San Francisco. After all, we seldom have direct experience of the shapes of our cities. What’s more, cartographic distortions are commonplace in subway maps and in statistical maps, which claim to be all the more truthful as a result. Each photograph in a Diorama Map is bound by its cartographic context to fulfill the map’s promise of agnostic, reproducible truths about places. Yet this is an impossible task for a medium which is personal, fleeting, and fixed to the past.
We expect our cognitive maps to serve as truthful representations and reliable guides. Yet, because they are immaterial, made of nothing more than memories and sense impressions, they go uninspected; we seldom notice their gaps, omissions, and distortions. Someday, perhaps, technology could allow each of us to visualize our own cognitive map in a Sohei Nishino-style collage. Until then, Nishino’s maps will remind us to cultivate a healthy skepticism for spatial representation and to broaden our experience of the city by seeking the unknown: walking and biking to new neighborhoods, attending thoughtfully to details in the environment, and traveling unaccustomed paths.
Thanks to Abigail Kelly for reading this piece and giving wonderful, helpful feedback.
The best visual spectacle in the Bay Area right now is the show of digital installation art by Japanese art group teamLAB at Pace Art + Technology in Menlo Park. The show is a vast warren of dazzling sights: a narrow path through a forest of glowing LEDs, a cave full of projected flowers endlessly blooming and dying, a hazy world of dark waves stretching into infinity. The twenty artworks are beautiful, intricate, and masterfully executed, but they quickly blur together into a highbrow funhouse, a sophisticated trade show. The show is grounded in teamLAB’s homegrown theory of spatial perception and motivated by the group’s ambitions for social harmony and the advancement of Japanese art. These ideas might have elevated the show, but they are underdeveloped and unconvincing. Nevertheless, they suggest exciting new directions for inquiry into the relationship between culture and perception.
The show is anchored by a theory of spatial perception which teamLAB calls Ultra Subjective Space. This theory is teamLAB’s challenge to linear perspective, the system of spatial representation developed during the Italian Renaissance. In linear perspective, objects which are farther away from the viewer appear smaller, while Ultra Subjective Space shares with parallel projection the tendency for objects to climb vertically as they recede, without diminishing in size. Perspective originated as a geometric specification for representing space and shaped subsequent Western artistic output through its force as an idea. Against this, teamLAB developed Ultra Subjective Space by looking backwards. Beginning with the assumption that Japanese painting must have been silently guided by a system of spatial representation analogous to linear perspective, the group set out to uncover this hidden set of laws by recreating traditional Japanese paintings using digital modeling and rendering.
teamLAB is hardly the first group to think beyond linear perspective. Subverting linear perspective is by now a tradition almost as venerable as perspective itself. More than a hundred years ago, Cubism and other Modern movements broke the centuries-long hegemony of linear perspective over fine art in the West with paintings and manifestos exploring multiple vantage points. Yet today, perspective still dominates popular art through photography, film, animation, and illustration, and it maintains an exclusive claim on truth that other modes of spatial representation have been unable to match. For most Western viewers, perspectival spatial recognition is a reflexive habit, and familiarity blinds us to its pervasive presence, making it hard to adopt or even imagine alternatives.
Though the crusade against linear perspective is not new, teamLAB’s motivation for pursuing it is unique, forged from a combined belief in the power of Ultra Subjective Space to foster social harmony and advance the international appreciation of Japan’s classical cultural heritage. Toshiyuki Inoko, the founder of teamLAB, mused in a 2013 interview: “What if a visual approach different from Western spatial recognition took root and became the norm? If all of mankind were looking at the world in that spatial manner [of Ultra Subjective Space], before long the boundaries between man and his environment would stop making sense, and we might create a new kind of society and culture.” The mission of the show, then, is to make Ultra Subjective Space intelligible, palatable, and even natural.
Sadly, I found the earnest texts accompanying the artworks in the Menlo Park exhibition to be utterly unconvincing, full of ambitious unsupported claims which didn’t match my experience of linear perspective or of teamLAB’s artworks. teamLAB says that in Ultra Subjective Space, there is, “no barrier between the viewer and the projection surface,” and that viewers can, “can pretend to enter and move around freely within the space of the painting…without priority over anybody else.” Although Ultra Subjective Space is presented as an analogue of linear perspective, it is never precisely defined, either in terms of teamLAB’s computer models or by reference to classical Japanese writing on aesthetics. Because the mechanics of Ultra Subjective Space are never specified, it’s impossible to assess the truth of teamLAB’s claims, except through experience. Likewise, the supposed utopian effects of Ultra Subjective Space are so broad as to be meaningless (What kind of new society and culture might Ultra Subjective Space create? How would it change the relationships between people and nature?) In the absence of compelling verbal arguments for Ultra Subjective Space, the task of persuasion is left to the artworks themselves.
Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12, a lush animated narrative which unfolds simultaneously across twelve digital screens, demonstrates the three-dimensionality of Ultra Subjective Space. Modeled after paintings like the 17th century rakuchū rakugai zu (Scenes in and around the Capital), and Tale of Genji, Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 is unmistakably Japanese in style, an exemplar of Ultra Subjective Space. As the camera orbits through the depicted scene, the landscape changes smoothly, reassuring the viewer that this space, though it appears flat, has volume and depth enough to accommodate movement and multiple points of view. The animated images in Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 play on repeat, and shortly into each loop, the surface of the image begins to flake away to reveal a skeletal wireframe underneath. Drawn in the style of an engineering blueprint or physics diagram, this wireframe dramatizes the technological nature of the 3D digital model used to create the image. This wireframe is an abstracted representation of the world which is legible to Western viewers. It mediates between Japanese and Western forms of spatial recognition and lends the Japanese approach an aura of scientific credibility.
For me, Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 conveys the mechanics of Ultra Subjective Space without evoking its utopian effects. teamLAB argue that images using Ultra Subjective Space bring the viewer into harmony with nature by dissolving the boundaries between experiential and depicted space. Yet I find that entering the space of Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 is a struggle. I am still in thrall to linear perspective, and imagining myself convincingly in a scene means seeing it in perspective. I can easily paste myself like a paper doll onto the surface of Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12, but actually placing myself within the image requires an imaginative twist to warp isotropic space into linear perspective around my avatar. I find the image intelligible but inhospitable.
Recent findings from cultural psychology offer a means of reconciling my experience of Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 with teamLAB’s claims about Ultra Subjective Space. Psychologists Sean Duffy, Shinobu Kitayama, and Hazel Markus observe distinct “Eastern” and “Western” styles of visual perception and propose that they are anchored in different conceptions of the self. In the West, they write, “the normative imperative…is to become independent from others and to discover and express one’s own unique attributes,”1 while in the East, “responsiveness to the concerns of social others, as well as the expectations of others, forms the basis for action.”2 Simply by living in a particular culture, people acquire skills, values, and behaviors which reinforce the culturally dominant mode of being. Duffy, Kitayama, and Markus argue that visual perception is one such culturally contingent skill.
Visual perception reflects the different conceptions of the self through complementary strategies of focused and dispersed visual attention. Duffy and Kitayama write that, “in the focused attention strategy, individual objects and their focal features receive the vast majority of the cognitive resources of attention,” while in the dispersed attention strategy, “objects surrounding the attended object, or features of the object’s context receive considerable attention, at the cost of focal information about the individual objects.”3 Using controlled experiments like the framed line test, Kitayama et. al. have shown that Japanese subjects excel at tasks requiring dispersed attention, while American subjects perform better on tasks requiring focused attention.
These strategies of visual attention could explain why it is hard for me to imagine myself in the depicted space of Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12. Entering an image requires mentally reconstructing the depicted space based on the the visual features of the image. Despite teamLAB’s claims to the contrary, Western viewers do imagine themselves within perspective images.4 A 2006 study of facial recognition found that North American subjects were more sensitive to the intrinsic properties of facial features and Japanese subjects to overall facial configuration. Perhaps linear perspective feels natural to Western viewers because distance is encoded in size, an intrinsic property of objects which rewards focused attention, while in Ultra Subjective Space, distance is encoded in the overall configuration of objects, which demands dispersed attention.
Beyond this suggestive analogy between spatial and facial recognition, the construction of images in linear perspective and Ultra Subjective Space presupposes different conceptions of the self. Linear perspectives are calculated to reproduce the world faithfully from a single vantage point. This principle is dramatized in one of the earliest perspective images, a 15th century painting of the Florentine Baptistry by Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi had viewers place their heads into a hood which cut off peripheral vision so that the painting could only be seen through a single pinhole. From this early beginning, linear perspective has demanded an autonomous, individual viewer: an independent self. By contrast, parallel projection can be understood as a sort of Riemannian sum of perspectival views from infinitely many vantage points. The practice of showing the same place simultaneously at many different points in time, as in Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12, further expands the number of viewpoints in Ultra Subjective Space. Feeling at ease with such an image requires a self capable of integrating these many viewpoints. Perhaps Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 is hard for me to enter and experience fully both because it presumes an unfamiliar conception of the self and demands unaccustomed habits of visual attention.
The sad irony of Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 and of my own means of appreciating it is not lost on me. Although teamLAB announces that Ultra Subjective Space will bring, “New Spatial Awareness through Digital Technology,” the legitimation of Ultra Subjective Space by science in Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 comes at the expense of the lush Japanese details of the image. The cultural psychology research reassures me; it helps me believe as well as understand the truth of teamLAB’s earnest arguments. Yet how bittersweet, that my conversion should come from reading social science research papers, rather than from the experience of the artwork itself.
The interactive projection Sketch Town allows me to enter and experience Ultra Subjective Space more fully by encouraging me to externalize the adoption of a new way of seeing. Participants in Sketch Town are invited to color in the outlines of familiar objects - fire trucks, houses, airplanes, UFOs - and then scan the crayon drawings. With my drawing scanned, I turn eagerly to a projected landscape which fills one wall, waiting for my creations to appear. Each crayon drawing is by itself spatially neutral; each airplane or car or truck could equally have been cut out of a linear perspective or an Ultra Subjective Space. Yet it is natural for Western viewers to imagine their object as belonging to a linear perspective image. When the drawing appears in the Ultra Subjective Space of the projected landscape, the viewer is forced to reconcile the assumption of perspective with the reality of Ultra Subjective Space. Sketch Town works because people are attached to their own creations, and rather than abandon their drawings in the unfamiliar territory of Ultra Subjective Space, viewers modify their visual expectations to accommodate it.
High on an adjacent wall, a small perspective projection of the Sketch Town landscape highlights the strengths of the Ultra Subjective Space and helps make viewers conscious of their spatial habituation. This perspective projection draws on another familiar Western precedent - not the Renaissance painting, but the first-person shooter video game. Unlike a first-person shooter, however, there’s no way to control the vantage point. As the camera drifts through the scene, a glance at the Ultra Subjective Space representation underscores the limitations of this first-person view from which only a tiny fraction of the landscape is visible at a time, subject to the caprices of the camera’s motion. In the Ultra Subjective Space view, by contrast, it is possible to grasp relationships and to see that each entity has a well-defined role to play: UFOs move cars around, fire trucks extinguish burning buildings, and airplanes fight monsters. The juxtaposition of spatial modes in Sketch Town is an effective reminder that spatial recognition is acquired, and that there are alternatives.
All of this careful work to explain and evoke Ultra Subjective Space comes together in my favorite piece, an immersive video installation called Crows are Chased and the Chasing Crows are Destined to be Chased as Well, Division in Perspective – Light in Dark. More relaxed in its approach to spatial representation than either Sketch Town or Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12, this piece honors Japan’s cultural heritage through references to the mythical crow Yatagarasu, and in its re-interpretation of the Itano Circus. This piece is less didactic, more lighthearted and eclectic, and I am able to appreciate it viscerally. Each time I stand in the middle of the dark room to experience the film, the joyful careening of the watercolor crows in the iridescent darkness impels me to move my body, to dance.
Crows are Chased evokes this powerful response because of the way that it uses projection surfaces to convey a sense of space. One long wall serves as the main projection surface. This wall is partially obscured by freestanding walls on either side of the room which show fragments of the scene on the long wall behind, progressively magnified. By interleaving the projections with the inhabitable space of the gallery using these freestanding walls, teamLAB gives the film a powerful three-dimensional quality. For a viewer standing at the back of the gallery, the rows of freestanding walls suggest a vanishing point at the center of the long wall, and the exaggerated size of the closer images creates a forced perspective which amplify the impression of depth. The camerawork is masterful as well; the camera swings and swoops as if it is yet another crow, chased and chasing. As flowers and crows spin from one panel to the next, they shrink in lurches and then grow large again, so that the forced perspective also exaggerates the whirling movement in the film. The floor, polished to a glossy obsidian, reflects these swooping animated figures in hazy washes of color which fill my peripheral vision. The result is neither linear perspective, nor Ultra Subjective Space, but some synthesis of the two.
I leave the gallery with a headache from the bright lights and strange odors and emerge blinking into a sunlit world of linear perspective. teamLAB’s artworks haven’t fundamentally changed the way that I see the world. Truth aside, Ultra Subjective Space is a slogan with which teamLAB hopes to rally a revolution against perspective. Yet, if it is to succeed, Ultra Subjective Space must be backed by more than naive revolutionary bravado, and it must be motivated by more than the vague promise of “a new kind of society.” For all its limitations and inherent biases, linear perspective is useful in the West - it is a cultural competency demanded and reinforced by mass culture. teamLAB fails to provide a compelling reason to forego this cultural competency and adopt a new way of seeing the world.
In any case, the gallery may not be the best forum for teamLAB’s utopian mission. As long as teamLAB shows their work only in Menlo Park or New York City, charging admission of $20 a head, its reach will be limited both by geography and by affordability. Inoko has commented on the Ultra Subjective qualities of platform video games, saying that, “a life lived within Japanese spatial design may have been at root in the creation [by Japanese designers] of Mario and its distinctive style.” Video games cannot offer the immersive experience of installation art - but aside from Crows are Chased, teamLAB’s large-scale installations in Menlo Park are mere glitz-and-glitter entertainments. There are plenty of platform games, but the rich, beautiful images in Flowers & Corpse Glitch Set of 12 and Crows are Chased suggest that teamLAB has the unique artistic and technical abilities to create video games which celebrate Japan’s classical artistic heritage. Finally, video games using motion sensing and emerging VR technologies could bring powerful experiences of Ultra Subjective Space far beyond the gallery. teamLAB’s show in Menlo Park leaves much to be desired, but their future is full of promise.
The creation of a true artificial intelligence is likely still decades away, but as limited forms of machine intelligence become increasingly ubiquitous, questions about the relationship between we humans and our semisentient creations will become ever more pressing. NEAT: New Experiments in Art and Technology, on view this past fall at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, offered a few compelling explorations of artificial existence. Arranged among unremarkable interactive visualizations and video artworks, these artificial beings were both formally inventive and technologically topical.
The most emotionally arresting piece for me at NEAT was Alan Rath’s Forever, a robotic sculpture with long brown feathers that could rotate forward and back on mechanized hinges. The feathers were attached at regular intervals to a lens-shaped frame leaning against the wall of the gallery; they looked like the legs of a giant beetle or the eyelashes of a great empty eye turned on its side.
When I turned the corner and saw Forever for the first time, I felt a flash of irrational fear. I’m not normally afraid or disgusted by insects, but my heart was pounding fast and hard as I stood in front of Forever. The movement of its many feathers, like the skittering legs of a giant, empty beetle, roused in me a primordial panic. The expressive power of this piece came from the way that the feathers moved in concert, sometimes undulating, sometimes flapping, then standing straight out and wriggling frantically before flattening abruptly against the wall again. The movement of the sculpture was purposeful, if unpredictable.
Forever was a hybrid creature, an eerie combination of organic and mechanical materials. As such, this sculpture offered a tantalizing (and uncomfortable) sketch of the kind of biodigital being that some scientists believe represent humanity’s most promising future. The springiness of the quills made the sculpture lively as it moved, even as the natural brown-and-white patterning of the feathers recalled the hapless pheasant or turkey from which they originated. Forever was an alchemical creation, one which appropriated and reconfigured the discarded artifacts of one creature in order to create a new being. The resulting creature was both beautiful, and a bit melancholy: pinned to the gallery wall like a framed insect, the sculpture appeared almost as if trying to climb the wall, to flee the museum. I was both fascinated and repelled by Forever, and I found that I couldn’t look at it for long before discomfort pushed me away.
Paolo Salvagione’s Rope Fountain was a welcome relief from the intensity of Forever. Salvagione had constructed a sequence of sculptures, each consisting of a loop of white rope spun rapidly by a motor on the floor. Each loop appeared almost motionless, hanging in midair, its movement betrayed only by a penumbra of vibration about its silhouette and the humming of its motor. Each motor was on a pivot which allowed it to rotate parallel to the wall behind it. In addition, each motor had a nozzle controlling where the rope came out which was allowed to move forward and back. The regular motion of the motors along these axes caused the rope to move in unpredictable ways, swaying from side to side, stretching out horizontally, or rearing up to hit the wall behind.
The strength of Rope Fountain was the simplicity and transparency of the technology used to produce its complex, lifelike behavior. Standing in front of Rope Fountain, it was natural for me to attribute human motivations to the actions of the rope sculpture: curiosity, hesitation. The sculptures weren’t in the least anthropomorphic in form, but in their behavior, they reminded me of nothing so much as a line of dancers, moving freely and unselfconsciously. When a loop of rope twisted to dab at the ground, then recoil, I was reminded of a ballet dancer, eyes closed, exploring the world with their feet. Each rope sculpture was a line drawing, animated and lifted from the page, sketching a schematic being into existence. Each sculpture was also a creator, intermittently leaving faint smudges on the wall which collected to form dusty halos behind each loop of rope.
The technology used to produce these pieces was old - just a few motors, some rope, and a set of timetables to regulate the movement of each motor and nozzle. By exposing the technological apparatus that animated each sculpture, Salvagione demystified their behavior and allowed each piece to appear self-sufficient, autonomous. In all this discussion of Salvagione’s piece, I’ve struggled with “each” and “they”, and I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that I’ve been describing Rope Fountain in the singular, trying to convey the essence of the ideal form realized in each spinning loop. In short, Rope Fountain used technology, but it was not about technology - this was a piece about artificial beings and which questioned the minimum of what was required to represent a being.
Rath’s second robotic sculpture, called Soon, was a single enormous jointed arm mounted on a tripod. A floppy pink feather, of the kind used to make feather dusters, was attached to the end of the arm. As with Forever and Rope Fountain, the sculpture was capable of only a limited range of movement: the arm could rotate on its tripod and extend and retract, while the feather at the end was able to pivot freely in three dimensions. The sculpture was cordoned off from viewers by a circular border, like a circus ring. It was elegant, ungainly, absurd, pathetic.
Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom writes in Superintelligence: “Normally, we do not regard what is going on inside a computer as having any moral significance except insofar as it affects things outside. But a machine superintelligence could create internal processes that have moral status…there is at least the potential for a vast amount of death and suffering among simulated or digital minds, and, a fortiori, the potential for morally catastrophic outcomes.”
Soon suggested the possibility of a tension between the dual nature of artificial entities as tools created for human benefit, and as autonomous beings in their own rights. The robotic sculpture was far from a superintelligence - indeed, the feather duster attachment riffed on the dumb domestic devices that are ubiquitous today: dishwashers, dryers, washing machines, and vacuum cleaners. Soon was no more than a simple machine. Yet the gallery setting and the circus ring-like enclosure reframed the appliance as an actor, an individual (though a bit of freak): worthy of attention.
Sometimes, Soon would dance, spinning gracefully and then stretching to unfurl its feather with an elegant flick. These were the movements which seemed to elevate the robot above the level of “device”. Yet, at other times, Soon performed an absurd sketch of domestic labor, senselessly and ineffectually dusting the air before rotating to begin again. The circular movements of the arm, tracing the outline of the ring on the floor, echoed this temporal loop in which the device was trapped. It was the contrast between these two attitudes which made Soon appear forlorn, futile, pathetic. Strange as it seems, I almost felt able to sympathize with Soon.
Missing from any of these works (though handled beautifully by Camille Utterback in Entangled) was a convincing mode of interaction. Both of Rath’s pieces hinted at the possibility of interactivity, with Soon seeming to dust the noses of viewers, and Forever fluttering in time with sounds from the gallery, but in both cases the link between the environment and the actions of the sculpture was so subtle that it was unclear whether the appearance of responsiveness was due to accident or intention. Salvagione’s Rope Fountain didn’t offer even the suggestion of interactivity. The disinterested stance of these creatures was still compelling (though not altogether unfamiliar - think of teenagers or cats). Yet today, it’s the machines that can interact with (and track) us that are most interesting and frightening. Perception is an integral part of human existence; future artworks exploring artificial existence should use interactivity to engage this more deeply.
While Spike Lee’s Chiraq plays in theaters, Theaster is playing out a different vision of life on Chicago’s South Side, driven by Black culture instead of ‘black-on-black’ violence, and animated by art, rather than guns.
Chicago artist Theaster Gates bought an abandoned bank building for just $1 from the City of Chicago in 2013. Since then, his fans have eagerly awaited the debut of the Stony Island Arts Bank, an exhibition space and archive which opened in October to much fanfare. Though it’s an impressive demonstration of Gates’ fundraising chops (it cost $3.5M to make the building structurally sound), the building is architecturally underwhelming at present. Except for the lavish library at the back of the building, the Arts Bank is little more than an empty shell.
While design blogs and Instagrammers slaver over the empty Arts Bank, an important project just two blocks South has gone largely unnoticed. This project, a renovated mixed-income housing development called Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative (DA+HC), deserves attention. Gates and his nonprofit Rebuild Foundation partnered with Brinshore Development and architects Landon Bone Baker Architects (LBBA) to create DA+HC, and the playful, generous redesign by LBBA makes it a star example of mixed-income housing redevelopment in Chicago. DA+HC is an important step in Gates’ overarching project to turn Greater Grand Crossing into a cultural hub.
Once a bustling working-class neighborhood, Greater Grand Crossing was hollowed out in the 1960s and 1970s by white flight, and never fully recovered. The neighborhood today is poor (25% of residents are below the poverty line) and sparsely populated. Brick walk-up apartment buildings and single-family homes front on Greater Grand Crossing’s quiet one-way streets. On a closer look, many of these buildings are neatly boarded up with weathered plywood. There are vacant lots on every block - not the trash-littered and graffittied asphalt lots of the proverbial “inner city”, but green plots taken over by grass. It’s a neighborhood that has seen hard times.
Gates has sought to transform the neighborhood since he arrived in 2006. He recalled in a 2014 interv: “You know my block is a violent block…When I moved there, people didn’t want to visit…I was really determined for Sixty-Ninth and Dorchester to be the most important place in the city…There’s still extreme violence, and yet beautiful things should happen in black space, because violent things happen everywhere. Right?”
DA+HC sits on 70th Street between Dante and Harper Avenues in the middle of this community, across from an elementary school, a playground, and one of those verdant vacant lots. The housing complex was originally designed by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) in the late 1970s, and opened in 1981 with 36 units of public housing in seven two-story brick buildings.
The buildings are arranged along the sidewalk to create semi-enclosed common spaces at the back, away from the street. These shared, sheltered outdoor spaces help foster a sense of community by providing a space for residents to gather. On the larger block, between Dante and Harper Avenues, the sheltered interior of the block is subtly divided into two smaller spaces by a building that is set back from the sidewalk. With ten (originally twelve) units opening onto each of these smaller spaces, this division creates outdoor spaces which are more sheltered and intimate, but still provide opportunities for community interactions.
The gaps between the buildings serve as passages which visually and acoustically link the sidewalk to the gardens in back, helping to integrate the residents into the social fabric of the neighborhood.
Simple variations in the plan of the CHA townhouses make the spare, undecorated facades attractive. The facades step gently to and from the sidewalk, creating elongated bays and shallow recesses to shelter the front doors. This articulation of the facade serves as a kind of economical decoration for the building, creating patterns of light and shadow and giving each unit a sense of individuality. The materials matter, too. The red bricks used to cover the facades of the townhouses are standard-size fired clay bricks, not the larger concrete bricks often used by the 1980s to cut labor costs. These construction details help the CHA units to blend pleasantly with the older brick apartment buildings and single-family houses on the neighboring blocks.
The Dante-Harper Townhomes reflect the complex and sometimes contradictory history of the CHA with respect to race, poverty, and housing in Chicago. The townhomes were built by the CHA as a result of a court order following the 1969 housing desegregation case Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority. Gautreaux required the CHA to increase its stock of low-income units; to build or acquire public housing in white areas of the city before further development in racial minority areas; and to ensure that 50% of residents in each new development were drawn from the local community. Dante-Harper Townhomes failed in at least one respect: by the time it opened in 1981, the neighborhood was 70% - 90% black (hardly the integration required by Gautreaux!), and the CHA was building less housing, not more, than before. Despite this, the buildings avoid the banal, “poverty-oriented look” criticized by housing historian J. S. Fuerst. Perhaps inspired by developments commissioned by the CHA during the 1950s and 1960s, the Dante-Harper Townhomes was well-designed to invest the lives of its residents with dignity and foster a sense of community.
The Rebuild partnership made a number of important changes to the townhome development which further improve it. First, the central four-units between Dante and Harper were demolished to create an art center. Rebuild Foundation determined from a neighborhood survey that there was a need for performance space in Greater Grand Crossing. In response to this need, the art center at DA+HC houses a purpose-built dance studio and a craft space. Both will be open to residents of the neighborhood and to the arts elementary school across the street.
The dance studio is a beautiful space, with a high ceiling, spring-loaded wood floor for dancing, and lots of light. The front and back walls are all glass, save a vintage sliding door in front, and the resulting visual connection between the front and back of DA+HC helps link the semi-private spaces behind DA+HC to the public life of the neighborhood.
The landscaping created by site design group in collaboration with LBBA, is another significant addition to the development. In the original design, the sidewalk at 70th and Dante stretches twenty feet from the curb to the front doors of the townhomes. In the redevelopment, the expanses of concrete are replaced by generous front yards.
In the back, LBBA has replaced the grass backyards of the original design, which opened directly onto the alley, with two rock gardens containing seating and landscaped with shrubs and young birch trees. The architects also introduced a fence and a sidewalk along the back of this yard, heightening the sense of enclosure by dividing it from the alley. The parking spaces along the alley are surfaced using concrete brick pavers, rather than asphalt, which, from the rock gardens, creates the impression of a terrace that extends beyond the sidewalk.
Finally, some small details - mustard yellow doors and a crimson band at the roofline - provide a playful touch. In short, the interventions of the Rebuild / LBBA / Brinshore partnership complement the existing strengths of the building and strengthen the possibilities for community formation by improving the shared spaces.
Residents of Greater Grand Crossing and critics alike have wondered whether Gates’ ascendant practice will gentrify the neighborhood in which it is anchored. Historically, artists have often been in the vanguard of displacement in neighborhood change - in the words of art historian Rosalynd Deutsche, artists are “the ‘shock troops’ of gentrification.”
The twelve CHA units at DA+HC do increase the neighborhood’s stock of affordable housing - but when compared with the 358 units CHA delivered in 2014, it’s clear that they are a drop in the bucket. DA+HC is, at best, a gesture towards affordability. The reality of Greater Grand Crossing, according to Gates, is that gentrification still seems an unlikely and distant danger to most people on the block. Gates says: “People wanna leave if they can, and people have a right to leave. It becomes tricky…am I trying to trick people into staying? What can I offer?”
Perhaps the best way to understand the strategic position of DA+HC in Gates’ practice is as an incubator - a word that Gates himself has used elsewhere. Gates has long been interested in building communities of Black artists. In 2013, Gates opened the University of Chicago’s Washington Park Arts Incubator (WPAI), two and a half miles northwest of DA+HC. In the two years since it opened, WPAI has organized gallery shows by Alexandria Eregbu, Caroline Kent, and other Chicago artists, run training programs for local high-schoolers, and hosted community events. In 2013, Gates and artist Eliza Myrie hosted the first Black Artists Retreat (B.A.R.), which brought dozens of Black artists together at Dorchester Projects for two days of conversation and collaborative work.
At the Arts Bank, Gates has collected a vast (though uncatalogued) archive of Black history, literature, and media. Rebuild has a rotating artist residency program which brings artists to the neighborhood for a few weeks. Each resident artist is asked to use Rebuild’s collections at the Arts Bank in the work they produce during the residency.
Unlike B.A.R. or the resident artists hosted by Rebuild Foundation, DA+HC is a sustained intervention which can be a source of stability and longevity for the artistic ecosystem in Greater Grand Crossing. Hopeful residents must apply to a panel of community members, and artists are given priority. Rebuild Program Manager Demecina Beehn says that DA+HC currently houses eight artists and curators, including a ceramicist, a filmmaker, and a makeup artist. In this way, DA+HC will bring artists who have a long-term involvement with the community - and, Gates is betting - with Rebuild’s collections. The best piece at the debut of the Arts Bank was not an artwork by Gates, but a monumental installation in cardboard by Portuguese artist Carlos Bunga. Similarly, in years to come, Gates’ most important work may come to be not his framed fire hoses or tar paintings, but the artistic activity he fomented on the South Side of Chicago.
Architectural critics and preservationists have been working themselves into a frenzy since the Museum of Modern Art announced last Wednesday its final decision to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building. MoMA’s announcement comes at the end of six months of extended deliberation, and MoMA has made it clear that this is their final decision. In light of this, the mainstream critics’ self-righteous outrage does more harm than good and obscures valuable insights into permanence, program, and flexibility in architecture.
The folk art museum building was designed by New York-based Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects in 2001. Underlying the design was the belief that the building should be tailored to the character and needs of the institution it was to house and that form, materials, and structure should respond delicately and exactly to the program.
The façade of the building is paneled with heavy slabs of tombasil, an alloy which critic Herbert Muschamp likened to, “travertine marble alchemically rendered into bronze.” The opacity of this façade and the rugged quality of its panels with their molten wrinkles and bubbles make a harsh contrast to the smooth glass façade of the MoMA next door. The façade of the Folk Art Museum is a gesture of solidarity with the art within, suggesting that the collection inside might be rougher around the edges, but also more sensuous and sincere than the modern stuff next door. The bronze face of the Folk Art Museum is a declaration of difference.
Inside, the architects created a winding pathway up through the museum, with extra-wide stairways displaying artwork and tall open spaces allowing views between different floors. Artworks are hung in unexpected places, and the sightlines through these tall open spaces let viewers experience pieces at different distances. Artworks are placed on balustrades and hung on concrete walls several stories up, as well as in traditional galleries. The collision of hanging styles made possible by the architecture captures neatly the mixed nature of the artifacts themselves.
At the same time, the architects sought to create a sense of permanence. Tsien said, “one of the things we learned is that we want, more and more, buildings that last. We want to avoid sheetrock and use materials with resonance and character.” The building is created using poured-in-place concrete, which means that the walls, the floor, the ceilings are all essentially part of the same continuous structure. This type of construction has the feel of permanence as well as its actuality – concrete is one of the most difficult building materials to destroy. In addition, because every part of the building is structural, it is much harder to modify.
When the MoMA announced its intention to demolish the building, it cited the distinctive (i.e. non-glass) façade and the disconnect between the floor plates at the folk art museum and the MoMA next door. If it was the idiosyncrasies of the folk art museum that created the conflict, it was the deliberate permanence of the building that made the problem intractable, even after six months deliberation. The New York Times reported that, “Because the floor plates support the façade, a reconfiguration would require much of the building to be dismantled and reconstructed.” Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro admitted, “We can’t find a way to save the building. You pass a tipping point where there’s not enough of the original structure to actually maintain its identity.”
There is a sense, then, in which the building contained the seeds of its own destruction. The folk art museum building was designed to fit its original inhabitants forever, not to adapt – but change is inevitable. True; with a different purchaser, the building might have been repurposed despite its resistance to change. Even a building as idiosyncratic as the folk art museum might have been converted to offices, residences, or performance spaces. But the architects’ design philosophy gambled the flexibility and future of the building against the ideal of creating a perfect space for the folk art collection. The dreadful paradox is that what made the building great – the sense of permanence it evoked, the rich materiality of concrete and bronze, the unique interior spaces it created – also led to its destruction.
Those who have vilified the MoMA argue that, as a museum, the MoMA holds a public trust to safeguard the folk art museum building as a work of great architectural value. Some critics have even imagined the building as an item in the MoMA’s collection. This conception of the building is a mistake. Reducing the museum to an object, a piece of art, is to consider only its aesthetic and formal qualities, and to do so is to ignore those qualities which make it a building. A building is such because it is designed to be used: Vitruvius’ utilitas.
The MoMA is demonized because its decision is judged by a standard which disregards the present context of the folk art museum in favor of the architects’ good intentions and the fit for the original occupant of the structure. The pens of the critics suspend the life of the building in the instant that it left the drawing board. But try as critics might to hold back the press of time, the fecund city pushes on relentlessly. The building must be judged in its current context, and part of that context is its usefulness as a space to be inhabited.
Ah, the protesters say – but the building would be perfectly useful if not for the damned expansion of the MoMA. Expansion is made a dirty word. Yet – if anything, expansion should be good. Paul Goldberger admits, “MoMA is as compromised by overcrowding as any museum I know…Lowry [the director] envisions the expansion as a way of creating much needed breathing space.” So while the expansion of the MoMA is regrettable in its consequences, it is not the sign of moral corruption that critics would have us believe.
The MoMA must bear responsibility for the tragedy of the demolition of the folk art museum – and it is a tragedy, if only because the building was loved dearly by many museumgoers. But it should bear that responsibility as the sad result of a Hobson’s choice forced by the nature of the folk art museum and not as a badge of ‘cultural vandalism’.
The folk art museum was an eccentric, friendly building that enlivened and enriched the urban life around it – Herbert Muschamp once called it “companionable”. We cannot do without such structures, buildings that are dynamic, brave, and richly memorable. It is true that the construction of such precious buildings is a gamble, that it comes at a price – but the worst that could come out of this demolition would be a swing to the other extreme: in place of the folk art museum, a building that is generic and utterly all-purpose. We hope that, as it moves forward with plans for a new building, the MoMA will bear the responsibility of the demolition thoughtfully and look for meaning in its loss, mindful of the architectural promises and perils it embodied.
Light is everywhere, and yet too often familiarity blinds us to its power and possibilities. In his monolithic new installation Aten Reign artist James Turrell provides a striking reminder of the power of light to affect our spatial experiences. The exhibit remains at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City through September 25.
Exploring light and the way we perceive light is Turrell’s life’s work. His first insights came from experiments in projecting white light from a slide projector onto the bare walls of his first studio. Turning the projector to face the corner of the room, Turrell discovered that from a distance, the planes of light actually seemed to pop off the walls, forming a luminous cube nestled in the corner of the room. Insubstantial light came to occupy physical space in this piece, which he calls Afrum.
Turrell spent the year after creating Afrum covering the windows of his studio with black paint and cutting careful apertures in the walls. In his Mendota Stoppages (1969 – 1970), he led groups of visitors through his darkened studio in the evenings, opening the apertures in the walls to reveal light from the outside: orange, emerald green, pure white. At the end of the performance, which lasted several hours, the visitors were allowed outside, where they discovered that the fragment of orange light had been a neon light in a store window, the green a traffic light, the white a street lamp. Afrum and the Mendota Stoppages reveal two attitudes that pervade Turrell’s work: his treatment of light as a material, and his desire to enrich and deepen viewers’ experiences of everyday visual phenomena.
Although these first works were small, Turrell is no stranger to large-scale museum installations like that at the Guggenheim. In 1997, he created an installation for the opening of the Kunsthaus museum in Bregenz, Austria. The Kunsthaus is a cube sheathed by a double wall of semi-transparent glass. The void between the glass walls accepted light from the outside and filtered it into the galleries. The light entered the galleries discreetly, illumination made mysterious by the concealment of its source.
Turrell’s installation filled the double-walled void on the outside of the building with colored light. From a distance, the light drew attention to the geometric purity of the building’s form and the crystalline quality lent the building by its enveloping glazing. Inside the galleries, the novelty of the colored light exposed the tantalizing proximity of the outdoors to the heart of the museum. The Kunsthaus installation affirmed the intrinsic qualities of the building. The relationship of Aten Reign to the Guggenheim is more complicated.
Enter the museum by the main entrance. The ticketing room is darkened, so that the ceiling feels much lower than it is. Colored light behind the double doors at the far end of the space beckons you towards the rotunda and Turrell’s installation. Entering the rotunda, you first notice the people – people standing, reclining on benches, lying on cushions on the floor – all staring up. Then your gaze too is drawn upwards, into the vast shifting colors of Aten Reign.
It is here on the floor of the rotunda that you first feel the effects of the installation on the architectural experience of the museum. The Guggenheim is a social space. This was radical in 1959 when the museum opened; in traditional museums, the focus is on the art – if for no other reason, because boxy galleries leave nowhere else to look. At the Guggenheim, a visitor descending the spiral is normally presented with two views: to the left, the artwork, placed on the outer wall of the spiral ramp; to the right, over the balcony, the entire interior life of the museum. The skylight above, the rotunda floor beneath, and the coils of the other side of the spiral seen from across the void are architectural drama at its finest. The sheer spectacle of this view, and the recognition that the building is meant to be appreciated as a work of art in its own right, make it acceptable for visitors to turn away from the artwork, lean on the balustrade, and watch the human life of the museum, their fellow museum-goers across the spiral.
Aten Reign returns the museum to a more solitary, introverted ideal. The piece occupies the entire six-story rotunda and is created by a six-tiered cone of white fabric suspended from the top of the rotunda lit from behind by countless LED lights. The scrim used to create to the installation hides covers the museum’s spiral ramp. As your head turns back and your eyes upwards, the crowds on the floor of the rotunda vanish, and you become aware of the purity and simplicity of Aten Reign. The luminous ovals are uncluttered – no crowds up here! The diagonal lines of the spiral ramp are restless and dynamic. The horizontal structure of the installation communicates stability, an architectural reassurance that this is a safe place for repose and meditation. Aten Reign embraces the teeming crowds below calmly, quietly, without brimming over. Gone – until September 25th – are the days when one looked up and saw spectators looking down or across from every level of the spiral ramp. No matter how full the rotunda, each visitor experiences Aten Reign alone.
The continuity of Frank Lloyd Wright’s exhibition spaces here was just as revolutionary and just as shocking as their sociability. Previous museums had conformed to traditional notions of architecture in which the interior is divided up into a series of self-contained exhibition spaces. At the Guggenheim, Wright erased internal barriers by casting the primary exhibition space as a continuous spiral ramp. The ramp, open to the central rotunda along its entire length, allowed space to flow freely and united the entire museum within a single enormous room.
Aten Reign divides this space in two, defining a clear interior and exterior. As you leave the rotunda and begin your sloping ascent through the museum, you move to the exterior of the installation. Like the back of a big-box retail store, the exterior of the installation is all business: a plain fabric scrim – undecorated by LED lights – sealing off the gap between the balustrade and the ceiling. Visitors are expected to ignore this part of the installation. It’s meant to be unobtrusive, not to encourage meditation or provoke insights – yet its effects on the architectural experience of the museum are significant.
The fabric scrim hides the rotunda and blocks those cross-atrium views that animate the museum. The openness of Wright’s design ensures that visitors are always aware of their position within the structure. Turrell’s installation replaces Wright’s open space with a whitewashed tunnel. Wright’s radical experiment with the infinite linear extension of space produced the Guggenheim; the backside of Aten Reign exposes this flirtation with infinity in a new way. The curve of the spiral limits the pedestrian’s scope of vision to thirty feet in front.and behind. There is no beginning or end, just the promise of the unknown beyond the curve of the walls. This is a different kind of isolation than the solitude of Aten Reign proper: harsher, more uncomfortable.
Aten Reign and the other installations present at the Guggenheim for this exhibition – Afrum, Ronin, Iltar – are typical of Turrell’s work in that the apparatus used are always carefully concealed. The white scrim sealing off the gap between the ramp and the rotunda bears evidence to this; its purpose is to hide the metal scaffolding and LED lights used to create Aten Reign.
When I saw Afrum at the Guggenheim, I walked into the room and stood at a distance from the cube. I was self-conscious: I was noticing myself noticing the light. Meanwhile, behind me, several children – surely not more than five years old – entered the room. Followed by several mothers, they ran up to the cube of light at the corner of room, putting their hands in it and laughing at the shadows it made. The bright light of the projector mounted high in the opposite wall caught the eye of one of these toddlers, and he turned: “Look!,” he pointed, and the other toddlers turned too, gazing up at the source of the light. That gave their mothers enough time to catch them and tow them out of the room – but they left a lasting impression on me.
Turrell is a master of illusion – and, as with all illusions, we – the viewers – are complicit in the deception. We agree to look only at the light, forgetting its origin. The Afrum toddlers reminded me that all of Turrell’s works have a source. The light and the apparatus used to produce the light together produce an effect that is far more powerful than either alone.
The Kunsthaus installation is simpler because its apparatus was more easily concealed and so intruded less into the life of the museum. Aten Reign, by contrast, pushes into every part of the space. Sometimes, as on the ramp, its intrusions are uncomfortable and uncomplimentary. Its secret is that the architectural extremes that Frank Lloyd Wright sought to capture are exposed most clearly in these moments.
It is rare that a remarkable building is so drastically altered, or that the result should be so illuminating. Turrell’s Aten Reign is an important moment of reflection in the architectural life of the Guggenheim Museum. It is open for a few more days only – don’t miss it.