This series of posts, based on an artist talk delivered in April 2014 at LEAP Berlin, will focus on the role of scale models and simulation models, the former making something large or complex, past or not yet existing tangible, the latter constituting a computational abstraction which through its predictive qualities may end up having an influence on the world itself. Two projects will serve as examples, both collaborations with New York City-based Chris Woebken, created during a joint residency at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center: The Society for Speculative Rocketry and Elsewheres.
In its larger scope, the discussion also relates to another artistic research project, The Supertask, a collaboration with Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg initiated by the University of Southampton – an investigation into whether it would be possible to create a model of the whole world, or a world from models.
Scale models entered my world in 2009 when working on a piece titled The Golden Institute, a counterfactual history scenario set in the United States of a parallel universe. Here, Ronald Reagan has lost the presidential election of 1980 and Jimmy Carter remained in office. History tells us that Reagan swiftly abandoned Carter’s tender efforts at research and development of alternative sources of energy (perfectly embodied in the de-installation of a solar heating unit on the roof of the White House). In my narrative, Carter goes-all out on such technologies, turning the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO into The Golden Institute.
Carter, channeling his inner JFK, publicly states his ambition to make the United States independent from foreign oil before the end of the 1980s and endows the Institute with funds comparable to an Apollo-age NASA. Granted such powers, it pursues all kinds of projects, ranging from planetary scale weather-engineering in order to harness the power of thunderstorms in Nevada’s new ‘Weather Experimentation Zone’, all the way down to subsidizing individual Americans’ efforts to draw electricity from the artificial skies, an entrepreneurial vision of the mythical experiment that founding father Benjamin Franklin performed with his kite in 1752.
I chose to partially materialize parts of this narrative through objects for Douglas Arnd’s office, the fictional chief strategist, who is modeled after the likes of RAND Corporation’s notorious Herman Kahn. Scale models that are in fact trophies of the projects that make the Institute the most proud. One of them, a 1985 Chevrolet El Camino roughly at a scale of 1:20, is fitted with a huge lightning rod and towing a trailer full of supercapacitors to hold the electricity. It is everybody’s older cousin’s car, but modified to go lightning harvesting for profit, at approximately $400 per strike. The perfect demonstration of the way in which the Institute’s work has affected the lives of ordinary people.
Looking at the model’s 3D-printed parts, just moments before they were sent for chrome coating by the same London company that gilded C-3PO for Star Wars in 1977, I realized that I had created not a trophy but a toy – in fact one that very much resembles the ones I had been assembling as a child, mostly of American fighter planes.
Scale models do occupy a curious space between both past, present, future and in terms of our personal and collective imagination. My American fighter planes, often manufactured by Revell Plastics GmbH, a German subsidiary of a Californian company, are for instance in essence an iconic manifestation of real technologies. They were, gleefully appreciated, projecting American air power right into my kinderzimmer, billion-dollar projects distilled into a few grams of cast grey plastic. And, after successful assembly and decoration they may advance to being toys, elevated by imagination, and thus gain a performative function. But they rarely do fly.