Benjamin Ball talks about the fantastic installations of Ball-Nogues Studio and discusses getting messy, craft and experience, and aestheticizing the resolution.
images clockwise from top left: Yucca Crater (Photo: Scott Mayoral), Maximilian’s Schell (Photo: Neil Cochran), Feathered Edge drawing, Feathered Edge (Photo: Benny Chan)
suckerPUNCH: Could we start with your background, leading into your architecture days?
benjamin BALL: My architecture days began during childhood—that’s when I was first exposed to it and became interested—I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in the Midwest and my best friend’s dad was an architect and I looked at his books. I kind of gave it up at a point in adolescence and then picked it up again in college, when I was 19. I’ve been in some related endeavor since then, first working as a set designer in film, then as an art director, and finally as a production designer. I worked for several architects. I worked for some artists. I did a lot of different things—I did event design a few times—and then ended up back in architecture. I started working with Gaston [Nogues] in 2004. We’ve known each other since our SCI-Arc days in the early ’90s.
sP: I saw in your bio that you had done some art direction and production design on films. Is that a clear influence on your work, or was that just a step along the way?
bB: It’s certainly an influence. I would say that our work is decidedly not scenographic, in the sense that we’re not interested purely in the look of things. A production designer is concerned with the story that a space tells and how that space compliments the character or the narrative that the director is trying to convey—so we’re not so much interested in that these days. We share with production designers an interest in making things that are temporary, transient. I think that a lot of lessons from production design regarding logistics, lighting, representation, and methods of fabrication have made their way into our work. When working in set design I quickly got a sense of scale that I wouldn’t have developed working in architecture – one tends to work in scaled abstractions in architecture and the projects move much more slowly. In set design you can draw a space and the builder can start making it the same afternoon. You can say to them, “Well, let’s change it, let’s move it,” and they will. It’s almost like modeling something in 1:1 scale. Try that in architecture!
sP: In the Built to Wear project (Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism, Hong Kong, 2009) you talked a little bit about it being, purposely, this sort of temporary thing. It wasn’t a permanent building, in that it was able to quickly go up and prompt a reaction. And that it will come down; it has a lifespan. Could you maybe talk a little bit about your embrace of that temporariness or how you use that?
bB: We aren’t ideologues about “temporary” things. People have speculated before by saying we are these guys who are exclusively into “temporary” things; That is not really how we see it – it’s just the circumstances we were working under at for the first few years. These were the opportunities we were afforded. We view “temporary” installation, vis-à-vis architecture, as resulting from where we are within the structure of power; temporary is what we have been able to do without working for somebody else, and so we’re going to try to do it as well as we possibly can and we’re going to consider it from every possible angle within our means. So, having done several temporary, we’ll call them temporary, installations—in art it’s just called installation and in architecture they’re called temporary structures—we started thinking about how we might consider the life cycle of material to specifically address the issues surrounding projects that have short life spans. Ideas about LEED don’t really apply to these works and most of the “green” stuff just doesn’t make sense in that context. It doesn’t really mean anything to get your materials within 500 miles of your site if you are going to tear the project down in six months. We decided that what happens to that material after the structure is dismantled was more important than where it came from or whether the material was “sustainable.” The challenge was not just to design an installation but also to design the disappearance of the installation. We thought, You know, it doesn’t make sense to add another layer of manufacturing on top of a material after you take down a temporary project – it’s such an expenditure of energy. Perhaps we could make a project comprised of components which are ready-to-wear in their post-installation life, that are commodities in their own right and that have, perhaps, even more value in their dispersed or repurposed state than they do in the coagulated state of the installation. Moreover, rather than using materials efficiently, it is a kind of poetic reminder, a kind of indicator of the transitory nature of the built environment.
sP: I’d also be curious if there is any difference in the approach given the lag time that is typically a problem for architecture. A large project is designed, and it could be five to ten years until it is actually built and goes back into the culture it came out of. Here you know that within six months your project will be a physical reality and, as a result, exist within the cultural moment you design for and are a part of. Not that that lag time necessarily gets thought about, but it is a reality.
bB: Sure. I think that notion of time, or “current-ness,” is another part of our installation work that interests me. We often indulge interests that perhaps wouldn’t be suitable for a building meant to live for 25 years or more and that will take five years to design and build. If it is also something that is aesthetically of a particular moment, then perhaps it is better that it’s built to last for only six months. You can take much bigger risks and you can try things that you normally wouldn’t try when the work is meant to be temporary – people are less likely to lose their ass on a project of that size and the risks are smaller financially. You can put something into the world that perhaps wouldn’t be considered tasteful or interesting in ten years and you can respond to cultural shifts that occur at a different scale of time.
sP: It definitely seems you guys have a drive to build and move beyond the paper or the speculation. This drive allows these projects to go beyond the circle of experimental architects and out into the world to have a larger effect.
bB: Right. To me that has always been important. I never related to the insular discourse, the kind of “ghettoization” of academia. I respect it, but our work is concerned with craft and experience and one can’t practice craft in theory, it requires you to directly engage with material. It’s the habitus. It’s the tacit knowledge that you develop from working with it. And that’s something you can theorize only to a limited degree. By definition craft requires doing, right? Gaston and I are both very interested in that. But in the end the works are speculative, but they are also immediate and can be appreciated by people without extensive knowledge of architecture. That’s what we aim for: on the one hand, to probe this discourse and, on the other, to make something that can affect someone without knowledge of architecture or installation.
sP: Do you get much feedback on your installations from the general public and through/from how they interact with them?
bB: We get a lot of feedback from the general public. I’m pleased if the general public likes our work. I don’t think work has to be entirely about taste, but if you want to do something subversive you don’t necessarily have to subvert popular taste. This is not to say these things embody only popular sensibilities, but we don’t shy away from wowing the general public—that’s fine with us, it draws people into the work and makes them notice it. There’s usually a whole set of issues that each of the projects deals with that the general public doesn’t understand and doesn’t necessarily care about. So we are trying to achieve both. I think that in order to work at the pace at which we work, with the kind of resources that we work with, we have to address/involve the general public. We have to be able to play both sides of the fence otherwise we’d be working with $2,000 budgets – that is not enough to explore some of the things we are into right now.
sP: You brought up craft. It’s always interesting to me that in your work you guys go from really high-end, sophisticated, even custom software, to then, at the same time, this sort of handcraft and analogue moment. Your work is the mixture of both and you are never really married too far to one side or the other.
bB: Yes, for sure. It’s the approach that yields physical things. Just because design makes use of lots of fancy digital technology doesn’t mean that the human hand doesn’t have a place in it. We try to negotiate that slightly unpredictable—we’ll call it messy—slightly messy world. It’s not a mess, but it’s messier than the highly precise realm of pure digital technology. I think that as we move forward we’ll see that this was a phase, where digital technology was used to these sort of overdetermined ends and where we all attempted to predict the outcome and location of every nut, bolt, and fiber of the work. That’s not how the work world works. That’s not even how natural systems work. There is something erratic at play. In our case it is the unpredictability of the hand and the unpredictability of materials. We don’t see these interests as departures from an interest in precision.
sP: The last few years are in some ways a lot like the ’30s, when the technology was about precision. The automotive industry pushed a lot of the development to make really highly precise panels. The CNC is about making things perfect and seamless, for example. It’s funny that you bring up the idea of this sort of mess, in that the digital takes out any of that kind of texture, that grit. That’s why the default was the candy-coated, smooth, continuous surface rather than anything that dealt with the realities of construction or texture, or any sensation beyond that false sense of perfection.
bB: Well, that was also what the software was good at doing . . .
sP: That’s what it was made to do. It’s not made to make messes or to make grit.
bB: Right. Out of the box that’s what it was good at. We’re usually pretty hesitant to use tools as they are advertised. Besides, why try to compute everything? It’s sort of insane and controlling.
sP: I’ve always liked the image you guys have of the machine (Instal-lator 1 with the Variable Information Atomizing Module) you have for cutting and dying strings—it’s this very precise machine, but it’s also got the mess of paint all over it. In the end the effect is highly calculated in the string in order to create those patterns, but there’s also this bit of mess that goes into it. And it’s great to see that kind of play, from precision to mess to calculated result.
bB: Yeah. That thing is very precise. We do something we call “aestheticizing the resolution”—this is the resolution that you can bear, that the project will bear. I think what you were saying earlier about the automotive industry is about creating a kind of super-high-fidelity, a kind of very-high-resolution. Eventually we won’t be so inclined to compare the promise on the screen to the mess of the physical manifestation; maybe we’ll become more comfortable with the negotiation between the two. The machine measures, cuts, and dyes in very specific locations. It’s a machine that requires the operator to maintain it as he is using it. It’s a little bit like the scene in Das Boot (1981, dir. Wolfgang Petersen) where the guy is working in the engine room while there is all this drama happening, and he’s just keeping the machine going. In making a machine like this one, achieving the user friendliness seen in most mass-produced tools might be very expensive. But we’re not making a consumer product, we’re making a tool that only we will use. If we were to invest another $100,000 into the machine, perhaps we could transform it into something that any user could take home and operate straight out of the box. But as it is today, we don’t need that; our machine requires some knowledge and awareness on the part of the operator. But it’s still a hell of a lot faster, and it opens up the projects to a lot more content and intricacy than would have been possible without it.
sP: I know you’ve used that machine in the projects you’re calling the “Suspension” projects. You’ve described how it allows for putting in a relatively small amount of material and getting out a maximum affect, and transforming space as a result.
bB: To put it into design and architecture terms, yes. I think on one hand that’s what it does. It uses very little material to delineate space. It certainly doesn’t divide space in the sense that a wall partition does, but we’ve used it to create these kind of penetrable pochés, this thick gaseousness, which can separate our bodies from one another. It does this without solid materials. It deals with issues of envelope and barriers that we don’t see in buildings.
sP: The one interest, though, does seem to be this fine-tuning of the system for the creation of atmosphere, or perhaps the affect. There’s definitely a real, constant interest in color. It’s not a default and it’s not an accident; it seems very highly tuned. I want to know how you guys approach atmosphere, affect, and color, curating some of those sensations.
bB: The Suspension projects, by virtue of the way they order material in space, have particular qualities—they create a kind of feeling. So there are some givens about the atmosphere they create once you decide to implement this kind of system. When we began the series our primary concern was not to create an atmosphere by any means, first and foremost, per se. Frankly, I’m not really sure what the term atmosphere means anymore. More than setting out to create a gaseous kind of form, we set out to devise a system, to design a method of production using a multiplicity of catenaries. We knew that a catenary could be a kind of variable module, and that by multiplying that module and controlling its relationship to its neighbors we could modulate space. It wasn’t until we began to make those units and implement their relationships physically that we developed language to describe the qualities they could yield. So we come at the work from a lens of designing production. We manufacture the construction, we imagine the factory, then we make something in the factory—and then we speculate on it and try to develop terms to describe the qualities the works exhibit. Now, given that we have experience making Suspensions, we have a much richer intuition for the aesthetics that the system can yield. We have worked with clear gestures of color that imply solid forms within the array of strings when viewed from particular vantage points. We are interested in the enigma of those solids—that is, the way that they seem comprehendible from one vantage point and then dissolve from another. There is a time aspect. This was our aim with Feathered Edge at MOCA. We explored algorithms that generated arrangements of color that were at the threshold between clarity of form and blurriness; we wanted the work to walk that line.
With Spock’s Blocks and Gravity’s Loom the color was more representational. We weren’t as much concerned with atmosphere (that was a given). With Spock’s Blocks we imposed the pattern of stone blocks from the museum building itself into the array of catenaries to yield a kind of ghostly wall that divides the museum space; it had the sense of being both strongly present and disappearing at the same time. With Gravity’s Loom we projected the cornice pattern of the Steinhausen Church, a late Baroque church in Bavaria, onto the array of strings. In each project the color pattern was visible at times and dissolved into noise at others.
In its current incarnation, our machine has four digitally controlled airbrushes—we have limited our palette to Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (CMYK), and the first order of combinations of these colors. It is a constraint imposed by the production method and budget, and we like that. It means we work with 16 colors. The four color process ties the work to the history of printing.
As we have developed the coloring capabilities of the machine, our approach has changed accordingly. For instance, Gravity’s Loom had intense colors and clear graphic patterns because we used a better airbrush and found ink that saturated the string more thoroughly than in previous Suspensions. The technical advances enabled us to expand our aesthetic considerations and the kind of content we could explore. Since we could make something with more graphic clarity and intensity of color, pattern could be clearer and we could bring this baroque reference to the work.
sP: With the catenary and Suspension projects, when you ultimately apply that system to the next installation, is there a buildup of intelligence? Do you start to understand the qualities you might create now that you’ve done it once?
bB: You start to know them better and better and better and our technical competence evolves. When we did our first “Suspension” project we were vague. We could say “Well, this is going to feel . . . it’s going to be sort of atmospheric.” But, we didn’t know specifically how it was going to look or feel, because we’d never done it, we’d never seen one of these before. But yes, as we do more and more of them we develop an intuition, a deeper understanding about what the system can do, about what different spacing will mean to the eye, how they’ll feel, when they might be opaque versus something you can look through, and so on. We’ve also learned about how the color will interact with the context and, as I mentioned before, how the color works sculpturally.
With Gravity’s Loom in Indianapolis (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2010) we created this kind of corkscrew surface with catenaries. So, we’ve gone from this penetrable atmosphere that enveloped your body to a kind of hovering cloud on another project for Los Angeles (Drop-In Distraction, 2009) to this spiraling implied surface in Indianapolis. Obviously they’re all made of the same material, so there are qualities that that run through all of the projects, but each is an exploration of how we can utilize the system to achieve different qualities. In each we layer in new concepts; we explore different delineations of space that yield different feelings.
sP: You talked about the multitude of those strings. It seems a lot of your projects—like Cradle, for example—are these aggregations of self-similar parts that come together to create a delineating, affective form. This is also of interest to me because—again, whether it’s a reaction or not—it’s very different than ten years ago, and the idea of continuity and the smooth. It’s very much the parts that are what is important in that kind of aggregation.
bB: There wasn’t a decided effort to subvert notions of surface, at first. Really, these grew out of an economic calculation of what we could achieve. There was never really much consideration of surface besides as a sort of digital armature and the fact that there seemed to be a lot of interest in surface in the field of architecture. The works were conceived with parts in mind. Making a continuous and smooth surface at the scale of an installation, and of course at the scale of a building, is a very ambitious proposition. And in many cases it’s outside of one’s economic powers. We typically ask, “How can we create this impactful thing?” without getting stuck in a situation where we’ve designed something and are then left hoping that somebody will swoop in and save us, give us some more money or show us how to do it, or suddenly some trust fund will gift us money so we can pay for this fantasy. We don’t have any of those options. When we started doing installations—say, Maximilian’s Schell (2005)—it was always intended to be something other than a surface, and when we realized the qualities that the system could yield we tried to amplify them. We turned up the shagginess. We shagged the surface. I mean, aggregation can be, to some extent, a product of the machines that one uses. In our case the width of a part was limited to 60 inches by a machine we used and by the width of a bolt of our material. We didn’t have a robot that was going to carve out a big funnel, and we don’t have the time or money to sculpt this big vortex by hand. Besides, it wouldn’t even mean the same thing if it was sculpted by hand. So componentry in our work really comes out of a consideration for the tools that are used to make the work in real space.
sP: Are there are any influences, not necessarily from design, that bear on your work over time?
bB: That’s a tough one, because I could answer that in a lot of different ways. We do a lot of thinking about economy and design, about power and design. We think about responsibility, about aesthetics, about design versus art; all those things warrant a different answer. I’d say that right now, manufacturing inspires our work. Maybe manufacturing is the wrong word—perhaps we should say methods of making. The inspiration comes from an interest in how things are made, and actually, by extension, what the experience of making something will be for us. There’s a lifestyle choice that is part of the equation. The availability of information on Youtube about craft and making or manufacturing is greater than it has ever been; it is so accessible. We love to probe into this and fold it into the work. But there is also is a genuine interest in creating experiences for people. As a kid I was really transported by and could really lose myself in spaces. I think that maybe that’s something really consistent in the work, that there’s this sort of immersive quality to it.
sP: Is there anything you’re reading, watching, or listening to right now that excites you?
bB: I just watched a four-part documentary on the Medici Empire (Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance, PBS, 2004). We’re always interested in how creative people relate to power. I guess it was exciting and troubling at the same time, to see how [Filippo] Brunelleschi was only able to do what he did because of Medici patronage. We like working for people—we try to and we need to do commissions—but we also try to do things where we can have control over what we do, so that we still have a voice. So it was interesting to watch that and to speculate on whether one has to be in bed with that kind of power in order to do something that has impact and visibility.
sP: Is any one artist, designer, architect on your radar right now?
bB: Let me think about that. You guys do always ask that question, don’t you? It’s a good question to ask. You know, I look at more art than architecture and design. I mean, I do, but I never remember people’s names. In the end, your asking me that question is kind of interesting from a personal standpoint, because when you ask I’m kind of at a loss. And that reminds me that what we’re spending our time looking at is people making stuff. The stars of design for us are these guys on YouTube who pull off weird fabrication projects in their backyards. Those are the designers that we’re looking at. Of course there are people that are doing great work out there, but the inspiration, really, oftentimes comes from these somewhat anonymous sources. You know last time you guys asked me about this I said Justin Lowe and Jonah Friedman, and I guess I’d say the same thing again: that they’ve taken narrative and expressed it through an environment to a level that is immersive in the sense that Disneyland is immersive. There is this whole story behind their spaces, but it is critical and dystopic, mixing history with science fiction. Their project at Country Club gallery in Los Angeles was at the Buck House, a [Rudolph] Schindler house. They manage to fuck with this modernist icon through the installation itself. Regardless of what the narrative conveys, they’re actually going into the house and changing it. They trashed the house; I thought that maybe there’s something instructive for architects in all of that.