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Navigating Constraints at the Knockdown Center

11.27.13 / Jack Cochran

This past weekend, I participated in an art exhibition at the Knockdown Center, a former glass factory in an industrial sector of Queens, New York. My collaborator, Carl Koepcke, and I joined twenty-five artists, composers, performers, cooks, and poets for a one-day “exploration of the page.”

It was, perhaps more so than any project I’ve worked on, a navigation between two extremes: a prompt so open we could create nearly anything, and logistical constraints that demanded complete assembly in one day, and without budget.

Our task was this: create a room in response to a single page, scanned from a braille manual for the sighted. Our immediate trajectory was inspired by the curious nature of this prompt. A braille manual for the sighted contains no indentations, nothing to feel above the surface, and instead is focused on the beautiful simplicity of the code braille uses. Six points – sometimes turned on, sometimes turned off – represents, in turn, the letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation. Full languages emerge from the variation of six points.

We were struck by this versatility and inherent complexity of the code, but also by questions of obsolescence. Braille is a dying language; only one percent of blind persons know how to read it. In an age of digital technology, the haptic (beyond the smooth surfaces of tablets) is being replaced by the visual and auditory. Those of us with sight can easily transition to computers; our physical pages look the same as the ones on our screens. But what about the blind? A phase shift occurs, from printed braille to audiobooks.

My partner and I asked ourselves how we could respond to these two key ideas. As a society we have, nearly continuously, objects and systems that become obsolete as time passes (the horse v. the car), and yet their beauty and aspects of their utility remain. Beginning with obsolete building materials, such as brick, now embraced more for its aesthetic than structural necessity, we then moved to paper itself, and the disposal of numerous books from libraries across the country as the shift to digital access continues. Carl and I then studied other coded systems and their ability to represent nearly infinite possibility through limited means.

Our main focus was the moment between obsolescence and “awakening,” or the moment when the new emerges from the old – and the ability for a module, or bit of code, to make this possible.

After numerous iterations, we arrived at an inexpensive, quick-to-assemble, soon-to-be-obsolete module: a roll of receipt paper. As a unit, when replicated and used with slight variation, rolls of paper can generate complex walls – surfaces of varying opacity, direction, and curvature. Strategically identifying key points at our site in Queens – brick walls in rooms with low ceilings, the bottoms of trusses holding high ceilings in an adjacent room –we connected the spaces together in an effort to create a new room that changes from every angle.

In addition to the room itself, we developed a video that was projected in the space, also rooted in the unit and at the edge of obsolescence/awakening. We were particularly taken by Eadweard Muybridge’s early studies of bodies in motion, photographs placed together that were a predecessor to film. As a result, we took several of these images and made a film of them, and also translated the images themselves into code. In the link below, the images become vaguely discernable through a collection of letters, numbers, and punctuation. As the bodies, animal and human alike, are reduced to code, we thought mainly of the process of evolution and the inherent complexity of DNA, morphing GATC into new forms, building on the mistakes and successes of arrangements past.

The two modules (code and paper role) came together in twelve hours for the one-day event, and was lit at night and surrounded by various performance pieces and artwork. The following day, the paper was dismantled (in less than two minutes), recycled, and ready for its next stage.

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