Q&A with Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio

For the last few years LACMA has been collaborating with Charles White Elementary School in creating interactive exhibitions in their on-site art gallery. The latest exhibition is LA Icons: Urban Light and Watts Towers, in which students responded to these two monuments through drawings, photographs, and poetry.  Architects Ball-Nogues Studio were invited to create their own monument specially for this exhibition. We asked Benjamin Ball about their result, Double Back to Basics. The exhibition is on view at Charles White and is open to the public Monday–Friday, 2–5 pm

Ball-Nogues Studio, Double Back to Basics, 2010

What was your inspiration for this work?
The process of production was inspirational; it determined the conceptual content of the project. During the past year, we developed techniques for making three-dimensional structures from pulped paper. We imagined that paper, a lightweight material associated with disposability, would create tension if used to make monumental form. It enabled us to consider monuments as disposable. Double Back to Basics is not a discrete object, it is a process: after six months in the gallery the monumental shape will be dissembled to become dozens of living gardens for the kids of the Charles White School.

We have also been exploring how we can “informalize” structure—how to reduce the level of control necessary to conduct a building process. This inspired us. Piles and heaps are structures that can be made without exerting much control and precision. There are only a few choices to make when making a pile – what kind of material do we use, where do we put the pile, how high do we make it? The installation suggests a heap or pile as much as it suggests a monumental arch made with traditional bricks or stones stacked in a controlled and orderly manner. We liked that double reading. When viewed from the entry, it is a quirky vertical wall of letters doubling as bricks. When viewed from within the gallery it is a primitive heap fashioned to be a monumental arch; it suggests a ruin.

Side view

What was the process for Double Back to Basics’ assembly?
There were two phases of construction. The first was the fabrication of individual letters and numbers. We developed a technique for spraying paper pulp over Mylar balloons, which act as formwork. The result is hollow, lightweight structural “shells” (the installation weighs about twenty-five pounds, the same as a few bags of groceries) that are very strong.  The process was laborious, spraying a coat of pulp on each balloon, then allowing it to dry for twenty-four hours in a kind of oven/wind tunnel. The colors are integrated with the paper—we didn’t use paint. We utilized different colors of paper for each coat and then splattered the final coats to yield a painterly, almost impressionist quality. The colors and texture sometimes suggest “natural” lichen, and sometimes powdery candy or donuts. We infused the pulp with wildflower seeds. These will sprout and become gardens after the kids disassemble the installation. 

Mylar formwork

Spraying the pulp onto the balloons

In the second phase, we transported the shells to the gallery, where we assembled the “monument.” We see the letters and numbers as akin to bricks, but being lightweight and hollow, they are inversions of the solid, heavy bricks used to make traditional buildings. In our usual approach to assembly, each component has a predetermined location within the whole.  For LACMA, the method was different; it was informal. The awkwardly shaped letters conjoin with a casual logic; the procedure required intuition rather than rigid predetermination and precision. Control was necessary, but we employed it in a way unlike most of previous projects.

Assembling the arch

How did the notion of monuments impact this piece?
Letters and numbers are elemental building blocks of language, but here they are also the physical building blocks of the installation itself. They represent fundamental origins; they suggest potential. Origins are tied up with the notion of progress: we always move forward from a point of origin. The work lays this out for contemplation.

Monuments are attempts to preserve collective memory, and as a consequence, they are associated with permanence. Monuments help us look back into history, but history is always being made anew. We were interested in this paradox. If Double Back to Basics is to be understood as a monument, what can it mean if it is slated to disappear in six months, when the exhibition closes?  What does it memorialize? If monuments are attempts to preserve memories or ideology, what might be preserved here, if anything? This is why we infused the paper with seeds, so the monument will live on as gardens to be planted by the kids. The timeline of the project is tied to an educational process where the kids witness the transformation of material from installation in a gallery to living things. This transforms the child through learning. The metamorphosis of material and form mirrors and celebrates the growth of individuals while the growth of individuals is inexorably linked to the metamorphosis.

What, if any, design philosophy does the Ball-Nogues Studio pass on to this project?
Design philosophies make us a little uncomfortable, but we do bring certain principles to the work. In essence, Double Back to Basics explores the design of disappearance. Monuments are considered permanent and unchanging. An installation in a gallery has a relatively brief lifespan. It is designed to assume a shape for a given amount of time, but then it can become something else when the installation is taken down. Perhaps this kind of thinking could be passed on to permanent structures. Perhaps buildings and monuments can have expiration dates.

How do you envision the student’s interaction with your piece? What do you hope they will take away from their experience of your work?
The installation suggests a monumental arch, scaled to the size of a child. Kids can pass through it, touch it, and have their photos taken standing in front of it. They can relate to it in ways people physically relate to monuments. By way of that interaction, the kids might think differently about the meaning of the letters and bricks. They might invent their own meanings.

The students will be involved in dismantling the installation. We will encourage them to take pieces of it home rather than throwing them in the trash. The paper is non-toxic and when properly cared for, it will sprout a garden. Through an educational process, the kids will facilitate an entropic process and a process that generates life. The monumental shape breaks down, but the project literally lives on, becoming a living thing. We want kids to witness this transformation and to think about how it might relate to other processes in their world. It invites them to relate to the physical world as a work in progress.

Andre Chambers, Development Intern

Photos by Tyler Crain, courtesy Ball-Nogues Studio

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