Magnetic Landscape Architecture

[Image: R. Fu, via ScienceNews].

Although I seem to be on a roll with linking to ScienceNews stories, this is too amazing to pass up: “People living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala crafted massive human sculptures with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. New research provides the first detailed look at how these sculpted body parts were intentionally placed within magnetic fields on large rocks.”

The magnetic fields were likely created by lightning strikes.

This is incredible: “Artisans may have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back, the scientists say in the June Journal of Archaeological Science. Predesignated parts of potbelly figures—which can stand more than 2 meters tall and weigh 10,000 kilograms or more—were then carved at those spots.”

It’s like a geological farm for the secondary effects of lightning. A lightning farm for real!

The mind boggles at the thought of magnetic landscape architecture, or magnetic masonry in ancient stonework, or even huge sculptures invisibly adhering to one another through magnetic forces, giving the appearance of magic.

Imagine a valley of exposed bedrock and boulders, its unusually high iron content making the rocks there attractive to lightning. Over tens of thousands of lightning strikes, the valley becomes partially magnetized, resulting in bizarre geological anomalies mistaken for the actions of a spirit world: small pebbles roll uphill, for example, or larger rocks inexplicably clump together in structurally precarious agglomerations. Stones perhaps hover an inch or two off the ground, pulled upward toward magnetic overhangs, or rocks visibly assemble themselves into small cairns, clicking into place one atop the other.

As you step into the valley, the only sound you hear is a trembling in the gravel ahead, as if the rocks are jostling for position. Your jewelry begins to float, pulling away from your wrists and chest.

Anyway, read more at ScienceNews.

(Also, watch for my friend Eva Barbarossa’s book on magnets coming out this fall.)

Afghan Twin

[Image: Screen-grab from an interview between John Peel and Aphex Twin, filmed in Cornwall’s Gwennap Pit; spotted via Xenogothic].

An anecdote I often use while teaching design classes—but also something I first read so long ago, I might actually be making the whole thing up—comes from an old interview with Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin. I’ve tried some very, very lazy Googling to find the original source, but, frankly, I like the version I remember so much that I’m not really concerned with verifying its details.

In any case, the story goes like this: in an interview with a music magazine, published I believe some time in the late-1990s, James claimed that he had been hired to remix a track by—if I remember correctly—The Afghan Whigs. Whether or not it was The Afghan Whigs, the point was that James reported being so unable to come up with new ideas for the band’s music that he simply sped their original song up to the length of a high-hat, then composed a new track of his own using that sound.

The upshot is that, if you were to slow down the resulting Aphex Twin track by several orders of magnitude, you would hear an Afghan Whigs song (or whatever) playing, in its entirety, every four or five minutes, bursting surreally out of the electronic blur before falling silent again, like a tide. Just cycling away, over and over again.

What’s amazing about this, at least for me, is in the possibilities it implies for everything from sonic camouflage—such as hiding acoustic information inside a mere beep in the overall background sound of a room—to art installations.

Imagine a scenario, for example, in which every little bleep and bloop in a song (or TV commercial or blockbuster film or ringtone) somewhere is actually an entire other song accelerated, or even what this could do outside the field of acoustics altogether. An entire film, for example, sped up to a brief flash of light: you film the flash, slow down the resulting footage, and you’ve got 2001 playing in a public space, in full, hours compressed into a microsecond. It’s like the exact opposite of Bryan Boyer’s Very Slow Movie Player, with very fast nano-cinemas hidden in plain sight.

The world of sampling litigation has been widely covered—in which predatory legal teams exhaustively listen to new musical releases, flagging unauthorized uses of sampled material—but, for this, it’s like you’d need time cops, temporal attorneys slowing things down dramatically out of some weird fear that their client’s music has been used as a high-hat sound…

Anyway, for context, think of the inaudible commands used to trigger Internet-of-Things devices: “The ultrasonic pitches are embedded into TV commercials or are played when a user encounters an ad displayed in a computer browser,” Ars Technica reported back in 2015. “While the sound can’t be heard by the human ear, nearby tablets and smartphones can detect it. When they do, browser cookies can now pair a single user to multiple devices and keep track of what TV commercials the person sees, how long the person watches the ads, and whether the person acts on the ads by doing a Web search or buying a product.”

Or, as the New York Times wrote in 2018, “researchers in China and the United States have begun demonstrating that they can send hidden commands that are undetectable to the human ear to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Inside university labs, the researchers have been able to secretly activate the artificial intelligence systems on smartphones and smart speakers, making them dial phone numbers or open websites. In the wrong hands, the technology could be used to unlock doors, wire money or buy stuff online—simply with music playing over the radio.”

Now imagine some malevolent Aphex Twin doing audio-engineering work for a London advertising firm—or for the intelligence services of an adversarial nation-state—embedding ultra-fast sonic triggers in the audio environment. Only, here, it would actually be some weird dystopia in which the Internet of Things is secretly run by ubiquitous Afghan Whigs songs being played at 3,600-times their intended speed.

[Don’t miss Marc Weidenbaum’s book on Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. 2.]

Inside Job

[Image: Via Wikipedia].

Although it’s by no means new, I realized I’ve never posted about Gregor Schneider’s project Dead House ur here. For that, Schneider spent roughly a decade systematically dismantling and rebuilding the interior of his own childhood home.

Writing for Artforum back in 2000, Daniel Birnbaum suggested that the project “is more labyrinth than house, and the prospect of getting stuck in a particularly narrow passage is truly frightening.” Indeed, there are some rooms and corridors remade in miniature, such that it’s only possible to crawl through them.

For that article, Birnbaum toured the house with Schneider himself. After having a cup of coffee, Birnbaum writes, “We leave the room not through the door but through a secret aperture that is revealed by pushing back part of the wall behind me. On the other side, we get a surprising view of the room we’ve just left: It is a motor-driven contraption set on wheels and may very well have been circulating slowly, like a high-rise cocktail lounge, while we were having coffee.” It’s a house, it’s a mechanism, it’s a maze.

So why couldn’t Birnbaum tell if the room they were sitting in had been rotating? Because the windows weren’t really windows—“Behind the window is a second window,” he writes—and many of the rooms offer no view of anything outside their own walls. Indeed, Birnbaum adds, “There seems to be no outside. Everything leads back into the house.”

Briefly, I’m reminded of the fake ophthalmologist’s office constructed in Eugene, Oregon, of all places, back in 1965, where it was used to test how people reacted to subtle room movements—without first explaining to them that the room was an experiment. Bizarrely, the room’s movements were meant to simulate what it would be like to stand at the top of a future skyscraper on the other side of the country in Manhattan: the World Trade Center towers.

In any case, everything might lead “back into the house,” as Birnbaum writes, but the interior of Schneider’s house had been made unrecognizable. Schneider hid walls behind walls, ceilings beneath other ceilings, until “the original dimensions and configuration of the various rooms are all but impossible to reconstruct.”

In an article I’ve been saving inside of a binder for some reason, and whose original place of publication is no longer clear, curator Yilmaz Dziewior continues this discussion of the architectural interventions Schneider has made. Schneider, Dziewior writes, “places walls in front of existing ones. The new walls are almost impossible to distinguish from the old. Sometimes he insulates the spaces between these walls with noise-reducing materials such as lead or foam. These structural alterations result in almost imperceptible changes in the acoustics.”

You could say that the work falls somewhere between, say, Gordon Matta Clark and the Saw franchise.

[Image: Via with reference to death].

Turning one’s own childhood home into a maze that is periodically dismantled, its rooms and parts sent around the world to various art galleries and museums, is, I suppose, as good a way as any to make it clear you want to complicate your relationship to the past.

The City’s Secret Ink

A short article up at The New Yorker follows the adventures of so-called “ink enthusiasts” as they seek new sources of pigment in New York City.

[Image: Via Flickr].

The author, Amy Goldwasser, tags along as the group wanders on “a five-hour foraging trip that would take them up to Hudson Heights, to collect foliage and trash, which they would cook, to make ink.”

By the time the foragers left Central Park, the pockets of [tour leader] Logan’s jacket were already bleeding pink. After finishing uptown, a few hours later, they went to [a participant’s] apartment, to make ink. One batch was pure pokeberry juice (vivid magenta). Another included five varieties of acorn boiled with rust from various sources—nuts and bolts, wire, brackets—and a drop of gum arabic. It came out a complicated silver-gray. Logan spread a range of ink pots on [the participant’s] kitchen table. He dipped the bottom of a glass jar into the rust-and-acorn ink and pressed it onto a piece of paper, making a silvery circle. “Look at our day,” he said. “Now, that, to me, is the blood of New York.”

The city’s capacity to leave marks—to stain, print, and tattoo the things and people that pass through it—can be found in the most mundane items, secret ink hidden inside “acorns, wild grapevines, beer caps, feathers, subway soot.”

Read more at The New Yorker.

(Vaguely related: Dumpster Honey).

Phantom/Null

[Image: Saxenburgh Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

Musician Andrew Pekler has composed soundtracks for “phantom islands,” or “islands that had existed on maps but not, as it turned out, in reality,” The Wire reports.

“Though a few of them were invented by unscrupulous captains seeking glory (or just further commissions),” Pekler explained to The Wire, “most phantom islands were unintentional fictions—the results of the imprecise science of navigation, clouds, fog banks and icebergs being mistaken for land, and wishful thinking.”

The accompanying website is pretty rad (although it apparently does not work in mobile), though, fair warning, it will easily consume a great deal of your afternoon at the office.

[Image: Antillia Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

While reading about Pekler’s work, I was reminded of the so-called “Null Island” effect, a different kind of phantom island that invisibly inhabits the space at 0°N, 0°E in the Atlantic Ocean off the west coast of Africa.

“Every day, countless people seeking digital directions on their computers and smartphones are diverted to an isolated spot on the Atlantic Ocean, 1,000 miles or so off the coast of Africa, where the Prime Meridian and the equator intersect,” the Wall Street Journal explains. “It’s called Null Island.”

This digital “island”—the paper describes it as “the default destination for mistakes”—exists as a result of programming errors in geographic information systems (GIS).

“Unfortunately, due to human typos, messy data, or even glitches in the geocoder itself,” Tim St. Onge wrote for the Library of Congress back in 2016, “the geocoding process doesn’t always run so smoothly. Misspelled street names, non-existent building numbers, and other quirks can create invalid addresses that can confuse a geocoder so that the output becomes ‘0,0’. While this output indicates that an error occurred, since ‘0,0’ is in fact a location on the Earth’s surface according to the coordinate system, the feature will be mapped there, as nonsensical as the location may be. We end up with an island of misfit data.”

[Image: Hunter Island, from Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands].

Alas, Andrew Pekler’s Phantom Islands project doesn’t include a soundtrack for Null Island, but perhaps other musicians and sound designers will take that as a challenge. A fictional ethnomusicology for digital nowhere.

(Thanks to @RJCeetoo for the heads up about Phantom Islands and to Wayne Chambliss for telling me about Null Island many years ago.)

Graphic Inferno

[Image: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun, via Annex Galleries].

Artist Rico Lebrun once remarked that he was interested in “changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured,” aiming to depict “mineral and spiritual splendor.”

[Image: “Figures in Black & White” (ca. 1961) by Rico Lebrun, via Mutual Art].

Originally from Naples, Italy, where he painted murals, Lebrun brought a macabre sense of body horror to classic myths and religious illustrations. Think of him as a kind of Italian-American version of Francis Bacon.

Lebrun has been described as “one of the most unjustly neglected artists of the postwar era… Lebrun’s last major exhibition was in 1967 and it was hastily thrown together. He has never had [a] critically curated retrospective that locates his art in its time and place, and neither has he had a scholarly monograph to take the measure of his career.”

[Image: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun, this is “Canto XXV—Circle Eight: Bolgia of the Thieves; their penance was to be changed from humans into snakes.” Via University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee].

What I find so interesting in Lebrun’s work is how sculptural and bloated anatomical forms become worlds unto themselves, divorced from their contexts. They are humid, planetary, often trapped in monstrous pregnancies or what could pass for ritualized medical events. Lebrun depicts Hell as a place of limitless metastasis and uncontrolled mutation.

[Image: Rico Lebrun, “Untitled” (1956), via Artnet].

In other images, broken skeletons seem to emerge from the wrong skin, people lump over one another as if grafted together in molten surgery, and limbs are splayed wide, almost pornographically, in tumbled piles of flesh.

[Image: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun].

His most notable projects—including illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, scenes of the Crucifixion, and a project focused on the Holocaust—all explored grotesque exaggerations of the human form, seeming to fuse multiple figures into one, even hybridizing animal bodies with the isolated suffering of people broken and betrayed by the world around them.

[Image: From Rico Lebrun, Paintings and Drawings of the Crucifixion].

Serpents wrap around and consume doomed humans; writhing bodies seem frozen into stone atop tombs.

“Some are bloody,” he wrote in a letter to a friend, describing his drawings for Dante’s Inferno, “and horrifying as the cantos in the Inferno are; there is no other way to depict terror as Dante describes it, without turning the whole thing into an assembly of sedately arranged figures having a picnic in a dark place…”

[Images: From Drawings for Dante’s Inferno by Rico Lebrun].

According to translator John Ciardi, “it is only Rico Lebrun who succeeds in giving me a graphic Inferno… Hell is not a Gothic cave, nor is it a festival of dance rhythms, nor is it a series of monkish miniatures. It is a concept.”

Lebrun died in 1964.

Journey of a Single Line

[Image: A1 (1930) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

I meant to write about these way back when they first appeared in the Paris Review, but alas. In any case, Wacław Szpakowski was a trained architect who dedicated an inordinate amount of his own free time to hand-drawing elaborate mazes and patterns using only a single line.

[Image: B9 (1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

“When he was eighty-five,” Sarah Cowan writes in a review of a show mounted by the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City, “Wacław Szpakowski wrote a treatise for a lifetime project that no one had known about. Titled ‘Rhythmical Lines,’ it describes a series of labyrinthine geometrical abstractions, each one produced from a single continuous line. He’d begun these drawings around 1900, when he was just seventeen—what started as sketches he then formalized, compiled, and made ever more intricate over the course of his life.”

[Image: F3 (1925) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

Szpakowski’s notebooks are, according to Cowan, “a twentieth-century version of Leonardo da Vinci’s, with enthusiastic scribblings next to observations of architecture and diagrams of natural phenomena, from ocean currents to fir-tree needles.”

[Image: C4 (1924) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

It’s hard to exaggerate how interesting these are from an architectural point of view: labyrinths of a single line, suggesting possibilities for infinite complexity along single paths of circulation. Room after room after room, laid out along a sufficiently complex corridor, becomes a building as large as a city.

[Image: F13 (1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

I’m reminded of a recent project by Andrew Kudless of Matsys called “The Walled City (10-Mile Version),” which also featured a single megastructure made from one continuous 10-mile wall.

[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

But the appeal of Szpakowski’s work would appear to extend well beyond the architectural. At times they resemble textiles, weaving diagrams, computer circuity, and even Arts & Crafts ornamentation, like 19th-century wallpapers designed for an era of retro-computational aesthetics.

[Images: (top to bottom) D4 (1925), D5 (1926), and D7 (1928) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

Woodworking templates, patent drawings for fluidic calculators, elaborate game boards—the list of associations goes on and on.

[Image: B10 (ca. 1930) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

For more, check out the write-up in the Paris Review,”>Paris Review and be sure to click through the various images over at the Miguel Abreu Gallery.

[Image: F1 (1925-1926) by Wacław Szpakowski, via Miguel Abreu Gallery].

(Originally spotted via Paul Prudence. Also of interest: The Switching Labyrinth.)

On Plastic in Time

Two recent articles worth reading in each other’s context explore the unexpected long-term morphological behavior of plastic.

[Image: Photo by Benjamin Chelly, courtesy Albin-Michel/Galerie47, via The New York Times].

In one, Popular Science looks at the curatorial difficulties posed by plastic objects. Today, we read, “chemists and curators are in near-constant collaboration, working to preserve the world’s modern and contemporary art collections with methods derived from the field of heritage science. The thing is, no one’s actually certain what the best course of action is.”

For example, “museums are still stumped by plastics. Little is known, [University College London chemist Katherine Curran] says, about how plastics degrade, let alone how to stop it. But perhaps most surprising is the fact that most museums don’t even know the type of plastics in their collection. ‘Things often get classified as “plastic,”’ Curran says, ‘and that’s not that helpful.’”

The entire article is worth reading, especially for architects committed to using novel materials in their work without a clear sense of how those materials will behave over time (in particular, when novel materials are used as exterior cladding).

The other article to throw into the mix here describes the behavior of plastic furniture over multiple years and decades as a kind of open-air materials science experiment, unfolding in real time.

“One famous designer chair is oozing goop. Another has exploded into puffs of foam. A bookcase’s shelves bubbled as gases formed within,” The New York Times writes. “The culprits? Plastic. And time.

Like the article linked above, this one looks at plastic’s surprising mutability, given the material’s otherwise notorious, planet-threatening ability to outlast human civilization. It specifically discusses the work of designer Gaetano Pesce, including a cabinet of his that “bulged and warped as gases formed in its depths.” Pesce’s giddy response to his worried client? “The cabinet is alive and beautiful,” he allegedly said. “I so wish I was there to see my work evolving.”

That article also introduces the great phrase “furniture components with questionable futures,” writing that these sorts of “experimental objects are falling into mysterious decay” and that this fate is already visible with 3D-printed artworks, for example, made using materials whose long-term performance is completely unknown.

What’s so compelling about both of these articles for me is the basic idea that something perceived as nightmarishly eternal is, in fact, subject to deeply flawed mundane transformation, and that artificial objects supposedly facing near-geological lifespans actually perform, behave, and decay in semi-biological ways. What’s more, museum curators are ironically being tasked with stopping the decay of a material that, in almost other ecological context, cannot degrade fast enough.

This is not to suggest that we can therefore be cavalier in our use of plastic, but simply that the world of immortal things will not last forever after all.

Terrain Jam

[Image: “arid wilderness areas” from @witheringsystem].

I’ve long been a fan of generative landscapes—topographies created according to some sort of underlying algorithmic code—and I’m thus always happy to stumble upon new, visually striking examples.

Of course, geology itself is already “generative,” as entire continents are formed and evolve over hundreds of millions of years following deeper logics of melting, crystallization, erosion, tectonic drift, and thermal metamorphosis; so digital examples of this sort of thing are just repeating in miniature something that has long been underway at a much larger scale.

In any case, @witheringsystem is a joint project between Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt, the same artists behind the widely-known “moth generator” and last year’s “Fermi Paradox Jam,” among other collaborations. It is not exactly new, but it’s been tweeting some great shots lately from an algorithmic world of cuboid terrains; the image seen here depicts “arid wilderness areas,” offered without further context.

See several more examples over on their Twitter feed.

(Spotted via Martin Isaac; earlier on BLDGBLOG: British Countryside Generator and Sometimes the house you come out of isn’t the same one you went into.”)

Representing Utopia, or Advertisements of a World to Come

[Image: Test-crash from “California Freeways: Planning For Progress,” courtesy Prelinger Archives].

For those of you here in Los Angeles, I’m thrilled to be hosting an event tomorrow evening at USC with “rogue librarianMegan Prelinger, on the subject of representing utopia.

Megan is cofounder of the San Francisco-based Prelinger Library, an independent media archive specializing “in material that is not commonly found in other public libraries.” Their collection has a strong focus on California history, science, and technology, from obscure technical publications to books on environmental politics, topics that can be tracked throughout Megan’s own work as a researcher and writer.

She is also the author of Another Science Fiction: Advertising the Space Race, 1957-1962 and Inside The Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age. Both books reproduce beautifully designed promotional materials produced as part of an earlier era of science and technology; these include often-overlooked ephemera, such as corporate advertisements and business brochures, or what Alexis Madrigal has described as “the hyperbolic, whimsical world of the advertisements these early aerospace companies created to sell themselves.”

New satellite systems, microchip designs, space program components, electronic home appliances, from televisions to microwaves, to name only a few: all were the subject of visionary business models premised on utopian narratives of the world to come.

Taken as a whole, the Prelinger Library’s collection of these materials raises the interesting possibility that, in order to understand twentieth-century science fiction, we should not only read Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, or J. G. Ballard, but back-of-magazine ads for firms such as Frigidaire and General Electric. These are corporations, of course, applied futurism sought to create a new world—one in which their own products would be most useful.

[Image: From Another Science Fiction, via Wired].

At the event tomorrow night, we’ll be discussing both of these books, to be sure, but we’ll be doing so in the larger context of utopian representations of the state of California, treating California as a place of technical innovation, artificial control of the natural environment, and even perceived mastery over public health and the risk of disease transmission.

Megan will be showing a handful of short films about these themes, all taken from the Prelinger Archives, and we’ll round out our roughly 45-minute Q&A with open questions from the audience.

The event will cap off 500 Years of Utopia, our long look at the legacy of Sir Thomas More’s book, Utopia, timed for the 500th anniversary of its publication. The accompanying exhibition closes on February 28.

Things kick off at 5pm on Tuesday, February 7th; please RSVP.

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.