Monday, April 23, 2007

A Few Iron Posts of Observation

Background: Quantum Theory and Measurement, John Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, Eds.

A couple years ago, I made the mistake of sharing a sketch from one of my notebooks with Jonathan Isherwood, a sculptor on the Bennington faculty. Evidently Jon has a good memory, because this past summer he came to me with the proposal that I actually build the thing, as part of a show that he and ceramicist Barry Bartlett were curating.

I finally finished the piece last week. It was a very long road from sketchbook to object.

What I ended up with is called "A Few Iron Posts of Observation." In part, the piece is supposed to be a meditation on classical and quantum physics, and the title is a quotation from a famous essay on quantum theory by John Wheeler called "Law Without Law."

You can see some images of the object, along with my "artist's statement," here.

To help me make the piece, Mr. Maurice Winn, a surveyor, came out to my property and set nine spikes in the ground, roughly 25 feet apart. The spikes spanned a total distance of about 200 feet; they determined a straight line to an accuracy of about an eighth of an inch.

Based on his measurements, Mr. Winn was able to give me a list of heights that I could use to erect a series of nine window screens - one above each spike - in such a way that the window screens were all at the same vertical level, to within an inch or so. The window screens were 2 feet square.

I then mounted a .22 rifle to a tabletop in front of the first screen; aligned the barrel along the line determined by the spikes; leveled the barrel; and fired a round. If all went according to plan, the bullet would pierce all nine screens. Later, in the gallery, the screens would hang from the ceiling by swinging steel posts, with a separation of only two feet, instead of the original 25 feet. (Physicists will chuckle at this "active gauge transformation.")

After the first shot was fired - in a blizzard, it turned out - I took down the screens, mounted nine more, and fired again. Then I took down those screens, mounted nine more, and fired a third time. Thus in the gallery there are three runs of nine screens each. The runs are mounted from the ceiling on steel tracks. (The suspension system involved a good deal of welding and working with steel; it was designed and executed—elegantly and beautifully—by John Umphlett, a Bennington College staff member.)

All of this makes the job sound much easier than it was. Making objects, I learned, is incredibly tough! The materials do what they want to do, and getting from notebook to gallery is more work than I could have imagined. Also, in order to make sure I was going to hit the last screen, I had to learn a lot about what's called "external ballistics." This is the complex science that describes what happens to a bullet after it leaves the gun, but before it strikes the target. (Before the bullet leaves the gun, you're talking about "internal ballistics." After the bullet strikes the target, you're talking about "terminal ballistics," or possibly "wound ballistics." See this page for more information.)

(I came across some pretty strange websites while researching this project; see the following sniper poetry page for example.)

Given how much work this project turned out to be, I think I'll probably leave art to the artists for a while! But then again, I have this great idea for just one more thing using window screens and bullets....


Some "behind-the-scenes" shots are below. (My wife by the way seriously deserves a medal for putting up with this stuff. Outside in a blizzard holding a plumb bob...)

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