SRSS: Low-tech models as tools to visualize ideas

Hanna Hildebrand, Paul Wiersbinski, Nina Dubois

Independent artists

INTRODUCTION BY PAUL WIERSBINSKI

SRSS is an ongoing project from Hanna Hildebrand and Paul Wiersbinski, a container for process-based experiments where temporary simple made models visualize a process of imagination, becoming pretexts for reflecting and relating to interdisciplinary issues proactively.

At first, in 2010, SRSS had been a simple-made object that was tested as an architectural model on an earthquake simulation platform at the UNAM in Mexico City; the documentation of the test became a video work, which is available online at http://vimeo.com/24114152 (Password: mesa). During the ISEA 2012 Machine Wilderness in Albuquerque, that video has been a starting point for a workshop with high school students, its outcome a huge object hanging from the ceiling, a model of a utopian city triggered by the workshop. The model was shown accompanied by the SRSS video.

SRSS started as a work in progress and eventually led to a strong connection to science and architecture. As the work progressed, the improvisational nature remained active in all stages of construction, experiment, and documentation. Reflecting on the question of why people tend to laugh about aspects of the work yet still accepting its utopian statement might lead to a more general and possible philosophical reflection on the contemporary relation between art and science.

Art theorist Boris Groys compares our obsession with the advancement of technology with the material aspect of Marxism he was taught in the Soviet Union. Apart from fetishistic implications, his theory makes a reference towards the lack of utopia in our society when dealing with scientific advancement. SRSS, in this respect, seems humorous to us because it shows the advancement of scientific ideas, not as a facade of purely technical and commercial resources as we are used to, but as an aesthetic improvisation on seemingly unrealistic and yet existential reflections.

Therefore the project confronts us with our own completely submissive attitude towards science, in which we don´t understand and question any of its advancement anymore yet remain completely dependent on it. The utopian aspect actually begins with laughter about how ridiculous scientific research and its machines always have been because it focuses on involved human vision and failure.
Advancement in science just as in art has always been a story of dead ends, random strolls into the unspeakable and the seemingly pretentious declaration of meaning. Yet what remains unknown in our society of knowledge is the utopian purpose of our work and a confrontation with this black hole of sense, ultimately proving deeply unsettling and funny.

 Fig 1. SRSS, 2012, Hanna Hildebrand and Paul Wiersbinski, temporary models to visualize a process, ©Hanna Hildebrand and Paul Wiersbinski.


SRSS, 2012, Hanna Hildebrand and Paul Wiersbinski, temporary models to visualize a process, ©Hanna Hildebrand and Paul Wiersbinski. (Used with permission.)

HANNA HILDEBRAND IN AN INTERVIEW FROM NINA DUBOIS

Nina Dubois: How did the SRSS project come about? Had you worked in this manner before? Had you worked with Paul Wiersbinski before?

Hanna Hildebrand:
All my work tends to be based on the participation of a large group of people. This particular research found its conceptual beginning in 2009 while I was supervising a group of other artists, of which Paul was a part, in the realization of a large model of Yona Friedman’s Spatial City for the Venice Biennale.

In 2010, Paul and I started to work together at SRSS in Mexico City, testing an earthquake-simulating platform on a very simply-made small sculpture/model of a spatial city/living platform (which also resembles a chair) – resulting in a successful experiment that is documented in the video which was on display at the ABQ museum next to the big hanging model. Through this process, we were interested in expanding what we had learned from Yona into the specific context of an earthquake-endangered place and also in creating a commentary on the link between art and science – on the standard aesthetic of art and the unavoidable necessity of being approved of.

Curiously enough, that an object with such an improvised and playful esthetic (an easily assembled wood construction decorated with marshmallows) is judged successful in the engineering faculty context seems to inevitably cause the viewers to laugh.

We were both interested in further investigating the resources of group imagination applied to city planning, and that’s how the second part of SRSS came about. The ISEA symposium was also a good context to put in practice a working modality, which reflects on how art can reach science, even through the most modest means and materials.

ND: The project references Yona Friedman’s concept of the Spatial City – a utopian model for an elevated and adaptive form of city planning. How would you define the ideas behind SRSS in relation to the Spatial City? What is your relationship to Friedman’s work?

HH: I got to know Yona in 2008 by reading the Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews and I immediately found myself very comfortable with his worldview and philosophy. [1] Working with him personally just increased my appreciation and my interest.

Yona was an important starting point for SRSS, especially in terms of material (inexpensive and simple) and because of the collective working process based on imagination and improvisation that was implemented. His attitude was presented to the participating group also in terms of his thinking on the role of the architect (not as a star but rather somebody at the service of the community). Of course both SRSS models (the one in the video and the one hanging) also make a reference to the Spatial City by being structures based on elevation and distance from earth. They also both have a grid-like base on which the smaller elements are distributed, referencing Yona’s idea of mobile architecture and, metaphorically, the possibility of everyone inserting his or her own individual hypothesis.

ND: The model on view at the Albuquerque Museum of Art is made primarily of reclaimed and recyclable materials. Why was it important to use such ubiquitous and low-tech materials?

HH: The use of random, cheap, and easy material is the best choice to visualize ideas: expensive technical material would just create more problems and hesitations, whereas with this approach you don’t need to worry about treating the material well, and this encourages play and improvisation. This is also something I learned from Yona: take any sheet, crumple it, and look at the shape you made – it’s a model for your imagination.

I use to make my exhibition models (also planning video or room installations) with fish stick boxes and other discarded materials. I suppose our work was one of the few in the ISEA exhibition that was so low-tech, and we appreciated the opportunity to make a point, to show that it is possible to communicate ideas even if they are not supported by bombastic high-tech materials.

ND: SRSS employs the model both as a theoretical and indexical tool. How would you define your use of constructed models?

HH: I see models as tools to visualize ideas and tell stories. But they are also undercover performers that intervene in a situation to point, indicate, or provoke a reaction and stand for something, especially to help mirror elements of the context. I can see in other of my works the presence of models, not even as material maquettes but in other forms with that role.

ND: How do you imagine that the act of designing and prototyping alternative dwellings and instruments for living can actually influence city planning and translate as a generative gesture, as a way of actualizing new forms of spatial and social organization?

HH: My starting point is to take very seriously any imaginative process, and I believe that there is room for individual ideas and design. In a way, every single element has an amount of realism and is realizable. As Yona says, what makes utopia realizable is the consensus. And in small communities, it could be easier to implement alternative dwellings; in any case, we made genuine proposals.

ND: How would you define the notion of utopia, or utopian thinking in relation to SRSS?

HH: I think one of the good points of the term “utopia” is that it validates and legitimate imaginative processes and allows trans-disciplinarity: to play in the realm of imagination and improvisation you do not need specialized skills and professionalization becomes secondary. Utopia is not rigid, it constructs bridges where officially there are not and every boundary become flexible. That’s why SRSS can reason and bring proposals scientifically, even if keeping a low-tech style.
In the case of Albuquerque we assumed a utopian attitude also by taking any considerations seriously and by using a process in which each member of the group could bring ideas, trying to get out of the limits and constriction of our common living situation, context, and roles in society.

ND: There is also a dystopian undertone to the narratives accompanying several of the proposed structures in SRSS. Is the work intended as a response to a prevalent sense of crisis and instability in our culture—regarding not only the built environment but also the environment as a whole, and in relation to politics and social and economic structures?

HH: The dystopian tone is definitely quite relevant in the SRSS hanging model. Crisis and instability are constant parts of our society, so it is natural that dystopia became part of the model since the production process was about letting the participants imagine and improvise freely.

It was interesting to observe that when free to imagine whatever they might want to have in their community, some of our high school workshop participants made up a really huge entertainment center, sort of like a posh shopping mall. Then from other sides, there was apocalypse and there was sustainability: this demonstrated the natural diversity of the group and at the same time the bipolarity of our society, which makes sustainability an excuse and still wants a high-rise. Dystopia is a strong resource, the strongest: it’s provocative, it can concretize the doom and the fear, but it can also report true opinions and sentiments.

ND: How was your experience of Albuquerque and the desert Southwest different from the usual sites and terrains of your practice?

HH: It was highly interesting and challenging to see the open spaces, a wideness of territory that I am not used to: the term “land art“ assumed more significance, and furthermore this wideness gave me the feeling that there could be the chance to think seriously – not only with models but with larger experiments. In this regard, it was also interesting to see projects like the Earthship Community, which is a real dwelling alternative that benefits from wide lands. Other challenging experiences for me were the presence of Space Port America and the history of Los Alamos.

ND: What are you working on now?

HH: I am doing a model for an architectonic situation, which is designed to collapse – a sort of homage to ruins and catastrophe. It is an architectural situation with an apocalyptic spirit, which makes its essential qualities the aspects of catastrophe and offers the opportunity to live in a ruin. Thanks to the integration of nontraditional interpretations of the laws of static and strength of materials, it favors collapses, falling apart, explosions, and fires. The invasion of wild plants will be facilitated, as well as the development of mold and other elements, such as dirt and smells. In this way, a random design will be obtained, where, thanks to “catastrophic events” distributed in time and not predictable by the user, the user will get a release from emotional weight trapped in materiality. With the joy of the unknown and surprise, an auto-elimination of comfort and habits and a consequent excitation for the loss of possessions will be obtained. The decrease of harmony’s heaviness will increase objects’ functional coherence.

References

1. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yona Friedman, Hans Ulrich Obrist & Yona Friedman: The Conversation Series (Koln: Walther Konig, 2007).

Bios

Nina Dubois is a graduate student in the MFA program at the University of New Mexico, Art & Ecology area. This interview was part of a body of research accompanying her thesis, researching the strategies that different artists develop to engage a number of ideas related to art as a transformative project.

Hanna Hildebrand
is an independent artist working in between disciplines, investigating through open process behaviors in society, digging for new possibilities and trying to expand limits. She is Italian and Swiss, studied art in Frankfurt, lives and works nomadically.

Paul Wiersbinski studied art with Mark Leckey and Douglas Gordon at the HfbK Städelschule in Frankfurt. He is working as a freelance artist and researcher, dealing with scientific investigation into discourses such as architecture, entomology or cybernetics.