The 30 Computers Sculpture Project
The objective of this project is to make
sculptures out of all of the parts of 30 personal computers.
The table below lists the sculptures completed to date along with
the parts of the computers that were used and a brief description of
each sculpture. Click on the title name to see photos, videos
and a more complete description.
In 2003 a nationally known economic consulting
firm whose headquarters was located in Washington, D.C. was
upgrading its computers. In doing so it chose to discard their
older PCs, but for security reasons, the hard drives were removed
and smashed with hammers. Neither the monitors nor keyboards
were being tossed. As I watched these piles of computers grow
outside my office and being prepared for the dumpsters, my initial
reaction was to see if they could be refurbished and put back
into service at a local elementary school. However,
after several attempts to rebuild a few of the computers, it became
clearer as to why the PCs were simply being discarded. There
were bad power supplies, blown motherboards, in operable floppy or
CD-ROMs. Given that there were no monitors or hard drives, it
was neither a simple nor inexpensive task to bring these computers
back into service.
After coming to this realization, their next
best use was quickly apparent: make some sculptures. The
motherboards were the first component that I chose to focus on.
It took a while and a few nights of thinking before I thought about
cutting the boards diagnonally. This way each board could be decomposed
into two 45-45-90 triangles. Combining three of these triangles could then be used
to form a pyramid. The vertex of the pyramid would be just like the corner of a box or cube.
The base of the pyramid would be an equilateral triangle. With 20
of these pyramids an icosahedron could be formed.
After experimenting a bit, I realized that I
was going to need a frame to hang all the boards onto. Given my
concept of the object, I did not want it to be a heavy, massive
structure that would come from using a steel substrate, for that reason I choose to use
aluminum. However, to weld aluminum require
using a TIG welder and it was clear that this was a
challenging skill to master. After some initial failures I
turned to working with steel and in the process I constructed Bones
(2004) and Skin (2005). Only after completing a couple of steel
sculpture projects did I become comfortable enough to return
to working with aluminum.
Primal vs Dual
The scientific/mathematical theory explored in much of this project is the mathematical theory of duality. The theory holds that an optimization problem can be viewed from two perspectives: the primal or the dual. In the primal, there is a known function to be optimized, and the solution entails finding the values of the variables that produce the maximum value of the function. In the dual, the values of the variables are known, and the solution entails finding the maximum value of the function can be obtained from the given values. In other words, in the dual the inputs into the function are constrained, and the question is what's the best you can do given those inputs. But in the primal, you can minimize the levels of inputs that would achieve a given result or output. The principle of duality was formally conceptualized by mathematicians John von Neumann, Harold Kuhn, Albert Tucker in the late 1940s. It is used to tackle optimization problems in a wide range of fields, including computer science, game theory, engineering, and economics.
For example, a person who takes a primal approach to shopping for a gift would begin with a clear idea of the present to buy and then search for the store with the lowest price. On the other hand, a person taking a dual approach would go to the mall not knowing what present to buy but with a known limit on what to spend and how long to shop. The dual approach would involve visiting multiple stores in the available time until a product is found that is satisfactory and does not exceed the budget.
The dialectic between the primal and dual is a driving force in my creative process. In conceptualizing a new work, a sculptor can begin with an abstract idea of the best possible piece to make, then find the materials and do the work to implement the idea. Or, the sculptor can look at available materials and imagine what the best piece is that could be made from them. The contrasts and complementarities of these approaches are a powerful impetus to unfolding of my work. For example, the genesis of the first piece in my Computer Virus series, Floppy (2009), came after I happened to acquire 30 used personal computers from a company was discarding them. I had hoped to refurbish the computers and donate them to local schools, but it turned out that schools too had no use for out-of-date technology. Examining the insides of the cast-off computers, it occurred to me that their parts -- the fine wires, tubes, disks, motherboards, casings, and other parts -- would make interesting materials from which to make sculptures. Using the dual approach, then, I imagined how best to use the computer parts, sensing that a good use was to recombine them in ways that illuminated the transitory character of the materials and technology. Here it occurred to me that they were well-suited to creating complex organic shapes found in nature, such as viruses whose shapes have been brought to light microbiologists, where such shapes could help contrast the transitory character of the materials with timeless qualities of the organic world.
Following this logic, I created the piece Floppy, which takes computer floppy-drive parts and uses them to represent a hybrid of two viruses, an adenovirus and a bacteriophage. Holding one of the floppy-drive cases in my hand, I realized it was nearly square, implying that a small rhombicosidodecahedron could be used as the shape of the outer shell to present and showcase the drive. This polyhedron has 62 faces: 20 pentagons, 20 triangles, and 30 squares. Driven on by the dual, I found there were many other computer parts that could be incorporated into this sculpture. Discovering that an icosahedron would fit precisely into the outer shell, with its 12 vertices located at the midpoint of each of the 12 pentagon faces of the outer shell, I used the icosahedron to house power cables, which represented the DNA strands of the virus. Acrylic tubes that I had lying around worked well as fibers emanating from the 12 icosahedral vertices represented an adenovirus, and a neck and legs were added to create the look of a bacteriophage. Thus, the availability of the materials -- in combination with an optimization process -- led to the creation of the sculpture, a quintessential example of the dual approach. In this sense, we can say that much work in the Found Object movement, tracing back to Picasso's Still Life with Chair Caning (1912) and Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel (1913), has duality in its locus of inspiration.
In contract to the dual approach taken with Floppy, the approach taken to develop and implement HIV Fullerene Cones, works more specifically from the dialectic between the primal and the dual. In learning more about geometric shapes of viruses, I found that the inner capsid of the HIV viral envelope takes the shape of a buckminsterfullerene cone -- an odd shape that is a stretched-out version of a truncated icosahedron (which resembles a soccer ball). The shape was named by Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto, who along with two others discovered the C60 molecule and affectionately named it a "buckyball" after American architect, designer, and systems theorist, Buckminster Fuller. The HIV capsid is composted of over a 1,000 protein molecules, where each protein bonds with three other proteins. The vast majority of these bonds form a net of hexagons and exactly 12 pentagons. The HIV viruses have the common distinguishing feature of 7 pentagon faces on one end and 5 on the other, thus enabling the protein net to close into a cone shape. Scientists believe that precisely understanding the virus's shape would provide insights into its prevention and cure.
Of course the HIV virus is of special significance, as its spread has left a trail of human, social and cultural devastation in its wake. So in thinking about what materials to use to represent the virus (a more primal approach), I sought materials that would create a tone that recognized and honored those whose lives were so consequentially affected by it. This pointed back to the bathhouses of San Francisco, previously joyous places of social interchange that, unbeknownst to those who visited them, came to be epicenters of the initial waves of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. How to implement the connection to this chapter in the virus's history came upon me when shopping at my favorite art supply store, Home Depot. Here I happened to see small white hexagon bathroom tiles on sale; these tiles are both evocative of the bathhouses and ideal for rendering the faces of the fullerene cone. Thus, the process by which this sculpture took shape had both primal and dual elements: the primal being the idea of representing the fullerene cone structure of the HIV virus, and the dual being the recognition that an ideal use of the tiles would be creating a fullerene cone. As such, although in mathematical optimization theory the primal and the dual are distinct approaches which at the optimum represent two sides of the same coin, in my personal experience it is the dialect between the two that provides the most fertile ground for new ideas to take shape.