Back and Forth

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Installation View

The circle. Simply described by a center point and a radius, it appears to be a straightforward shape. You can roll it. You can spin it. A point on its edge always comes back towards you. It’s friendly in that way. That is, until it’s drawn, when the difficulty of the circle appears as the page frames the circle and inscribes a top, a bottom, and sides. Caged as it is by the edges of the page, the circle won’t spin freely again. 

Imagine another circle whose top is to the side and its bottom is upside down. Even standing still, its sides would spin towards each other. An analogous circle is found in the tale of Sisyphus, condemned by the Greek gods to roll a stone to the top of a mountain, at which point it rolls back down and Sisyphus must tread back to roll it up again. He must’ve thought of the stone like the circle, its orientation trapped by the limits of gravity. You wonder: had Sisyphus ever considered changing the shape of the stone, maybe it would roll on its own. 

Draw the stone as it rolls down the hill, as a set of circles from varying distances with different orientations and center points, some bigger than others. Their movement condenses their distances, orientations, and locations superimposed into a single, polyscaled circle. And then you make an installation of all the circles you tried to spin, caged in a gallery, for someone else to give it a go.It will resemble Training Wheels, an installation that took place at the Ohio State University’s Banvard Gallery as a culmination of the LeFevre Emerging Practitioner Fellowship.

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Installation View, photos courtesy of Norman Ai

Paper Space Oddities

At it stands, the circle needs to be conceptualized, the installation described, and the assembly planned. Each conceptual stage requires a shift in working space such that various images and drawings are constructed.These stages respond to the 2015 conference at Princeton University, Postmodern Procedures, curated by Sylvia Lavin, which included the topics “Documenting”, “Deforming”, “Instructing/Constructing", and “Processing/Collecting”. Rather than a critical response, this report instead aligns aims to contribute to those topics by describing drawings created for the conceptualization, execution, and documentation of the installation.  Begin drawing the poly-scaled circles using the tools at your disposal, carefully manipulating each circle’s center, radius, size, and orientation. Overlay different circles by maintaining similar centroids. Try two or three together and make various versions. Every attempt produces the freely spinning circle you imagined. Once drawn, the polyscaled circles are scaleless figures awaiting material dimensioning. They’ll need to be made three-dimensional, into discs, before selecting a size according to a dimension or material system.

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Polyscaled Circle Construction

Both methods begin with the real space of actual dimensioning and the presumption that a material system is a measuring device.For example, Stanley Tigerman describes grids as a sign of accessibility because of their universal ability to measure through counting. Tigerman, Stanley “The Grid as an Instrument of Accessibility,” 1992 And yet in the digital working space, scale remains impenetrable. There aren’t the stoppages found in scaled architectural drawings and models.A detailed account of the change in scaled working space is described by Mark Morris. Although Morris suggests a call to bring back “scale as a teaching tool,” this installation embraces scalelessness as an embedded fact of digital life and calls for new ideas about approaching the abstractions that Morris suggests are disappearing. Morris, Mark. "1: Whatever: The Collapse of Scalar Thinking." The Cornell Journal of Architecture 9: Mathematics (2013): 84. With the click of a mouse or a finger pinch, objects expand and shrink while screens zoom in and out. Big things and small things always take up the same amount of screen space and appear identical. If a part can be displayed the same as a whole, then material dimensions might appear the same in all views, describing a very odd object. 

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Model Space, Same Scale

Continue with this observation by constructing two drawings that operate as a structure for digital working space. The first drawing constructs a field of discs set against a grid (Fig 4). In this drawing, the changing sizes of the discs are contrasted from one another by their changing relationship to the grid. The drawing doesn’t describe a real space but instead conceptualizes a formwork for specifying each disc in a singularly scaled field. The grid measures this space and is inscribed into the discs, along with geometric notations. You materialize these notations with paper-based products like cardboard and cardboard tape.

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Paper Space, Same Scale

The second drawing arranges frontal views of each disc situated in the gallery next to one another (Fig 5). Each view is scaled differently such that the size of the disc is the same in each view. Although these frontal views resemble architectural elevations, they are rotated to the grid on the wheel rather to the ground of the gallery. New comparisons emerge between the discs, the density of grid, and referent markers like human figures. That the discs are situated in different sizes in different orientations because the drawing conceptualizes the installation from the fragmented point of view of the discs rather than from the point of view of the gallery. And so, it’s not the gallery that contains the discs, you realize. Instead, the discs are forming the gallery.

It’s funny. As you're working, these two drawings begin to resemble the model space and paper space viewports in Autodesk’s AutoCAD - the very workspaces you’re working with. In model space, geometry is conceptualized at full-scale and is described by perspectival or orthographic projection. Like outer space, the viewport simulates a blank field overlaid by a standard unit of measurement. This is a similar three-dimensional workspace as many modeling softwares, including Rhino, Maya, 3D Max, SketchUp, and others. The paper space viewport, on the other hand, was added to AutoCAD to simulate the scaled architectural conventions of paper drawings and automate the assembly of construction drawings. This two-dimensional space is comprised by a set of windows that peer into the model space through orthographic projection, like a set of black holes into the same universe. Each window is assigned its own scale, so that the overall drawing may have many windows, each zoomed in and out of the full-scale model. The viewport constructs a fragmented view into a stable geometric field.

Ship in a Bottle

Although the oddity of paper space constructs a point of view of the discs, the installation itself is limited by typical size, time, labor, and budget constraints. Each limit is maximized such that the size and amount of discs reaches the time-money-size ceiling. In the case of Ohio State’s Banvard gallery, the maximum size of disc that fills the room can’t fit through the doors of the gallery, and so each disc must be made in situ, like a ship in a bottle. The gallery is conceived as a construction site that slowly becomes the finished project through a carefully planned assembly sequence. 

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Scales of Assembly

Each disc is assembled horizontally on the floor, beginning by assembling the pieces of cardboard of the first face, then assembling the interior structure, and then placing the second face on top, before wrapping the thickness of the disc with the final material (Fig 6). It’s basically a thick sandwich with very thin slices of bread. The disc is propped up vertically then moved out of the way. At first, there’s plenty of room for this process, but as more and more discs are assembled, open space disappears. Tools, materials, supplies, clear access to doors and outlets, and the location of the assembly crew is coordinated through a series of choreographed instruction drawings.

The largest discs are constructed first then pushed towards the eastern side of the gallery. Construction follows from the largest towards smaller discs as the filled up space encroaches towards the western side of the gallery. As they are assembled, the discs are rearranged while supplies are moved out of the way to clear out enough space. Then supplies are moved out and the discs are shuffled to fill the gallery evenly (Fig 7). The completed gallery is full of discs, some leaning on one another, some leaning on the walls and doors of the gallery, and some standing up. Together they accumulate into a single mass that approaches a sectional object.The sectional object is a recurring technique in which an object is inside another object. Its focus on interstitial and residual spaces is described by Jeff Kipnis as displaying vast and incongruous qualities. Kipnis, Jeff. "Towards A New Architecture." Architectural Design, Folding in Architecture, ed. Greg Lynn (1993): 57-65. On the other hand, Andrew Zago describes the sectional object’s ability to “remove the objective distance” between viewer and object. In Zago’s reading, the strategy focuses attention towards the inability to comprehend the object rather than focus attention to the space surrounding it, presumably because it cannot be seen all at once yet clearly exerts a separate identity from the container. Zago, Andrew. "Not It." Lecture, University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Ann Arbor, MI. September 23, 2011. There are some small gaps and crevices but the overall effect of the gallery is evenly interior.

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Detail Comparison

Back Up

Last, document the installation. Any attempt to photograph it is frustrated by the dimension of crevices that a camera can back up within. Mostly, there isn’t enough room for the camera to capture the whole installation, let alone the entirety of an individual disc. Instead, photographs and videos focus on what’s immediately present: the interstices pushing around the discs to the gallery; and the cardboard, the seams, the joints, the glue, the tape: all of the things holding everything together. Although the camera can’t document the whole, it’s too close to discern an assembly system. It only sees details, even where there aren’t any. Once in a while a human figure is caught in the picture, usually their feet or the back of their head.

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Installation View, photo courtesy of Norman Ai

As people shuffle in, the discs start to spin. They graze past, causing the discs to slowly sway. At first it isn’t very noticeable, but as their movement comes into focus, the mass breaks apart into individuals discs. The reading of the installation shifts between an even interior to a collection of objects. The discs wobble, but never make it to a full spin. It’s time to try again, to begin another attempt to spin the circle.

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