Neural Architecture

Sept. 12, 2005
California Artist Makes Building Art that Gets Smart

sing infrared home security systems, motion sensors, nanny cams, TV monitors, and vinyl tubing, Los Angeles-based artist Deborah Aschheim is creating nervous systems for buildings. Her six-part series of museum art installations that began in 2003, Neural Architecture, explores the idea of buildings as biological extensions of the body that get smarter each time they move to a new space. Her newest exhibit - and final installment - opened at the Frist Center in Nashville in September 2005.

The tangled network of transparent vinyl tubing, pods, motion-triggered lighting, monitors, and cameras hanging from the ceiling are the building’s brain and central nervous system, as envisioned by Aschheim.

“I’ve been making work that’s been based on microbiology since 1995,” notes Aschheim, who also teaches in the studio art department at the University of California at Irvine. “I’ve been interested in the nervous system for a few years, and I’ve been making a lot of works that were thinking about the metaphor of buildings and bodies as being so blurred. They both have a skeletal structure, they circulate fluids, they regulate their temperature. I was really interested in the neurophysiology of buildings, because of the idea of smart buildings.”

The Neural Architecture series took shape after September 11, when she noticed the proliferation of security systems. Not only were these types of products getting less and less expensive, they were also showing up in places she never would have expected before, like Rite-Aid drugstores. This proliferation of detection and security devices struck a cord with Aschheim.

“After September 11 I got really interested in the idea of how buildings and bodies and the cultural moment that we lived in, ... how we felt in public space, was all playing out in these concrete ways through these devices and these products,” Aschheim says. “I got the idea, what if you morphed them a little bit, sort of rearrange the DNA, and you start growing this autonomous entity? And each time it moves to a new institution, like a gallery or museum, it would get smarter, and it would develop new sense? That was the birth of the project.”

She took a year to develop the concept using money she had received from a City of Los Angeles (COLA) Individual Artist Fellowship she received in 2002-2003. The result was the Neural Architecture series, the first installation of which opened at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in 2003.

The form of this piece, as well as the other five installations in the series, was modeled on a variety of life forms, including the cellular cerebral cortex and jellyfish. In addition, she used transparent materials like bubble wrap and vinyl tubing as a way of incorporating transparency as a value, something that may be lost with increased reliance on automated surveillance.

Its sense of “awareness” came from the passive infrared motion sensors that would light up as viewers moved by.

For the second piece, which was set up in Consolidated Works, Seattle Art Gallery, in 2004, Aschheim used baby monitors so the installation could grow a sense of hearing, picking up conversations of viewers and broadcasting them elsewhere in the exhibit. “Based on this sense of security and surveillance, its equivalent would be a sense of eavesdropping,” she notes. “I’m fascinated with baby monitors because they’re these benign, user-friendly, toy-like devices, but they’re also these sophisticated wireless microphones and transmitters.”

One of the key ingredients of the pieces has also been the ubiquitousness of the elements she incorporates. Once a technology reaches the $50 price level and shows up on the shelves of stores like The Home Depot and Target, then Aschheim considers it to be widespread enough to incorporate into Neural Architecture.

The third installation, at Laguna Art Museum in Los Angeles, was set up in a 2000-square-foot gallery in the lower level of the museum. She transformed the gallery into a cave-like space that was growing with neural stalactites. Walking through the space, each column would light up as the viewer tripped a sensor. In addition, the columns had mini spy cameras embedded in them with a small pocket television, so in a sense the viewers would participate in the museum surveillance because they would see themselves on the screens of the little TVs.

“It was as though it was gestating in the lower level of this museum, which has California Impressionist paintings in the upper level, and an expensive security system with cameras trained on these expensive paintings,” Aschheim explains.

The fourth installation, at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, turned things upside down and made the viewer the subject. The structure was woven out of 260 lamp cells created with vinyl and clear plastic bath mats that served as the structural unit of the installation. For this incarnation, the entity developed a memory via DVD players, which had finally dropped to the $50 price range.

“The center of the structure was lined with 23 cells that had monitors in them,” she says. “Some of them had nanny cams, sending your image back to you. Some of the monitors were live-feed CCTV from the other galleries on the campus participating in the security system of Otis College. And on some of the monitors I played short DVDs that I had recorded when I was taking the show down at Laguna. So this is the idea of video as prosthetic memory, the way we now use camcorders, where we’re storing memories of our own life off site, on our computer instead of in our brain.”

For the fifth installation, which was at the Armory Center in Pasadena, CA, Aschheim snaked a network of red vinyl tubes out of second-story windows and wound them around the branches of the trees. She removed the windows and replaced them with Plexiglas that had cut outs to allow the tubes to move from inside to outside. As pedestrians walked down the street, they triggered motion detectors in the trees, causing each tubing-encased tree to light up. Closed-circuit cameras in the trees sent the pedestrians’ images back to the lobby, where they were broadcast on mini TVs suspended in cell clusters.

“I wanted to extend the idea of the project outside the gallery space and have it be colonizing both the gallery and the nongallery space, like the lobby and the administrative hallways of the art center. It’s a very heavily used community art space, so the gallery is only one of many things that go on there. It’s also in the old town part of Pasadena, with a real active retail and restaurant district, so a lot of people walk by as they go from the parking area to the restaurants,” she says. “I wanted to dissolve the boundary between the art space and the public space so that people who are just walking by are completing the piece because they’re activating it; and then whether or not they enter the art space their images enter the art space because they’re projected inside.”

Adds Aschheim, “I also wanted to make a link between these inorganic networks that we’re connected to now, like technology networks and communications networks, and then the organic networks of the trees and of other things that are growing, like in our bodies, that have these complex branching and looping structures.”

The piece at the Frist is the sixth piece in the series and the culmination of Phase I. It’s composed of six independent neural columns, each of which the viewer can enter. The content inside of the columns sorts into different areas, just like our brains do, with different areas for things such as memory and experience.

“There will be monitors playing videos from each of the earlier installations,” explains Aschheim, “and then it will be some other live feed, and then as you move from column to column you’ll be participating in this experience as though this entity is growing into a brain.”

In addition, the piece brings together the acoustic and visual senses. This includes baby monitors that transmit to other parts of the art center, so that viewers’ conversations can be overheard throughout the museum.

Aschheim is already thinking ahead to her next project, which will build on some of the themes she touched on in Neural Architecture. “The thing that I’m envisioning for the installation after the one at the Frist is that I want to start thinking about senses that the piece could have that we don’t have organically, but that are very much a part of how we live right now. For example, we live one way in physical space with our bodies, and then we also have this existence in virtual space, via telephone and e-mail.”

“I think more and more we’re feeling disconnected from ourselves, and I’d like to explore that further,” she says.

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