As a scientist, I am used to my work being read by my peers, and I’ve made it into the occasional magazine or newspaper article, and even the odd TV and radio slot. But last week I travelled to Venice’s Architecture Biennale for the culmination of the first phase of the Architectural Association’s Beyond Entropy art/science project (which I’ve described before). I took a vaporetto to the island of San Giorgio, and next to one of Venice’s more spectacular Palladian churches, I saw the Beyond Entropy banner hanging over the entrance:
(I took these pictures, but there are many much more professional ones taken by the AA’s Valerie Bennett.)
Before arriving, I didn’t know what to expect from the project: small-scale, low-key, amateurish? In this setting, it was clearly big and serious. And inside this lovely building were these, the prototypes for our time machine:
Last year I traveled to South America to witness the launch of our several-hundred million-Euro Planck satellite, surely a big and serious project. But the sight of my own work — our texts, flywheels and gyroscopes — sitting on a plywood plinth, plausibly described as something at least related to the very different creative process of art, was nearly as disconcerting (despite the lack of highly explosive rocket fuel).
I’ll leave any assessment of the overall quality to others, although it became obvious that these pieces really are prototypes for what could become more finished works, but we have a long way to go. Nonetheless, let me explicitly thank my collaborators, Shin Egashira (whom I will also congratulate on his wedding which gave him an excellent reason to not show up in Venice) and Scrap Marshall, a student at the Architectural Association who joined us toward the end of the project and did an enormous amount of practical and creative work getting our pieces together. From speaking to members of some of the other groups, we were lucky to all be based in London, and to eventually come to see our project in similar ways, albeit from different directions; some of the more widely-dispersed groups had to deal with significantly greater practical problems, and the interpersonal ones those ended up causing.
That first day was dedicated to the AA’s visiting school, and the next day was the centrepiece: a marathon symposium of more than thirty talks, dedicated to the themes of “entropy” and “energy”. Remarkably, none of our projects addressed the ecological, societal and political aspects of these topics, while many of the speakers attacked them directly, from Richard Burdett and Reinier de Graaf’s complementary discussions of the bleak picture for energy and climate if we keep to “business as usual” in our habits of consumption and production, to Italian Green Party politician Grazia Francescato’s hopeful discussion of “Green Jobs and Green Economy”. There were a few talks on science per se, from Angelo Merlina’s brief introduction to the LHC at CERN (of which a third talked about cosmology, and a third was pre-recorded), to one of my favourites, biophysicist Tania Saxl’s description of the amazing mechanism behind the motion of rotating bacterial flagella. There was also an inexplicable prerecorded description of “parallel worlds” in film from de Gruyter and Thys, a performance from the Arazzi Laptop ensemble, and contributions from Serpentine Gallery curator Hans-Ulrik Obrist (which was interesting but mostly about himself) and Charles Jencks. Jencks tackled the overlap between science, art and architecture head-on, each as a different metaphorical system for describing and interacting with the world. This culminates in his Scottish Garden of Cosmic Speculation, a hugely symbolic landscape replete with double helixes and grassy knolls in the form of black hole spacetime diagrams (I admit I’ve also found these supposed metaphors a bit too, well, literal for my taste — with insufficient information to be effective teaching tools, but too didactic to be truly beautiful.) I think the most important thing I learned was that, in their own way, the architects are just as nerdy as us scientists, but just better looking dressed.
Also, there was plenty of fine food and free-flowing sparkling wine (which meant that I probably missed about half of the presentations).
Finally, I would like to thank everyone from the AA who made the project happen (and will continue to do so, if further funding is forthcoming): Artemis Doupa, Sylvie Taher, Esther McLaughlin, Aram Mooradian and most especially the ever-enthusiastic project director, Stefano Rabolli Pansera. Thanks also to the AA visiting students, and all of the other participants, especially Ariel Schlesinger and Wilfredo Prieto for giving me a glimpse of the Architecture Biennale through artists’ eyes.
A few weeks ago I wrote about my visit to Geneva as part of the Beyond Entropy art/architecture/science collaboration sponsored by the Architecture Association. We continued our work last weekend in the Dorset woods visiting the AA’s Hooke Park site, a 350-acre forest with a bit more space for workshops than their Bedford Square buildings in central London.
Our group’s brief was to explore the concept of “mechanical energy” and we took as our starting point “How To Build A Time Machine”, by the French pre-absurdist Alfred Jarry (who I remember first encountering as the inspiration behind the name of Cleveland proto-punks Pere Ubu and as an occasional character in Zippy the Pinhead). Like Wells’ Time Machine from the same period, Jarry envisions time as a fourth dimension, and equips a massive cube with giant flywheels. Conservation of angular momentum (real physics) keeps the machine from moving in space, and also in time (that’s the absurdity).
We started by playing with some store-bought gyroscopes, trying to fix them to the faces of a cube, but soon realized that it was difficult to connect the edges of the cube to the axes of the spinning disks, although we did make this lovely machine out of small electric motors, rotors from tape decks, and machined metal disks (where by “we” I must admit that my mechanical prowess doesn’t quite rate much beyond kibbitzing on my part).
But we wanted something more substantial, and more symmetric. The design breakthrough, and my only major contribution, came with the realization that we could join the axes of the flywheels and the corners of the faces of cube with a triangle — a simpler and more stable shape than the cube itself. Shin Egashira, the architectural side of our triangular collaboration, took this forward to an actual design. We cut it from thick plywood with a magnificent CNC machine…
…which we then put together to make this:
The flywheels spin on bearings, and can actually generate quite a bit of angular momentum. We couldn’t yet work out an efficient way to get and keep all three wheels spinning at once, but the whole mechanism is stable (and well-built!) enough to spin around rather amazingly on the ground:
Next, the work of our collaboration and the others in the Beyond Entropy “cluster” will be presented at the Festival dell’energia in Lecce, and then this summer in Venice for the Architecture Biennale. Sadly, we weren’t able to travel in time any faster (or slower) than the usual one second per second, so these events are approaching fast.
I’ve been in Geneva now for a couple of days. We spent yesterday visiting CERN, trying to inspire the artists, architects and scientists alike (I’ve collaborated with people here, but I’ve never visited before).
A mockup of a section of the CERN tunnels. More pictures here.
You can also check out Peter Coles’ blog for his
The second night, after our visit to CERN and a dinner of fondue and swiss music (possibly not the high point of the trip), all of the 24 participants (eight groups each of an architect, artist and a scientist) gave a few-minute presentation on their work and interests. I was, to use the cliché, blown away by the ambition and accomplishment of everyone else involved. In particular, I am lucky enough to be working with Budapest-based artist Attila Csorgo and architect Shin Egashira, who works out of the Architecture Association, the overall initiators and sponsors of the project. Both build amazing machines. Attila’s constructions seem to me to be about the interaction of the machine and the environment, or of the components of the machine itself, whereas Shin’s involve more effort on the part of the viewer/participant (but I am sure I will get to understand their work and their practice better as I spend more time with it and them).
We spent the next day in a lovely old Swiss building, brainstorming our projects — we’re meant to come up with a “prototype” to have in place for this summer’s Architecture Biennale in Venice. Our brief was to explore the concept of “Mechanical Energy”, and we found an area of convergence in the idea of cameras, in the process of taking pictures, areas that both Shin and Attila have explored in their work.
Right now, our first idea is to combine the Planck Surveyor’s method of scanning the sky with a microphone-based sensor and camera, to make sound and light pictures of the volume surrounding the apparatus. We’re looking forward to a weekend retreat into the wilds of Dorset, to Hooke Park, a site run by the AA.
Thanks, finally, to Stefano Rabolli Pansera, the brilliant, optimistic, and enthusiastic mind behind this project, as well as all of the other people from the Architecture Association doing the hard work.
I’m in Geneva for a few days as part of a project called “Beyond Entropy: When Entropy Becomes Form”, sponsored by the Architectural Association back in London, the brainchild of Stefano Rabolli Pansera and others at the AA. It brings together eight trios of architects, artists and scientists to produce works to be shown at the Venice Architecture Biennale later this year, and possibly the better-known Art Biennale in 2011. But beyond that broad outline, none of us know much about what we will be producing; that is the purpose of this very first gathering. I admit I am not quite sure why we are here in Geneva, visiting CERN, other than the fact that it is a cool place to talk about art, science and architecture (which is good enough for me).
Imperial is happily over-represented in the scientist column, with about half of the scientists, but otherwise, it’s a broadly-spread bunch, from all over the UK and Western Europe. One of the other scientists is my mate and fellow cosmologist-blogger Peter Coles, who has already beaten me to the blogging punch.