Part of Avalanche Dynamics
In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.
– Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” (1984/1967) .,
For further information and documentation of process and reseach related to these works please visit:
For the 2019 session of Forrest Island Project, an artist residency program in Mammoth Lakes, I co-curated a collaboration with the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) administered by UCSB titled Avalanche Dynamics—derived from snow science that offers a metaphor for creative breakthroughs. My ongoing research and contributions to the project run along three tracks: (i) digital composite images of snow taken through filters; (ii) attempts to produce an ice lens to act as a temporary sculpture, observational instrument and camera; and (iii)sculptures based on Rudolf Luneburg’s description of a spherical gradient index lens.
From Avalanche Dynamic an exhibition of work developed by artists (myself, Alice Könitz and Nina Waisman) during the 2019 iteration of the Forest Island Project’s Residency in Mammoth Lakes, CA:
The process of data collection assumes that a critical mass of minute parts will accumulate into a whole producing a picture that has meaning.
Seen through the right instruments, snow, as Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory researcher Jeff Dozier describes it is “the most colorful substance on earth.” But a clear picture of data requires interpretation and interpolation. Brian O’Connell’s interest is in the inbetween parts of this process. Here, triple digital exposures of the same scene, each with a different filter (red, blue and green) are altered at the pixel level to recreate what a sensor sees. Layered back on top of each other and cropped down to a tiny fraction of the actual image, the fragments are then printed as elements of the total data set.
Zoomed in models of structures that, when combined, could create a version of the “gradient index lens” (invented in the 1940s by scientist Rudolf Luneburg at USC where O’Connell also teaches) manifest again as tiny parts of a larger structure, one that is actually used to see. Growing out of conversations with SNARL researchers and missions to various locations around Mammoth Lakes, a quixotic mission to produce a perfect ice lens, an experimental sound dish, and other technological experiments further explore the various processes of capturing and filtering information as playful examinations of our contemporary understanding of visual space, both as seen by the human eye and as augmented by technology.
The exhibition Palomar takes its name from a 1982 novel by Italo Calvino. It extends ongoing investigations of photographic process, sculptural form and color . Calvino’s book consists short vignettes each organized according to a schematic distribution of three thematic areas resulting in of 27 chapters (3x3x3=27). In the index, Calvino explains there are “three kinds of experience and inquiry that, in varying proportions, are present in every part of the book. Those marked ‘1’ generally correspond to a visual experience…Those marked ‘2’ contain elements that are anthropological, or cultural in the broad sense…Those marked ‘3’ involve more speculative experience, concerning the cosmos, time, infinity, the relationship between the self and the world.’ With the exception of a 16mm film titled PALOMAR , all the work in this show, sculptural objects and gum bichromate prints take their titles from the chapters of Calvino’s book any in varying degrees formally and conceptually invoke Calvino’s distribution of interests.
The World Looks at the World is a parabolic dish made up of 79 individually cast colored glass hexagonal tiles. It is a physical and metaphoric model of a series of larger dishes planned as part of a project to produce extremely wide band radio portraits of specific locations. These dishes are an exploration of radio as an extension of the eye in which radio waves are thought of as colors of light that fall well outside human visual spectrum.
The Model of Models is a small-scale cast plaster model of the 79-part form used in The World Looks at the World. Each surface cut from a hexagonal column. The arrangement stands on a circular mirror.
The Infinite Lawn is the set of nine colored steel balls and wooden hoop used to produce The Eye and the Planets.
The loves of the Tortoises is two ceramic forms originally editioned by Casey Kaplan, NYC & Cerramica Suro, Guadalahara. Individually titled (Not)Turtles they are approximations of a Gömböc. Devised by mathematicians** Gömböc are self-righting: they will roll as if possessed before coming to rest on one precise point. Gömböc share a striking similarity with certain turtle species. By providing turtles with a shaped shell that allows them to avoid finding themselves on their backs, evolution had anticipated the Gömböc by millennia.
PALOMAR is a 16mm film approximately twelve minutes long, the film is a colored document of a partial solar eclipse viewable from Southern California on October 23 2014 and arose from an ongoing interest in the function of reflection and shadow in the production of an image and color. I filmed the eclipse using an adapted amateur telescope from Mount Wilson near LA ( the site of the largest aperture telescope in the world until 1948, when it was over-taken by Palomar Observatory some 90 miles southeast in San Diego County). The film captures the primal light source, the sun, invoking procedures similar to the photogram—complicating the process of using shadows cast by the sun by depicting the shadow on an image of the sun from within that shadow.
Working with a Hollywood color timer, the professional who adjusts the light used in printing color film to affect the color of a final print, I made a color negative from the black and white original. Each shot was colored according to the formal structure laid out in Calvino’s index, matching the numbers 1, 2, 3 with red, green, and blue light respectively. There are 33 shots in the film, one for each chapter plus seven shots at the end to represent the index.
16mm film, trt: 12min, 2015
Color positive film printed from color-timed internegative printed from black and white original positive film. Shot Oct. 23, 1014 at Mt Wilson Observatory, 1:33–3:45 pm.
The Eye and the Planets is a series of gum-bichromate prints. Each print was exposed three times using the sun. Each exposure used one of nine colors resulting in a distribution of colors similar to that of the PALOMAR film (3 sets of 3 colors were exposed 3 times). The images are the result of allowing nine 3-inch steel balls (like boccia balls) to roll into a position by chance within the boundary of a circular hoop the radius of which would allow the exact packing of 19 such balls. This process imitates on a macro-level the microscopic arrangement of particles within the colloid solutions of bum-bichromate and other photographic processes. Recently the shadows cast by spheres in such solutions have been used to examine and classify the dispersion patterns of such particles.*
*see: Characterization of Patterns Formed by Shadows of Spheres, Sarah V. Kostinski, Elizabeth R. Chen, and Michael P. Brenner, Physical Review Letters 112, 235502 – Published 13 June 2014
** discovered, named and sold by mathematicians Gábor Domokos and Péter L. Várkonyi, a Gömböc, is “a convex three-dimensional homogeneous body which, when resting on a flat surface, has just one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium” (Proc Biol Sci. 2008 Jan 7; 275(1630): 11–17. Published online 2007 Oct 17.)
Color positive film printed from color-timed internegative printed from black and white original positive film. Shot Oct. 23, 1014 at Mt Wilson Observatory, 1:33–3:45 pm.
PALOMAR is a 16mm film approximately twelve minutes long, the film is a colored document of a partial solar eclipse viewable from Southern California on October 23, 2014.
The film takes its name from a 1982 novel by Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar. Calvino’s book consists short vignettes each organized according to a schematic distribution of three thematic areas resulting in of 27 chapters (3x3x3=27). In the index, Calvino explains there are “three kinds of experience and inquiry that, in varying proportions, are present in every part of the book. Those marked ‘1’ generally correspond to a visual experience…Those marked ‘2’ contain elements that are anthropological, or cultural in the broad sense…Those marked ‘3’ involve more speculative experience, concerning the cosmos, time, infinity, the relationship between the self and the world.’
I filmed the eclipse using an adapted amateur telescope from Mount Wilson near LA ( the site of the largest aperture telescope in the world until 1948, when it was over-taken by Palomar Observatory some 90 miles southeast in San Diego County).
Working with a Hollywood color timer, the professional who adjusts the light used in printing color film to affect the color of a final print, I made a color negative from the black and white positive (reversal) original. Each shot was colored according to the formal structure laid out in Calvino’s index, matching the numbers 1, 2, 3 with red, green, and blue light respectively. There are 33 shots in the film, one for each chapter plus seven shots at the end to represent the index.
The making of PALOMAR October 23, 1014 at Mt Wilson Observatory, 1:33–3:45 pm
In anticipation of Made in L.A. 2014 at the Hammer Museum.
click or scan QR code to access: http://howtoucla.info/
HowToUCLA is a website that was part of my contribution to the 2014 edition of the Hammer Museum’s Made in LA. Accessed by visitors through QR codes printed multiple times on the wall of the gallery in the same gray vinyl as the institution’s other informational texts, this site consists of randomly accessed titles drawn from a search for the term “how to” in the library catalog of UCLA, the institution of which the Hammer Museum is a part.
The full title of this work is:
Openings to the water I stopped searched for cracks
and the wanting parts I fixed A boat
sold by the daughter of its builder, a fisherman,
to a shipwright who left it there
In the summer of 2012, I used a dilapidated 1960s fishing boat found near Istanbul’s Yenikapi district as a mold to produce a concrete boat. The outside shows a generalized form, while the internal surface reveals a detailed impression of the original boat’s exterior (lower left) both of which are the result of generations of local boat-builders adaptations to specific challenges— meteorological, economic, and aesthetic.
From: Brian O’Connell [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 7:43 AM
Subject: Bodrum Tirhandil Project
Dear Professor Bass,
My name is Brian O’Connell. I am an artist based in New York. I am currently in Turkey planning a project meant to take place in the next year. I’m interested in the way that forms, ancient and contemporary, carry known and sometimes unknown records of their cultural and structural antecedents. In the spring of 2009 I made a 13 foot functional cement hull in Los Angeles (see: http://boconnell.org/ART/BOAT/Boat1.html). The form of this hull was based on that of an earlier boat used by Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader in 1975.
My current project involves a much more complicated history that I am hoping you may be able to lend some insight into. I’m currently looking for a disused and or no-longer seaworthy 9-10 meter boat in or around Bodrum. This boat will be used as a mold for a “new” concrete vessel which will bare the impression of the old structure on its inside surface.
I am hoping to find a tirhandil which according to some internet sources (I’ve been unable to find reliable literature on this subject) dates back some 2500 years. Apparently Tirhandil are the oldest form (and shape) of boat still used in the region. Furthermore, the name is said to derive from Greek for 3 to 1. Based on the working boats I’ve seen while here this seems plausible but I’m wondering if you have any ideas about whether or not this is true and where I might look to better source such claims. I also found it interesting and encouraging to note that many of the wrecks – e.g. that at Bozburun (15 x 5 m) – have similar proportions.
This form and its history (if true) is of particular interest to me because like ancient Greek sculpture, proportion directs all the boat’s dimensions. If one could start with a single dimension and go from there just as ancient mathematicians did (after all Pythagoras couldn’t and didn’t need to calculate Pi as long as he could define and use it) the implications for how form is transmitted over time and across cultures and disciplines are fascinating to me as an artist.
Thanks you very much for your consideration and I look forward to hearing any suggestions you may have.
All the best,
Brian O’Connell / www.boconnell.org / 436 Willoughby Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11205 / tel. +1.917-553-4227
I left for Istanbul via Paris in mid-July. When I took this picture I had no idea of the closeness of the machine I was about to board to the ancient technologies for which I was setting out in search.
Home experiments in NYC with dryed indigo sold as “black henna” proved successful.
A series of cyanotype photograms exposed directly on the surface of the benches in James Turrell’s installation Meeting (1986) at MoMA_PS1, Queens, NY.
These cyanotypes were later a part of Ways and Means at Redling Fine Art, Los Angeles in January 2012.
Science, Feb. 19 1970 was prodcued as part of: Forms in the Realm of Time, Laure Genillard, London, 2008
A set of 5 wooden structures constructed with repeating wooden segments based on drawings used by cognitive psychologists in 1970 to study mental modeling based on our ability to recognize representations of objects at different degrees of rotation.
Forms in the Realm of Time
Laure Genillard, London
Exhibition : 10th May – 5th July 2008
Private view : Friday 9th May 6 – 8 PM
Opening hours: Wed – Sat 2 – 6 pm.
Brian O Connell, based in New York, creates sculptures and photographic works based on resemblances and affinities with 20th century modernist thinking. New objects allow him to re-interpretate the conflict between the visionary and the utilitarian, whilst showing that the process of making and arriving at a statement can stay chaotic and poetical in nature. This exhibition brings together three groups of work that share an approach to the relationship between material, form and time more so than any specific content. Each group is comprised of second or third order appropriations – i.e. formal products based on the structure of previously available sources.
The first – Case 1.1-8 – is a wooden case of shelves holding multiple interpenetrating glass and copper boxes. Each box represents the volume described by the catalogue of the Scientific Instruments collection of the Museum of the University of Utrecht (NL).
The second group is a set of large-scale wooden structures constructed with repeating wooden segments based on drawings used by cognitive psychologists in 1970 to study mental modelling based on our ability to recognize representations of objects at different degrees of rotation. The drawings on which these sculptures are based appeared on the cover of the February 1971 ‘Proceedings Issue’ of the journal Science. A large-scale colour ink drawing of this cover accompanies these pieces. There is a remarkable similarity of these drawings to those of artists of the time whose concerns were equally cerebral.
The third group of work is a collaboration between artist Lisa Oppenheim, mathematician Philip Ording and the artist entitled: Sergeant C.M. Battleship of Sydney, Australia, leader of a RAF (Royal Air Force) attack which destroyed six Junker 52s and damaged others at the El Aden airdrome, examining some of the telephone wire which was draped from the oil coolers, wireless masts, tail, and rudder if his plane when he returned to the base. Flying low over the road, he cracked through enemy telephone wires. This work is comprised of a silver plated knot of copper wire and a photogram produced by placing the object on colour photopaper and exposing it under different filtering conditions. This knot is based on a photograph described by the title in the U.S. Library of Congress “American Memory” photographic collection. The jumble of wire is based on the topological structure of the 2-D knot of the photograph not the geometric shape of the knot pictured.
These projects all deal with the relationship of forms to various kinds of sources – catalogue data, magazine covers of cognitive tests and archival photographs. They are as much about the disconnections with their sources as they are about an attempt to replicate them. They are tragicomic in their vain attempt at ‘accuracy.’
The show’s title is taken from a chapter heading of Henri Focillion’s 1934, The Life of Forms in Art.
For House Beautiful, I am taking advantage of the new Berlin gallery’s division into two spaces that almost mirror one another. I will present two sets of work that rely on similar but inverted processes of production.
On one side, I will install a group of work entitled House Beautiful made up of a model-scale multiple sculpture consisting of eight 30cm square pieces of glass framed in brass which can be positioned in multiple ways on another 30cm square piece that stands on four small corner posts. Using these glass panels it is possible to reconstruct the majority of Piet Mondrian’s square compositions within the frame of the base. This changeable sculptural form is in fact a tool for producing large-scale unique color Photograms. Eight photograms will be hung in the space. These are the result of positioning and exposing two configurations of the sculpture four times (once each under magenta, yellow and cyan filtration and one multiple exposure of each with each filtration exposed at different heights).
In the opposing gallery I am presenting Nomadic Morris a series of multiple cardboard pieces and a sculpture made of ash-laminated plywood panels hinged and grooved together. Each cardboard sculpture is a hybrid reconstruction of an untitled 1967 Robert Morris sculpture and the ‘simplest support’ described in James Hennessey and Victor Papanek’s ‘Nomadic Funiture’ of 1973. Like the apparently formal sculpture of House Beautiful this ply-wood sculpture (first made in collaboration with Daniel Riesman) is a tool for the production of other work. It is the template used to produce the infinitely repeatable cardboard sculptures.
The title of this show is taken from a popular American architectural magazine published by Hearst. The April 1953 edition was dedicated to laying out the design, cultural and life-style principles of ‘The New America’. It’s mission was to describe a distinctively American modern design style. This was to become the ‘modernism’ of 1950’s America stripped of any pre-war progressive pretensions Modernism may have had. This project literally gave form to a new capitalist (neo-liberal) utopianism emerging in America’s suburbs. The building in which Adamski’s new gallery (an import from Aachen, Mies’ birthplace) is housed was also built in 1953 by Hermann Henselmann working within another particularly ideological formal framework, Stalin’s neo-classical redirection of industrial modularity and efficiency.
A particular target of House Beautiful’s editor Elizabeth Gordon was Mies’ recently completed Farnsworth House which to her smacked of both communism and elitism. In her editorial “The Threat to the New America” Gordon published a list of points by which the reader might recognize the perilous influence of such design, a tell-tale sign of which (accompanied by a photo for reference) is that these:
Stylists design houses, furniture to look like typical Mondrian compositions (left): flat, banded, carefully asymmetrical rectangles of very few colors.
In this show a pen and ink tracing of Gordon’s International Style identification checklist serves as a key to this source and the formal language explored and exploded by the super saturated color photograms.
The inclusion on the other side of this show of Nomadic Morris serves as an opposing historical bracket. It finds it source in urban nomadism’s later critique of many of the conceits, difficulties and consequences of modernist design and the economic and political systems it embodied. This work was originally made for “Future Nomad” a show currated by Sara Riesmann at Vox Populi in Philadelphia which was envisioned:
…as a post-script to the urban nomad movement of the 1960s and 1970s when self-conscious design culture was made accessible to the uninitiated through publications like Ken Isaacs’ How to Build Your Own Living Structure. (Reisman)
An important component of this piece was my collaboration with Reisman’s father, Daniel Reisman, as a means of insisting on the inter-generational, do-it-yourself vision of urban nomadism’s own, perhaps lost, utopian vision.
I’m fascinated by structures and juxtapositions that develop from the purely formal combination of objects that in and of themselves belong to divergent discursive spheres. By combining things ‘mistakenly’ and pushing such combinations to their most absurd degree, the point at which they almost coalesce into seemingly meaningful or seamless objects, I think it’s possible to both enjoy the strangeness of such combinations and become aware of how exactly such formulations are used in other (political and historical) spheres, as a means of producing apparent connections. This is primarily an art of and about rhetoric, which in visual terms is expressed through contesting forms and formalisms.
New York, May, 2007.
Catalog Contribution for A is for Alibi , Uqbar Foundation, De Appel July 2007:
The mounds of oyster shells left by the Dutch who once lived where I now live in Manhattan have become the focus of archeological and musicological study. What was once a garbage heap is now the site of historical preservation. At the same time not far from the disused manufacturing sites now used by artists as studios in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood (once Breukelen and Boswijck), you can buy auto parts taken from smashed up cars, by referring to them by shelf and object number, like getting a book from the library. Distinguishing between an archive, a collection, a storeroom for obsolete equipment, a recycling bin and a trash heap is increasingly difficult especially as we become more globally aware of the materials we use and disuse.
When we first visited the depot of the University Museum collection of scientific instruments I was struck by the differences among the objects held by the collection. Perhaps most puzzling was the way that recent objects looked no different than those mechanical and electronic things we see around us everyday. Aside from the odd oscilloscope, the most ‘scientific’ looking of these recent acquisitions could easily be mistaken for outmoded fax machines and espresso makers or combinations of the two.
It was explained that this is because science has changed its use of instruments; testing for results rather than building machines to produce (or not) a result. In some ways, this is true of art as well; less concerned by the particular effect than by the process by which an effect is achieved and revealed; often less preoccupied by objects than with documentation. In cases, the importance, necessity and usefulness of maintaining collections of objects is a matter of serious concern. If an experiment can be repeated and its results confirmed that is much more scientifically significant than reenacting the experiment using the same equipment. Nonetheless, the instruments are preserved in places like the Utrecht University Museum’s Collection.
By becoming part of such collections these tools move from being the instruments of, to the objects of study, and as such they become subject to whole new ways of being looked at, cataloged and used. They move from scientific observation, to historical and in many ways aesthetic observation, admired for their ingenuity and the craft of their construction as much as their sometimes unknown contribution to science. They become mysterious and fetishized objects that hold hidden meanings, rather than tools built to reveal hidden truths.
The clues to these meanings are held primarily by those who collect them and through the records they maintain. In the case of the Utrecht Collection, one such person is Tiemen Cocquyt who described the development of the inventory in an email exchange as follows:
About 1928, an older professor in Physics discovered a group of about 2000 instruments in one of the attics of the university. This led to the foundation of the University Museum one year later . [This] professor (P.H. van Cittert), together with his wife, started working on an inventory . Some inventories of these instruments were found (one from 1816 and one from 1830) What we now have is a large box containing thousands of cards, one for each instrument. We call these the ‘Van Cittert cards’, would they not still be in use, they would be a museum object on their own .
However, another catalogue (also card system) was found, this was an inventory of (modern) instruments in use in the Physical laboratory . These we call the ‘Ornstein cards’ (after professor Orstein who made them).
So… these inventories were available when the computer came into use in
the 1980’s. Up till now, the curator (Jan Deiman) has been working on
converting the cards etc. to database records.
Clearly, this inventory is anything but a simple list of objects divorced from the specific histories of those who compiled it. It is the repository for all the surplus meanings and investments (social, cultural and institutional) that the objects within the collection represent. For A is for Alibi I have reconstructed one case of the depository of the museum (Case 111.1-111.8) using the only information available from the catalog in list form: a list of dimensions for each object along with case, shelf and object numbers. I used this list as a kind of instruction manual for producing the piece. A glass box, the dimensions of which are exactly that of a corresponding catalog entry, represents each object. The catalog reduces each object to three dimensions that describe the maximum volume of each object. This results in a ‘cataloged volume’ that exists only within the descriptive gap between inventory and collection. This volume necessarily exceeds the material volume of the collection itself and so the boxes that contain it unavoidably interpenetrate one another. So, in the end this is a project that is about surplus, about that which is not reducible to or containable in, a box.
A for Alibi, De Apppel, Amsterdam, July 2007
Homes for German Sculpture is a group of photographs and sculptures done for and in response to the show “Ideal City—Invisible Cities” (Curated by Sabrina van der Ley and Markus Richter) which took place in Zamosc, Poland, and Potsdam, Germany in the summer of 2006. A principal concern of this show, evident in its title, was the tension between preservation (i.e. the maintnance of an illusive ‘ideal’) and visibility. The photographs (Park Map: Schlosspark Sanssouci) were taken during a walk through the Schlosspark Sanssouci in early spring. The neo-classical sculptures of the former summer palace of Frederick the Great had just been uncovered after a winter literally housed in their own structures; wooden gable roofed houses. The panels used for these houses were stacked in front of the sculptures on which they had been placed. Each image foregrounds these stacks as if they were themselves placed as some sort of sculptural intervention. The photographs are hung in a grid temporally and spatially replicating the walk from top to bottom and left to right. The sculptural components of Homes for German Sculpture reproduce two primary types of these winter “houses” in a scale familiar to portrait sculptures on pedestals, one tall and thin, the other made up of three low long modules. They take their names (Cape Cod and Ranch Three Times) from Dan Graham’s seminal “Homes for America” in which he writes of American housing developments:
Each house in a development is a lightly constructed “shell,” although this fact is often concealed by fake (half-stone) brick walls. Shells can be added or subtracted easily. The standard unit is a box or series of boxes,.. When the box has a sharply oblique roof it is called a “Cape Cod.” When it is longer than wide, it is a “ranch.”
Homes for German Sculpture:
These are the first digital photographs I ever took. I think the camera was made by Epson, or maybe Sony. In 1998, I set off on a fin de siècle reconstruction of Walter Benjamin’s Childhood in Berlin around 1900 in the new language of pixels. I didn’t make it very far. I would again photograph near Berlin (Potsdam) in 2006 shooting 35mm slide film on an inherited Olympus with a broken light-meter for photographs that became Homes for German Sculpture.