First, we have to get something straight. This is not the VERY Large Array. This is the RATHER Large Array, the Very Large Array’s much smaller, distant—and inexpensive—cousin and the flagship piece for Art Center College of Design’s 2011 exhibition, MADE UP: Design’s Fictions (curated by Tim Durfee with Haelim Paek).
The other thing is that while the Very Large Array still exists out in its Dune-like remote setting, spread across a giant “Y” configuration in the New Mexico desert, the Rather Large Array (RLA) has all but vaporized back into the production streams from whence its PVC tubing and hardware store components came from.
When asked about the beginnings of The Array, Tim Durfee, Core Faculty in Art Center’s Media Design Practices program, cites T.S. Eliot’s use of “objective correlative”, and the multi-perspective, disorientating photography of Barbara Probst. This led the project team to hone in on what he calls “the splintered experience we have routinely now, as we live in one reality while tunneling through multiple other realities through our smart phones, various networks, etc.” In the end, they realized they were talking less about architecture or an interior and more about an instrument.
Though it has been thus disappeared, it lingers—in part because of its rough, dirty, and improvisational off-the-shelf attitude—as one of the more thoughtful installations to emerge out of the strange and unique world of design academe. In 2012 it commanded an honor award from the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA. As one juror commented, “We love the tension you feel of this piece hanging, it's so ordinary, yet with an elaborate system, and that in itself is really rich.”
While the jury situated it within a material-effects artsy paradigm it failed to catch its full significance as an invocation or will-to-power for the imputation of performative/communicative space and the sinister or otherwise benevolent implications that flow from that. The RLA abruptly and rudely concentrated forces that are already coming down the road (literally in terms of toll lane scanners and intersection signal cams, for example). We are being watched and re-combined and this is changing how we behave in the world.
It also speaks to our make-shift, economically-austere present. While there is the pressure to expedite such scanning and monitoring technology (security, special effects, novelty) it usually becomes an appendage, prosthesis, or supplement, rather than being designed into the space as discrete, hidden machines. The design of the RLA is the presentation of an obvious “array” of parts rather than its concealment. The recombination of pre-designed, banal components determines, in part, the larger design.
In another sense, though, the machines, once “arrayed”, can disappear. Our perception, already predisposed to accept scanning, recording, and monitoring, glances over the instrumentation and functionality and leaps right to interface and interaction. Should it be disturbing that there is little or no suspicion or critique?
Perhaps this is why the RLA seemed to so easily evade writing. It was mistaken for, as the juror remarked, something “so ordinary.” I would like to suggest that this was camouflage, that its appearance was not its essence. The essence was necessarily materialized in the most expedient and urgent way and then artfully tweaked (the bends in the PVC tubing, for example) to soften it. It’s reassuringly ugly and “ordinary” (the camouflage) while impacting the space with a sublime gravity that people should possibly be anxious about. I imagine an opening night with patrons milling about, nervously drinking and chain smoking by the giant roll-up door.
In my imagination, the RLA is somehow less like the extraordinary concentration of scientific infrastructure embodied by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array and more like Vladimir Suchov’s steel diagrid hyperboloid radio antennas outside Moscow, c. 1921.
Coincidentally, a grainy black and white photograph of this is the only accompanying image for Gilles Deleuze’s essay, “Mediators”. In this essay, first appearing in the journal, October in 1985, Deleuze talks about—though he talks about a lot of things—what he calls “relations of mutual resonance and exchange” between philosophy, art and science. His discussion leads the reader to this point: “It’s a series: if you don’t belong to a series, even a completely imaginary one, you’re lost.”
In a sense, the RLA is such a “mediator”, placing and projecting people—themselves collections of series within series—in new spatial and perceptual arrangements via sensing, recording, and the collective reordering of data. Thus, the RLA harkens things much older, as I suggest above, but, in similar fashion to Suchov’s radio antennas, it is also suggestive of architecture’s future—a possible future at any rate—that has more to do with form following a specific sort of informational program.
It also hints at the sort of infrastructural physicality Andrew Blum revels in his recent book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, in which the structures housing the invisible “force” of the Web are coaxed out from their hiding places—hiding in plain sight. At a smaller scale, the RLA materializes invisible forces in the absence of “the distinct odorlessness of corporate control.” But it still gives off the “sense of a place defined by unseen forces” (182).
Hanging from the ceiling in Art Center’s rather large Wind Tunnel Gallery, it provoked and commanded attention the way some Cold War early-warning missile-sensing system might have. It hung there in a pleasing and somehow comforting mixture of 2001: A Space Odyssey attention to detail and refinement along with a caffeinated overdose of weekend garage-geek expediency. It was tech wabi-sabi, to borrow the term from Japanese aesthetics.
Even now, in the vacancy of the Wind Tunnel, the RLA’s ghost remains and there is the lingering expectation that it, now disassembled and recycled, has recombined itself somewhere else and may continue doing so.