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  • Slump

    GEIST, STECHSCHULTE, & TISZA, student work from Slump Tech. Seminar, UIC, Spring 2012.
    chicago ILLINOIS

    A thing is sometimes this, sometimes that, sometimes something more complicated—depending on the forces . . . which take possession of it.
    — Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962)

    In 1511, Michelangelo completed a series of frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel titled Putti. In the multiframed scenes, figures are represented adjacent to one another, seemingly working in unison to support the massive projection of the chapel’s cornice. However, the figures’ placement relative to one another varies. . . .

    [EXCERPTED FROM FRESH PUNCHES ]

    A thing is sometimes this, sometimes that, sometimes something more complicated—depending on the forces . . . which take possession of it.
    — Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (1962)

    In 1511, Michelangelo completed a series of frescoes in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel titled Putti. In the multiframed scenes, figures are represented adjacent to one another, seemingly working in unison to support the massive projection of the chapel’s cornice. However, the figures’ placement relative to one another varies. A number of the scenes’ frames render each figure autonomous from the one adjacent, producing a singular, well-spaced column grid along the wall. In these instances, figures either shift their gaze abstractly toward their neighbor or turn away completely, as if not recognizing the presence of others. Other frames position the figures closer to one another, sometimes nesting part or all of one figure’s body within or against the figures adjacent. These figures seem to rely on each other emotionally, as they look each other in the eye or gaze adoringly at their neighbor. Physically, their bodily form is a result of posture and weight bearing on a coincident mass. In this instance, both bodies deform simultaneously, producing a new figural identity that is neither a singular column nor an assembled pile. While the single body is identifiable in its assembly of appendages (arms, legs, head, torso, and so on), its mass is distorted due to postural attitude and external influences—that is, adjacent bodies and the fixed boundaries of the architectural elements they “support”—rendering the original body one part in a larger whole.

    It is on these latter scenes, where a new yet somewhat recognizable figural identity emerges, that I will posit the formal project in the contemporary discipline of architecture. The process of formal development in an architectural project can be loosely placed into one of two categories: the additive (aggregative field conditions based on part-to-whole relationships, where part logic remains legible even when assembled) or subtractive (removal of one part using another in order to produce a completely new figure out of the original). “Slump,” a body of graduate-level research underway at the University of Illinois at Chicago, proposes a third possibility where the process of developing form is neither additive nor subtractive. Here, form is instead derived from the physical displacement of volume(s) between pliable and fixed boundaries. Nothing is added or taken away from individual figures; instead, material is simply shifted, much like one might adjust the weight of their body or reposition themselves in response to another adjacent body. Slump’s agenda is twofold: one, to question the role of control in analog and digital fabrication and two, to find strangely familiar forms and features.

    Control
    Slump examines the formal aesthetics and material sensibilities that result in the pairing of rudimentary (imprecise) form-making methods with the precision of computation-based machining. Capitalizing on the balance between determinacy (machined technology) and indeterminacy (handcrafted techniques), a series of experiments play out in both academia and practice. Connections, dominances, and varying amounts of control are exerted over machined manufacturing practices (laser cutting, CNC [computer numerical control] milling, 3-D printing, vacuum forming, dye cutting), semimachined manufacturing (sewing, shrink-wrapping, heat forming), and handcrafting (draping, casting, glassblowing).

    Since the introduction of digital technology and digital fabrication in academia, the possibility for ultimate control and extreme precision in manufacturing has trumped the more rudimentary and imprecise craft of novice students. Slump provokes a repositioning of the role of control in fabrication. Control and precision are no longer the primary means to evaluate the outcome of the built digital project. In other words, success is not calculated by how closely the physical measures one-to-one to the digital. In contrast, the digital becomes an armature for physically crafted material. Take, for example, using a CNC-milled formwork to cast between pliable sheet materials; here, the mold is simply one of many influences on the casting. In Slump, the rules and order of control relax. Specifically, control is reined in digitally only after physical material experiments yield new formal possibilities. Even within the digital parameters, there is still room for error, both human and machinic. Slump asks students to explore the narrow space between an intention, or an error and a result as a means to coax out unforeseen analog effects that can be developed further using controlled digital processes.

    Finding Form
    Slump considers a return to physical methods of form finding outside of a particular software or hardware paradigm. External physical pressures are applied to bodies as form-finding techniques that index the range, boundaries, and limits of the figure. Environmental influences such as surface area, heat, weight, loading, adjacency (to other contextual figures), and viscosity act as agents for finding form.

    Returning to Michelangelo’s frescoes, the Italian word putti was used to describe profane, secular figures with difficult to define, though recognizable features. Putti were often mistaken for the religious figures of cherubs, given their childlike features and fleshy bodies. However, putti were neither adults nor babies, human nor nonhuman. Their features were often exaggerated, their body mass distributed in ways no human could feasibly carry on his or her frame, and their postures somewhere between those of an athletic adult and a child without the capacity to walk. In Slump, analog material investigations such as casting, draping, and sewing pliable volumes yield unforeseen features that find their attributes in the everyday: bubbling, wrinkling, seams, and so on. These features are tested iteratively to further develop their scale, quantity, and attributes. Freakish features are embraced, exaggerated, and redeployed across various primitive bodies in the digital environment. Features sampled from physical material experiments produce novel effects once digitally nipped, tucked, and grafted onto new digital figures.

    With rapid advancements in technological innovation, our agenda as educators shifts equally as rapidly. Tasked with the role of educating students who will be practicing in a profession whose future we can only speculate on, as we ourselves are currently forming it, perhaps the only way to foster a relevant pedagogy toward fabrication is to rethink what it means to “tool” a student. Rather than fetishize technological means and fabrication residue—that is, the specific software and hardware used in production—projects that call on students to physically materialize the latent phenomena in their environment and to assemble the digital spectrum of tools necessary to exert control over their craft may yield broader visions of design and making in an ever-changing technological landscape.

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    [UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT CHICAGO]

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