Keller Gallery: Space-Time

"SPACE-TIME," Exhibition by Jorge Otero-Pailos, in collaboration with MIT ©2013 Jorge Otero-Pailos

Space-Time registers fifty years in one third of one millionth of a second exposure, a time compression proportionally equivalent in space to shrinking the Solar System into the size of an apple’s core. The photograph was produced at MIT following Harold Edgerton’s laboratory notes and with the original instruments he used in 1964, which are now museum pieces. In 2014, as in 1964, Space-Time stops the bang of a bullet piercing through the core of a Macintosh apple at Mach 2.39.

Space-Time is a work of experimental preservation, a creative process concerned with designing temporality rather than new forms. Temporality is our relationship to time, and preservation design involves articulating that relationship through physical objects, like photographs or buildings. Movement involves both time and space, and it is therefore one of the basic techniques of preservation design. Movement can be a physical or a conceptual act. Physically we can change our location in space; mentally we can project ourselves in time. Space-Time is a transitional object, meant to help us meaningfully transition between two seemingly unrelated time frames: a split second and a lifetime of fifty years.

Space-Time suggests that constellations of objects with the same appearance can produce entirely different relationships to time. Space-Time is a scientific re-enactment of Edgerton’s Bullet Through Apple that pursues historical fidelity in everything but its title. The title change is meant to shift attention to the reception of Edgerton’s work within architectural discourse as an early scientific visualization of Space-Time, a modernist architectural concept articulated by Sigfried Giedion in the late 1930s. Giedion was interested in the effects of high-speed motion through space on the human perception of time. He was influenced by Einstein who theorized that, paradoxically, the faster one’s relative speed through space the slower one’s relative experience of time.

The concept of Space-Time fell out of fashion after WWII. Arguably the concept was born too early. Perhaps it was forgotten in part because it was brought into architectural discourse prematurely, when preservation was still in its infancy and preservationists could not recognize its value and radical potential. Space-Time, like other untimely innovations (think of Paul Nipkow’s 1884 patent for television), belongs conceptually to the future.

In re-enacting Edgerton’s experiment, my aim was not to remake the present in the image of the past. Following the literal meaning of re-enactment, I wanted to re-inscribe Space-Time in the acta, or public record of architectural discourse, as a key theoretical innovation that has yet to be fully developed and applied. To re-enact Space-Time is to test architecture’s readiness for preservation as a radically new mode of creativity.

Space-Time is not a copy or a repetition of “Bullet Through Apple,” but rather a way to de-familiarize this canonical work so that it may acquire new meaning, and carry new concepts pertinent to our time. Space-Time de-familiarizes Edgerton’s work by shifting attention from the well-known image to its less-known production. With Dr. Jim Bales, co-Director of the Edgerton Center, we interpreted Edgerton’s lab notebooks from the MIT archives, which recorded his original set up. Since no mechanical shutter could open fast enough, Edgerton left the shutter open in a dark room and flashed a strobe light upon the speeding bullet. He used a microphone to trigger the strobe at the precise moment when it picked up the bullet’s supersonic shock wave. We found his equipment accessioned into the MIT Museum or kept as memorabilia in the Edgerton Center. The generosity of both of these institutions allowed us to restore Edgerton’s 1903 Springfield .30 caliber rifle, rifle stand, bullet catcher, prop stand, and his 1940s James and Burke Inc. medium format (4x5) “Orbit” studio camera. His 545 Techtronix Scope and triggering microphone could not be restored, and we substituted them with more recent equivalents supplied by the Edgerton Center. We conducted our work at MIT, a few hundred feet from Edgerton’s original lab, which is now the Urban Planning Department’s faculty offices. In order to safely fire a weapon of war (the Springfield served in WWI and WWII) we moved across the street to the firing range of the MIT Shooting Sports Center.

We made some important discoveries in our pursuit of historical accuracy. For example, upon close inspection of the original photograph, Debbie Douglas, Director of Collections and Curator of Science and Technology of the MIT Museum, and Mike Conti, MIT Physical Education Firearms Instructor and Rangemaster, determined that the Edgerton’s negative, which we could not locate, had been flipped in printing. The clue was the bullet’s inverted rotation. We therefore corrected the orientation in our exposure of the Kodak Portra 400 4”x5” film. Working from evidence in the original photograph such as the angle of shadows, Kyle Hounsell, graduate student in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Nathan Carlson Friedman, graduate student in Architecture, and Thery Mislik, Photography Instructor, established the precise relative position of all the laboratory equipment.

We were well aware that historical accuracy is a receding horizon. Re-enactments cannot achieve what they set out to do because time makes every act unique. The re-enactment’s perceived futility is precisely what makes it a powerful aesthetic practice in its own right. It is a counterpoint to the contemporary reductive valuation of art and architecture according to their contemporaneity.

Jorge Otero-Pailos is an architect, artist and theorist specialized in experimental forms of preservation. He earned a PhD at MIT in 2002 and is now Associate Professor of Historic Preservation in Columbia University’s GSAPP. His work rethinks preservation as a powerful countercultural practice that creates alternative futures for our world heritage. His installations have been exhibited at the Venice Art Biennial (2009), and the Manifesta European Contemporary Art Biennial (2008). He practices as a preservation architect in collaboration with leading designers. He is the Founder and Editor of the journal Future Anterior, and the author of Architecture’s Historical Turn: Phenomenology and the Rise of the Postmodern (University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

"SPACE-TIME", by Jorge Otero-Pailos, in collaboration with MIT

©2013 Jorge Otero-Pailos

Historical artifacts provided by MIT Museum and MIT Edgerton Center; Firearms expertise and operation by Mike Conti; Scene set and lit, and latent image captured by Nathan Carlson Friedman, Kyle Hounsell, Theresa Mislick, James W. Bales, and Jorge Otero-Pailos.