Friday, April 18, 2014

Utopian Benches: A Design and Technology student perspective

By John Steven Calder

In viewing the SFAI installation of Francis Capes Utopian Benches, I came away with more questions than answers.

Indeed it is very intriguing to find a common thread among these different Utopian Societies, in this case, common space benches typically used in their place of worship. As a Design And Technology student, and a life long Engineer, I find there are many questions left unanswered when looked at through these eyes.

The exhibit contains 17 handmade benches; ideally hand crafted duplicates of actual benches from these varied location, and a series of technical drawings describing instruction and blueprints to build them.

Curiously there are drawings for benches that are not in the exhibit or collection. The artist himself states the original installation was of 20 benches, and we can see in the drawings, two benches that have back rests, yet none of the 17 benches have any back supports rests.

Was this by design? Did the artist build but not include two benches that the drawings describe with backrests? The drawings do not include all 17 benches, so is the final missing bench one with a backrest but no drawing? Did the Artist, the Collector or the galleries Curator decide this?

I will attempt to answer some of these questions as well in this overview. Another question to review is: why are the drawings in a separate space from the Benches themselves? Again, who made this choice?

Looking at the bench reproduction from a functional and mechanical point of view bring up another set of questions and problems to ponder.

Which one is the oldest? Which is the most durable? Which is the most cost effective.

The benches vary in height, width and length. Why is that? If one discovered a perfect design, would it not be accepted as a common standard over the years? This does not seem to be the case.

As most of these benches are described as typical to their individual societies, they are as well mostly used in common areas and more importantly, in places of worship.

To understand and feel how these benches are used in a day to day basis, we have to appreciate that these are used in self describe Utopian Societies, which basically means you are sitting on this bench listening to a speaker. Utopian Ideals must be advocated for on a regular basis. So in effect if you were sitting on a given bench, your attention, and probably for a good amount of time, would be focused on a Pastor, Preacher, Chief or Advocate of the dogma or program in which the Utopian Society prescribes and aspires and perhaps, enforces.

So what does a bench design have to do with that?

When Steelcase designed the first modern molded plywood seating in MacDonald’s in the early 60’s, it was intentionally designed to make a human uncomfortable after 15 minutes or so. Lingering was not promoted. The bench designed insured that.

To fully appreciate the design of these benches, one must imagine yourself in 1823 Kansas, in a wool suit, with closed collar shirt, in the steaming summer sitting on one of these benches for hours listening to a Pastor, Preacher, Chief or Advocate admonish his followers for hours on end, about your sinful, righteous, evil, or admirable behavior. It is then the design of the bench you are sitting becomes very important Maybe after an hour, the most important thing on your mind!

Does the Minister want you to be comfortable? Or does he want to make you feel like you are sitting on a razor blade? Judging by these designs and knowing their origins, indeed, you were not to be too comfortable in them.

Aside from bench length, there are only two variables that could determine comfort if indeed comfort can be achieved at all, height of the bench and width of the bench. In all cases all 17 benches sitting surfaces were smooth and polished with no variations in the surfaces.

The benches have a variety of heights, from 14 to 18 inches. Why is that? Is the racial makeup up these insular societies significantly differing in height, body style or weight? If a carpenter in a society is building the same design for over 400 years, there must be a reason. What is it?

My ‘Engineering Brain’ has brought up a series of questions that make me ponder the ‘credibility” of the entire piece.

The bench reproductions are all made of poplar, a light, available wood, although the originals were made of a variety of local woods, indigenous to their communities, which were a variety of colors. The Artist states that this is an attempt to give them a common look. Why is that important? Did the artist feel this common ground offered yet another commonality to this overall piece?

The artist discovered a common architectural feature in most of these communities. Decided to change their material to fit his vision, removed at least 3 benches that did not fit his vision, as they were mechanically different. So the reality of these 20 benches, of a variety of design and materials, differs greatly from the installation we view today.

Does this piece have integrity or is a fake, a fabrication? Is this really common thread in these cultures or were the ‘facts’ of these pieces skewed to suggest a different meaning?

What point is the Artist trying to make, and could he have made it without changing the design of the benches?

If the Artist had named this “Holding Cell Benches, Mars Invasion Crafts #1-17, Hidden behind the Moon”, I would have said: “Wow I love Art!”. Because it would fiction and the holes in the details are left to the viewer’s imagination.

Viewer could imagine thoughts like “Wow why that one looks Amish? Maybe the space ships were built there? Never did trust those people, I figured they were from Mars”.

In summary, I find this show to be disingenuous, as the artist is attempting to show common elements in similar but distant societies. The Artist dismisses data points that does not match his forced vision, he then goes and modifies each data point to again to match this forced vision.

Disingenuous because the Artist chose a “real” object and a ‘real” time and place, and called these facts “true”. Facts, not fiction like my spaceship example. I cannot ‘suspend belief’ when presented a story ‘supposedly’ based upon facts.

Modifying the data set and data points themselves, has proven nothing other than the Artist can make nice modern furniture.

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