Thursday, October 26, 2006

things frisk like (3) - taranaki

Taranaki, the mountain, the laha field and the summertime

things frisk like (2) - muf

muf architects and artists

check out
and also "This Is What We Do: a muf manual"

In their work they start with the particularities of place and draw these particularities out to the general and back again.
As it says on the back cover of their manual, "it is an approach that rejects the habitual detachment of the urban strategist and instead recognises the importance of the minutely observed details of personal life".

The Sims Online - academic discussion

AFK - Away From Keyboard, Place in The Sims Online

Abstract: This discussion of The Sims Online computer game will engage with ideas of place and placement. Firstly I will look at the site of the game; the ways in which domestic interiors and landscapes are constructed as places in which to frame relationships between players. The two dominant representational methods used to construct a place in the game are the map and the axonometric projection and so the ways in which these two devices encode and represent place are explored. The fluctuating placement of the gamer’s body will also be discussed, especially in terms of the collapse of the physical landscape of the player into the interiority of the virtual body of a ‘Sim’, which, I will argue, results in expansive and allusive corporeal limits.

Keywords: online computer games, SIMS, place


Electronic Arts launched The Sims Online, a Massively Multiplayer Online Game known by gamers as TSO, in early 2003. Unlike other popular online games such as Everquest, TSO has attracted female players and other traditional non-gamers in record-breaking numbers. TSO is described by its creator Will Wright as ‘a game about real life (. . .) You have to make strategic decisions about how to spend your time, and when you make those decisions you try to maximise your happiness, either long or short term’ (Terdiman, 2003). Some players attend to the competitive aspects of the game, attempting to become the most popular or wealthiest Sim, while others focus on developing interpersonal relationships. Computer games form the largest part of the entertainment economy and are recognised as ‘subtle yet powerful methods of enculturation by which social values, interaction styles and everyday activities are practiced’ (Flanagan, 2003). In TSO the site of this enculturation is not a place of fantasy or mythology, wizards, dungeons and dragons, but is instead the familiar domestic, the suburb, the neighbourhood; it could be argued that it is a game in which the lines between fantasy and reality are more than usually blurry. Whatever their motivation, there is no doubt that the place that is TSO is attractive to over one million players.

Place is a slippery concept. How does a generic sense of space shift to the significant identification of place? Entrikin, approaching this shift through the lens of cultural geography, describes the specificity inherent to place. Space becomes place due to ‘the conceptual fusion of space and experience that gives areas of the earths surface a ‘wholeness’ or ‘individuality’’ (Entriken, 1991, p. 6 ). Thus, the online space of TSO, in order to become a place, must allow for experience. To experience something firsthand one must feel immersed in, in fact be the subject of the action, the action must unfold around oneself in a convincing fashion. Further, to construct place the experience must be enacted in such a way that limits or boundaries can be identified and recalled in order for the individuation, the ‘wholeness’ of a place to be achieved. For identification and recollection of any place naming is also essential.

Different computer games utilise different methods of representation to encode the generic space of the software with a specific and identifiable, ‘whole’ sense of place. In TSO the historic tropes of cartography and axonometric projection construct the initial location of the player, what I call the game-place. As with many computer games the player experience is mediated via an avatar and through text. This paper investigates the braiding of the constructed game-place and the experiential place of the player/avatar.

Entering the game-place, entering the experience

To give a sense of the game-place and the place experience I will very briefly describe my initial foray into TSO. The first step is to create a Sim. There are many options to consider. There is a choice of two hundred and thirty five heads, each of which can be modified by the alteration of hairstyle and colour and skin colour. The next step is to browse TSO universe from above and to descend somewhere in it. Hovering above, in far zoom mode, I experienced a strange sensation of floating, similar to the liminal space of air travel. I felt nervous, after all this was unfamiliar territory and I was to be a foreigner. Eventually I decided to take the plunge in a town called Tropical Falls Paradise.

Browsing over gridded land, known in TSO as ‘lots’, textual information appears indicating who is ‘at home’ - places inhabited by Sims whose players are currently online. I found Taz, home alone. I entered his house and introduced myself as a new player. He offered to show me around his house and introduce me to the workings of the game, prefacing his offer with the warning ‘but no kissing – I’m taken’. I asked if he (at least the Sim presented with male gender attributes) meant in real life or the game. Both, was his reply.

Taz instructed me to keep ‘greening’. A player must attend to aspects of performance in order to maintain the health and wealth of a Sim. My food area needed greening. Taz made us a meal in his kitchen and I ate by clicking on the animated meal, my Sim made animated actions that resembled eating and, sitting in front of my computer, I watched my food bar become green. Taz kindly showed me the bathroom, where we both used the toilet, and then he had showered while I had a bath, taking care of two areas that needed greening, bladder and hygiene. Later our Sims slept, more greening, and then we played pool in order to green up our fun category. Our Sims did all these actions in their animated ways but became pixellated at certain, more private times. All the while we were talking via the chat function, comic-lilke text bubbles appearing above our Sims’ heads.

After two and a half hours I did feel familiar with Taz, just as though I had met him in the flesh and had conversed in a concentrated fashion. It was time to get the dinner, to literally green up, and I was reluctant to say goodbye. Strangely I didn’t feel as though I could just get up from the computer and leave my Sim frozen and speechless in Taz’s presence. I had to say goodbye properly, remove my Sim and shut the machine down.

Constructing the game-place: the map and the axonometric

I have described the process of entering the game; the movement from a construction of a bird’s eye view of the landscape - termed the ‘far zoom’, placing the gamer in outer space - to the edge of the interior, via the axonometric view. Both these graphic systems come replete with a history of representing, perhaps constructing and certainly naming places.

The western cartographic system is a mastery of place through sight. Maps are codified objects and their reading and authority lies in an understanding and acceptance of this code. The map is a tool of the coloniser. The first step of the explorer, who represents the colonial power, argues Ryan (1997), is to construct the space of the land as new, unknown, under-utilised and empty, as available for inscription. Any other system of mapping, such as that used by the indigenous inhabitants, must therefore be seen as unreliable, as having no authority, in order for this clean slate, a tabula rasa, to be available for, and in fact require, colonising. As Ryan explains, ‘the space of empire . . . is understood as objectively being “out there”, a natural state, alternatives to which are difficult to imagine’ (Ryan, 1997, p. 4).

Mapping in TSO is used to represent both spatial and social relations. The use of maps, bird’s eye views and map-like spatial diagrams doubly orientate the viewer. They codify the space as place, but also codify the place as ‘real’. The use of the familiar language of mapping asserts not only that there is geography there, but further, that it is a landscape to be colonised, settled upon; a space in which empires might be inscribed.

Paul Carter describes the anxious doubling that occurs as cartographic inscription meets the realities of surface; ‘As a mapping device the linear net the survey throws over the land creates a set of ideal locations. Anxiety occurs when it is found that these ideal representations do not correspond to the environment we inhabit. Then the fantasy of access to endlessly multiplying squares of land turns into it’s opposite: an experience of being hemmed in or isolated’ (Carter, 2004, p. 86). TSO game-place provides geography, ‘ideal representations’ of the earth, devoid of this anxiety. Players may endlessly appropriate, demarcate, name and occupy places; the fantasy of endless access is lived out as the game-place provides an infinite frontier.

However, one more click and we come down to ground, a ground that is, in TSO, duplicitous. In the game-place buildings and their environs are represented through axonometric projection. The axonometric is a vexed architectural drawing. Bois, in his essay The Metamorphosis of Axonometry, describes the uncanny liberation of the eye produced by the axonometric. In the axonometric ‘there is no negation of depth; instead it is geometrically rendered “infinite”: the eye is no longer fixed in a specific place, and the view is no longer trained and “petrified”’ (Bois, 1981, p. 46).

In viewing the axonometric the roving eye, positioned outside and above, never in a specific place, takes in this infinite depth. Consequently interiority in axonometric representation can never be enclosing, it can only be presented at a distance by allowing planes of walls and roofs to become transparent or cutaway. Bois describes the drawing’s fundamental ambiguity: ‘the axonometric image is reversible; it tears free of the ground (Malevitch’s term), facilitating aerial views’ (Bois, 1981, p. 56). In the axonometric rendering of architecture, cladding and roofs are shorn away letting the outside in, revealing all interiority to the passing and limitless gaze. Although axonometric renderings are drawn to scale, they do not represent scale in relation to a horizon as in perspective drawing, consequently it is a representation of scale that is measurable but not experiential. Schneider says that the axonometric ‘depict[s] only one side of the object, indicating neither the distance from the viewer nor the object’s height in relation to the viewer’s eye level’ (Schneider, 1981, p. 81).

This lack of horizon, denial of ground and reversibility of solid and void produces in TSO a domestic space that evades enclosure. It might simulate the domestic but it can never surround and suffocate the player in the way the actual domestic might. Perhaps this in part explains why a simulation of the familiar domestic might still make an engaging place for a game. This lack of spatial enclosure, of interiority, however, is complicated, and perhaps effaced by the experience of the placement within multiple bodies.

Inside and outside, the porous boundary of the game-place

Why is it relevant to talk about space, place and landscape in relation to a computer game in this particular forum, that brings together discourse concerning the interior and the landscape? Spatial relations within the constructed TSO game-place simulate a real world binary system - internal versus external, public versus private, the domestic spaces equating interiority and the landscape equating exteriority. And, as I have identified, the design of the game-place utilizes familiar architectural tropes. However, the actual experience of playing of the game renders these boundaries complex, testing concepts of interior and exterior.

In TSO internal and external states are multiple and nested rather than singular and opposed. Within the game-place modes of behaviour and language are specific, marking it with a boundary determined by a shared culture and codes of practice.

The player’s actual corporality is of course external to the game but, as seen by Taz’s edict regarding the propriety of kissing, it may also spill over into the game-place. In a reversal of this, the game-place spills out, interacting with ‘real’ world systems of commerce and communication. For instance, players create website diaries where the life of their Sim is documented and ‘fleshed out’. Others have started up web-based newspapers, reporting events from their particular place within the game. Commercial transactions also breach the porous boundary of the game-place. Johnny Lace, recently retired from the game, designated himself the occupation of Sim architect. On his website he advertised his business. Players could contract Lace to design houses for them with payment in simoleans, the ‘local’ currency. While Lace’s transactions remain within the boundaries of TSO economy, others bleed out into actual commerce. At the online Mall of the Sims players purchase accessories such as clothes by the designer Ralph Lauren. These items can be downloaded into the game-place, but are purchased via credit card transaction with hard rather than soft currency.

In all of these examples actions, events and transactions are recorded and named. As I have pointed out, naming allows for the specificity inherent in place. Stone, in her early investigations of cyberspace, identifies the powerful transaction that occurs through naming; ‘( . . .) to enact naming within the highly charged world of surfaces that is cyberspace is to appropriate the surfaces, to incorporate the surfaces into one’s own. Penetration translates into envelopment. In other words, to enter cyberspace is to physically put on cyberspace” (Stone, 1991, p. 109). Invoking Ito’s architecture as media suit this concept of place as something that can be worn upsets any easy demarcations of inside and out.

Experiential place, unlimited body

Haraway, Stone, Turkle and other influential theorists of cyberspace have discussed the many seductive and complex qualities of the avatar at length, and of course the narrative of leaving the body/meat behind is central to much cyber fiction, Gibson’s novels the most cited examples. In TSO the player creates an avatar called a Sim. Is there a distance between the player and the Sim or do they collapse into the same entity?

The official EA Games website for TSO takes both positions simultaneously flipping between the personal you and the possessive your when talking about the Sim. The following quote is indicative of this fluctuation:

‘There’s a special category of actions called “Attitudes”, where you can set the way your Sim idles, meaning they’ll keep doing that action until you tell them to do otherwise. For example, you make your Sim act like they’re “In Love” while they’re pouring their heart out to a potential date. Or you can set them to “Arrogant” if they’re starting a fight with someone. Either way, these are all tools for your amusement. So explore your options and express yourself’ (Trottier, 2002).

In this text, there is an oscillation between you, using the various settings to further your communication and your Sim expressing its own feelings. Agency is bought into question. Your Sim might perform animated actions that portray a state of being in love but it is the player who is pouring their heart out, because actual communication in the game can only occur via the text functions, produced by real flesh fingers pressing on a keyboard. In Grosz’s view the particular allure of virtual technologies is the ‘half formed promise . . . of the ideal of a world of one’s own that one can share with others through consensus but that one can enter or leave at will, over whose movements and processes one can exert a measure of control, and that brings with it a certain guarantee of pleasure without danger’ (Grosz, 2001, p. 82). The action of oscillating in and out of the body of the Sim produces a distance that allows the fantasy of ‘pleasure without danger’ for TSO players.

This corporeal fluctuation was apparent to me in playing the game. The strangeness I felt when using the bathroom at the same time as another Sim, and the fact that the propriety of pixellation is activated, indicated a degree of immersion in the corporeal state of the avatar. However, at other times, this was effaced. We, the other player and I, could keep communicating and our vision remained active and mobile although our Sims slept. The relationship between the two bodies, one physical and one representational is complex.

I have already examined the distancing effect of the axonometric, as it detaches the eye from the ground/horizon and positions it outside and above, allowing it to roam. In contrast to TSO many other computer games use one-point perspective views to render space, binding the eye of the player to the eye of the avatar. Known in film as the point of view shot, this is the moment when the viewer/player, the camera and the character collapse into one identity, easing the moment of the suspension of disbelief. In TSO the player's eyes are everywhere, all at once, and not fixed to the viewpoint of the Sim. In the production of place the body plays a central role, mediating the environment through the filter of the senses, which in turn activate recognition and memory. These perceptual mechanisms are mostly absent in TSO. The production of place therefore is disconnected from the body but reinforced in other ways. The space constructed is not the enclosing place of architecture but is instead the fluctuating place of a conversation.


In TSO two modalities create a place in the space of the machine. In the first, the modality of the game-place, pre-digital, spatial representational devices construct a ‘scene’ in which to demarcate a place of specificity. As I have demonstrated, the historic conventions of the map and the axonometric carry into the cyberspace. The game-place is thus constructed by the map as ripe for inscription, a frontier without anxiety. This inscription takes form through the axonometric, the ungrounded projection lacking true enclosure, exposing interiority to the passing gaze, producing a domestic that does not contain, that lacks limits.

The second place making modality is that of the experiential place of the player as he/she is immersed, or not, in the body of the avatar and subject to the shared cultures and conventions of the community. If place comes about through the conceptual fusion of experience and space, a subject is required to mediate, record and name the experiences. In computer games the avatar acts as the players agent through which such experiences are sought. In TSO this agency oscillates. In one instance of this, the official game literature never clearly positions the Sim as either something the player owns and directs or something the player is. The fact that the body of the Sim does not perceptually align with the vision of the player and that the player can leave the body of the Sim at will but remain within the game, is another instance of this oscillation between the agent and the player. As a result, this oscillation of agency, combined with the lack of interiority in the game-place, subject-hood is thus easily accessed and released, allowing for Grosz’s ‘pleasure without danger’.

The result of these two modalities is, to borrow Marin’s terms, a topic rather topographic place. Marin defines the two terms: the topographic place is a, ‘fragment of space possessing its own unity’, while the topic place is, ‘rhetorical and poetic’ (Marin, 1984, p.115). In TSO the body is a place-making device for this rhetorical, poetic space. The biological needs of the body, for filling and emptying, are parodied in the game to punctuate the spatially located but disembodied conversation. TSO can be seen as the extension of a chat-room, a neologism that neatly provides a spatial referent for a text based conversation. However, and as I have argued, TSO provides a far more complex spatial referent: a body in which the conversation can, sometimes, be housed.


Bois, Y. (1981). The metamorphosis of axonometry. Daidalos, 1, 41-58.

Carter, P. (2004). Mythforms. Cairns, S (Ed.), Drifting: Architecture and Migrancy. London: Routledge.

Entrikin, J.N. (1991). The betweeness of place: towards a geography of modernity. Baisingstoke and London: Macmillan.

Flanagan, M. (2003). SIMple and Personal: Domestic Space and The Sims. Fine Art Forum, 17(8), Retrieved September 10, 2003, from

Grosz, E. (2001). Architecture from the outside: essays on virtual and real space. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Marin, Louis. (1984). Vollrath, R. A. (Trans.). Utopics: spatial play. London: Macmillan.

Ryan, S. (1997). The cartographic eye: How explorers saw Australia. Cambridge and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Schneider, B. (1981). Perspective refers to the viewer, axonometry refers to the object. Daidalos,1, 81-95.

Stone, S. (1991). Will the real body please stand up?: boundary stories about virtual cultures. Benedikt, M (Ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Terdiman, D. (2003). Every Sims picture tells a story. Wired News.
Retrieved September 2, 2003, from,2101,59461,00.html

Trottier, C. (2002) Sneak Peek: Can you make your body talk? The EA Games official Sims Online site. Retrieved September 1, 2003, from

1) For an investigation of intimacy in cyberspaces see Sherry Turkle’s work the economy of sex, intimacy and fidelity in MUD’s in, Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the screen: identity in the age of the internet, New York: Simon and Schuster, especially the chapter titled TinySex and gender trouble.
2) Interestingly Marin locates all utopian projects as topic rather than topographic and others have read TSO as a utopian experiment.

Kathy Waghorn

Published in "Inside Out", IDEA journal, December 2005, pp 97-106.

Avondale Racecourse Mapping (1)

Avondale timeline
This project examines Avondale racecourse and the surrounding suburban fabric as a site of potential “productive friction” and “programmatic synergy”. The aim has been to diagram the site to attempt to articulate the relationships, proportions, connections and effects that occur both across and beyond it.

Hemmed in by the sprawling western suburbs of Avondale and New Lynn, the Avondale Racecourse is unimposing in appearance, bordered by a major arterial route and the Whau River, a muddy and polluted creek. In the vein of much suburban development it is unmemorable as an architectural image. However, the racecourse as an image of a cross-programmed site is rich and complex. A vast range of activities occurs across the site; horse racing, touch football, English and island cricket, dance lessons, bingo, catered events, rugby, pigeon racing, darts, and on Sunday mornings one of Auckland’s largest flea and produce markets. Space marginal to one activity is essential to another. Temporal changes mark fluctuations in density of occupation, six horses and trainers at 6am on Tuesday, 300 bingo players by lunchtime and on Sunday at midday 15,000 market shoppers. This project considers such programmatic richness and proposes an intensification of activity through the insertion of ‘more programme’. Different tactics (in De Certeau’s sense of tactics as localised, temporal and responsive, rather than strategy, in design terms the ‘master’ plan) are proposed to allow for this densification. The possibility of production friction between programmes is relished and encouraged.

This project won the Auckland Architecture Association (AAA) Urban Gaze Competition, 2005.
See the AAA website link in the side bar.
See also:

Architecture New Zealand, March/April 2006, p24
Architecture New Zealand, July/August, 2005 p24

things frisk like (1) - princess drawings

Iris's princess drawings -

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Miniature and Gigantic (2) - academic discussion

The Miniature and Gigantic


This paper considers the miniature and gigantic in the context of an exhibition design for the Stardome Observatory, Auckland New Zealand. Carried out by FRISK in collaboration with students from Auckland University of Technology Spatial Arts degree, it is concerned with optical devices used by astronomers to visualise the universe.

Astronomers and astrophysicists use concepts of both the gigantic and the miniature to describe our physical universe. For the designers, this project instigated a challenge to consider how spatial extremes could be visualised through an exhibit, located within a single spatial dimension. Einstein’s theory of relativity, which understands the physics of time, outer space and gravity (the gigantic), and the fields of quantum mechanics, relating to the inner space of atoms (the miniature) , are but two examples pf the sp[atial extremes that required discussion in the exhibit. Intertwined with this challenge came another requirement: to be mindful that any visualisation would be reliant on a politics of representation in relation to how we understand the world, as well as our attempts to describe the universe and place ourselves in relation to that understanding.

For the FRISK team, this project offered a fascinating challenge, with its interfaces of art and science and the requirement for us, as designers, to cover an intense amount of research in an area none of us were previously familiar with. It also demanded an encounter with scales beyond our everyday experience, especially in relation to the design of interior spaces. As we all are involved with teaching, the project was a chance to actively involve our students in design work.

The site for the exhibition was a lobby entrance to the Auckland Stardome Observatory; a dark, internal and marginal space leading to the planetarium proper, where projections of the night sky are viewed, and to the Zeiss dome housing a telescope for directly observing the stars and planets. The existing lobby had severe restrictions in terms of the area allocated to exhibition and in terms of the budget.

The brief was also difficult because the Observatory had nothing to exhibit. Unlike a museum, it had no artefacts, no images, nothing physical for the students to work with. While the observatory was able to source images everything that was to be exhibited had to be produced from scratch, with students using their own areas of research to generate the exhibit. What is more, while some of the concepts we were visualising were very complex, they had to be communicated in such a way that children aged 2-14, or people with no previous background knowledge could understand them.
For the initial presentation to the Observatory, the FRISK team came up with five main concepts to transform this space:

Darkness and Light

It was proposed that visitors would enter the exhibition foyer through a darkened space, a transition zone of blackness and sound. A space evoking “the breathing space of immensity” as it is related to Maori cosmology. In Maori cosmology the visual is not privileged. For this space a sound work would be commissioned in collaboration with Ngati Whatua to permeate the area. From this darkened entry, visitors would then enter a luminous zone where the main exhibits would be dispersed.

Lunar wall

This was a luminous wall with craters embedded into its surface. Each crater contained a peephole through which viewers could peer into worlds within worlds, spaces containing miniature models and dioramas. Some peepholes would have lenses so that a great depth would be created within this tiny space. Very low level peepholes would be geared specifically towards children, combining both scientific fact and fantasy. The lunar wall would create a surface of curiosity. Viewers could peer into its depths and actively discover the exhibits - alone and at their own pace - much like explorers who venture into unchartered territory.

Transmission Towers and Satellite Clusters

Dispersed in clusters through out the entire foyer space, these constructions would function in two ways. Earth based “transmission towers” would be clustered around the ticket and sales counter to display merchandise for sale, while suspended satellites (devices which receive and transmit information across vast distances and in and out of time zones) would be used to broadcast still and moving images and sound via small liquid crystal display screens, speakers and light boxes.

The Trajectory Slope

This would be a curved section floor-to-wall similar to the curve of a satellite dish and fabricated in sheet steel. It would primarily act as an experimental surface where the motion of trajectory and the force of gravity could be physically acted out by children of all ages. At the sides of the trajectory would be incisions containing hand held, game-like exhibits that illustrate the properties and physics of space.

Gravity Sinks

These air filled forms in opalised rubber placed throughout the foyer would provide a place for people to sit and contemplate. The form of the seating encourages the visitor to physically explore the notion that a gravitating body stretches and distorts space much like a lead weight, resting on a rubber membrane.

Development of the Lunar Wall

After the initial proposal to the Observatory the budget for the first stage of the exhibition focused on the development of the lunar wall, with exhibits of optics as ways of seeing. The area for this installation was limited to an area of 3 x 5 meters. The following discussion relates to the development of the wall.

The lunar wall was derived from observing black and white photographs of the moon’s cratered surface. The craters became transposed into perforations on the walls surface. 6mm Perspex panels were heated in an industrial oven. They were warped with randomly placed round river stones to create the craters or pits, scattered like a meteorite field across its surface. The panels were then installed on site, supported on aluminium brackets and backlit by fluorescent tubes. Once installed, peepholes were drilled through the craters’ surface. Lenses were then attached that would reveal to the peeping audience the miniature exhibits housed in boxes behind. Figure 1. Moon Surface, Figure 2: Lunar Wall, Figure 3: Lunar Wall Detail

The students became involved in the second and more difficult stage of the project, helping to design and construct the miniature exhibits to be placed behind the lunar wall. These exhibits revolved around topics to do with optics: How we observe the universe, different types of telescopes, aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum, or the use of different wavelengths of light to make visible things that our eyes cannot register unaided.
In order to radically think about the relative scales involved, we set an initial task to consider how one could model the Powers of Ten, the famous exponential series of scales in Charles and Ray Eames, 1977 film. This film begins with a human scale and travels by powers of ten through the smallest and largest scales known at the time of its production.

To give you a sense of the immense differences in scales involved: The consider figure 4, an image from the Hubble space observatory showing our most distant vision of universe. This image of extremely distant galaxies magnified by 4 billion times, represents an area the size of a pin prick in our night sky when viewed normally. At the opposite end of the scale the image in figure 5 shows a computer simulation of colliding protons travelling at the speed of light. Such extreme scales are the norm for astrophysicists. It is difficult for people outside of these specialist fields, however, to conceive of them in relation to our own bodily experience, or even in relation to a lifetime. Most of us struggle to imagine the scale or distance of a light year, let alone to imagine travelling at the speed of light.

The Powers of Ten exercise lead on to considering how the universe has been visualised historically and within contemporary contexts, especially in relation to Einstein’s theory of relativity and notions of the physics of time, outer space and gravity. The latter are thought about in terms of the gigantic, while quantum mechanics relates to the inner space of atoms and the miniature. Through these considerations we encountered what is commonly described as the disjunction in our understanding between the gigantic in relation to astrophysics (that which lies at or outside the limits of what can be visualised and understood) and the miniature. Questions of miniature also stretch the limits of our understanding in relation to new theories in the field of quantum mechanics: inconsistencies have been observed in the behaviour of subatomic particles, used to describe the very early stages of the universe, when it began as a speck so small it measured 10 -33. Quantum theories taking these inconsistencies into account therefore threaten the determinism of previous models of a certain and precise cosmos. Rather than accurately describing the real, quantum theory relies on the use of thought experiments. This means that with quantum theory we confront the world with the filters of our human thoughts about the world. Thus, we do not measure reality…we measure the relationship between reality and our thoughts.

Students also considered how any visual representation of the universe through the miniature is dependant on a more general politics of representation regarding our understanding of the world, or how we attempt to describe the universe and place ourselves in relation to that understanding. Susan Stewart in ‘On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection’ notes that ‘there are no miniatures in nature: the miniature is a cultural product, the product of an eye performing certain operations, manipulating and attending in certain ways to the physical world’ (Stewart 1984: pp 34). And elsewhere she writes that the miniature,

‘offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularised and frozen in time – it is particularised in that the miniature concentrates on the single instance and not upon the abstract rule, but generalised in that that instance comes to transcend, to stand for, a spectrum of other instances’ (p 45).

With this statement, Stewart suggests that the miniature with its absolute anteriority and ‘profound interiority’ acts as a metaphor, is able to stand in for ‘all books, all bodies’. In other words, all things

From historical examples of visualisations of the universe, the politics of seeing also became strikingly evident. For instance, the early Greek astronomers tried to explain how the universe worked in a logical, systematic manner. They relied on an idea that the Universe had to be a rational place following universal, natural laws. Such ideas were most commonly represented in the Pythagorean geocentric model involving a central fire with celestial bodies moving around it in circles. In this model, the planets, Sun, Moon and stars moved in perfectly uniform circular orbits, with a stationary earth located at its exact centre.

These ideas of an orderly and precise universe were later consolidated by the Platonic belief in mathematical symmetries which were considered to be part of a language of universal God given design and harmony and a belief in the power of reason. These ideas were further refined in the first century by Ptolemy to include epicycles to account for the retrograde motion of planets. However, the geocentric model remained essentially unchallenged until the sixteenth century when Copernicus adopted a heliocentric (Sun-centred) model. Copernicus believed that God (the sun) should be at the centre of the universe - not Earth, which he considered to be corrupt. Limitations of a sixteenth century view of the world (an inability to observe a paralactic shift), coupled with a hierarchical structure within the Church that was inextricably bound with geocentric cosmology, led to the dismissal of the Copernican model. So it was not until Galileo’s observation in 1609 of four moons orbiting Jupiter, using a telescope that any shift was reconsidered.

Further insights and refinements came in the seventeenth century with Kepler’s discovery that planets orbit at variable speeds in ellipses. But even Kepler still held on to a Neoplatonic resonance between the human mind and the laws of nature, on the basis that God had created humans with the gift of reading the mathematical harmonies of God's mind. Kepler believed that it would only be a matter of time for someone to discover God's plan.
By the end of the seventeenth century it was Isaac Newton’s turn to present a seamless mathematical view of the world in his book Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Newton used a few key concepts (mass, momentum, acceleration, and force), the three laws of motion (inertia, the dependence of acceleration on force and mass, and action and reaction), and the mathematical law of the dependence of the force of gravity between all masses on distance. These key concepts allowed him to bring together all knowledge of the motion of objects on earth and of the distant motions of heavenly bodies, thus making the earth part of an understandable universe.

Einstein’s 1905 theory of relativity and the speed of light, inverted all previously held notions of space and time. In his imaginings, he deduced that the speed of light in a vacuum should always be the same, regardless of the motion of the light source relative to the viewer. From this he reasoned that if an object approaches the speed of light, time becomes dilated, the length of the object is contracted, and its mass increases. Such an idea could not apply to a human scale. It could only apply if one observes an event that is moving at the speed of light relative to the observer. That is, the concept is entirely reliant on the gigantic to be imagined, but amazingly the idea was able to be condensed into the miniature in the form of the equation E=MC2.

Since Einstein, other theories have emerged, most importantly in the field of quantum mechanics through the observation of inconsistencies in the behaviour of subatomic particles, threatening the determinism of Einstein’s model of a cosmos that can (at least by physicists) be visualised.

What was intriguing about these theories in quantum mechanics for us as designers, was the idea that what is 'real' is relative to our method of questioning nature and is culturally and historiaclly determined. In quantum mechanics a measure cannot be legitimately being said to have taken place until it is acknowledged by the conscious awareness of a human being. In quantum theory we confront the world with the filters of our human thoughts about the world, and to some extent nature conforms to these thoughts. This means that quantum theorists do not measure reality…they measure the “relationship” between reality and our thoughts. Reality becomes ambiguous at the quantum level, because it cannot be reconciled with our normal view of the objective world. This means that, at least in the quantum realm, we cannot pin down a consistent reality. Quantum theory pictures the particles that make up everything that we touch and feel not as little hard definite independent things, but as a tangle of possibilities entangled with every other tangle of possibilities throughout the universe.

Finally, there were also theories to consider that try to overcome the rift between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics - commonly known as the” theory of everything” or “string theory”. String theory is an elaborate mathematical theory that talks about the properties of space. For string theorists there are several ways of picturing the world in, an attempt to describe the physical behaviour of the infinitely small. According to these theorists, one way of imagining this, is to imagine that each point in ordinary space becomes like a tightly folded origami which links to six extra dimensions, and which in turn is wrapped up in a scale a billion times smaller than an atomic nucleus.

For people who usually work with two, three and four dimensions and the spatial poetics of interiors and inhabitation, encountering these extreme concepts of space and the structure of space was fascinating. It was with the awareness of the complexity of the issues that we embarked on the difficult task to design and construct miniature models, to show ways of seeing the universe. The primary focus was on optics, and the mechanics relating to visualisation in the electromagnetic spectrum. But in the process, questions also arose as to how space is imagined, visualised, how things that can’t be seen (such as dark matter or black holes) are conceived, and where we position ourselves in relation to that understanding.

To make sure the requirements set by the Observatory brief were covered, the topics for the exhibition were broken down into subject areas, and age groups targeted. These categories roughly determined where the exhibits would be later located in the lunar wall. Each perforation in the wall had an optical lens attached which either magnified or shrunk whatever was behind. The individual exhibits behind the lunar wall were contained within a translucent box and relied mainly on image/text compositions; 3D models and/or digital visualisations to transmit information. With the knowledge that much information was beyond the comprehension of audiences such as pre schoolers, each exhibit also contained miniature aliens hidden within the display.

The privileged position of the visually focused exhibits of the lunar wall was contrasted on the opposite side of the exhibition space with the installation of a heavily folded black felt curtain containing headphones. Here the audio presence of space could be registered, from the popular fiction sounds of sci-fi movies to the sounds of different radio waves as they are cuaght and translated by radio telescopes.

Fleur Palmer, 2005

Thankyou to the other designers in the FRISK team (Kathy Waghorn, Sue Gallagher), Auckland University of Technology – Dr Tina Engels-Schwarzpaul and Spatial Arts students who participated in the project (in particular Fang Ching Lee, Darcy Utting, Rui Kamata, Alice Pollack), Auckland Stardome Observatory (Peter Goodenough, Kate McKinney, Jim and Warren) and audio artist James Pinker

Greene, B. (2004). The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality. London: Alfred A. Knopf.
Morris, R. (1999). The Universe, the Eleventh Dimension and Everything. What we know and How We Know It. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.
Stewart, S. (1984). On Longing: Narrative of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP.

Puka Puka (2)

The arrangement of the books/lanterns will recall the organization of
texts within the library, the ordering and stacking of books on shelves.
From below café patrons and pedestrians outside will gaze upwards into
the cloud of illuminated pages, that may ripple gently in a summer
breeze. From above, those on the second floor of the library will look down
upon rows of colourful spines, a more abstract invocation of the book.

Formally the work responds to and accentuates the gridded condition
of the café space as it is articulated through the fenestration and panelled
stone aggregate wall. The height of Pukapuka exploits the verticality of the
cafe space, allowing the tall volume to be appreciated.

From the exterior the project will engage with the urban precinct through
its illuminated quality, both day and night. While much illuminated
material in the center city takes the form of advertising, thus
commercializing public space, this project will act as a respite from the
“messages” inherent in that form.
This project is not dogmatic nor explicit, it will engage the public through
a sense of wonder and speculation. Futher, books through their very
nature invoke recording and thus history. These book/lanterns, being
devoid of text, will suggest all possible recordings and histories rather
than specific narratives associated with one group or another.

October 2006, proposal not selected!


Pukapuka is a permanent “lantern” artwork proposed for Real,
the new Auckland Central City Library café.

In many cultures books, texts, scrolls and other written records are
magical objects and artifacts. There is potency inherent in just the
action of opening a book. Pukapuka is five rows of illuminated
books/lanterns suspended at a height of over three and a half meters
above the café floor. Manufactured from formed acrylic sheet and other
materials, and powered by low energy compact fluorescent lamps the
suspended work will invoke images and metaphors of metamorphosis
and transformation. The open, illuminated “books” may recall moths in
flight and associated ideas of “taking flight”, through both the acquisition
of knowledge and the escape possibilities emergent through reading.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Miniature and Gigantic (1)

Miniature and Gigantic, a permanent exhibition on optics commissioned by
the Auckland Observatory and Star Dome, October 2004.