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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pixels in the City 2: Big Bambu

SL7B? Woot!
M Linden

I think it was back in February that Igor Ballyhoo started seriously playing with his idea for a scissor forest, now set up over at the University of Texas at San Antonio sim. (Another coup for Co Solo and the team). It's worth visiting. 
Under the blades, the infinite pattern of creative thought.  I had just been doing some stuff about the asymmetry of molecules: chemist, writer and Auschwitz survivor  Primo Levi talks about it in his book Il sistema periodico.  In nature, molecules are often made of atoms strung together asymmetrically. Using polarized light, researchers discovered they fall into two groups - the same compound could twist the light beam like the thread of a screw, either to the right or to the left, a twin pair of molecules; just as your right and left hand match but are not the same, or like two scissor blades coming together, complementary but forever opposed. A classic example of adaptive asymmetry. It is called being chiral.
 Living things, from amino acids onwards, are made almost exclusively of left-handed asymmetrical molecules. By chance or design, the fragile grains all turn in harmony. Yet the same configuration reversed ought to be as feasible: why is it not? Levi contemplates our attempts to polarize the choosing principles of asymmetry and life, and ponders the fate of right-handed molecules, the lost twins of our left-twisting selves, and the ambiguity of the apparent symmetry of opposition in our world between vice and virtue. Do the right-handers flourish elsewhere, banished by some sort of poter ascoso - and if so, how and why?
At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the roof has become a rain forest, overlooking the greenwood of Central Park. Nestling among the concrete and brick of the fourth floor courtyard, bamboo poles crowd and cluster, forming a sort of stilted cocktail party, alive with anticipation.  This is Big Bambu, and once again, Oberon Onmura gets the thanks for pointing out another New York treasure to me. Give that man a drink! At floor level, it's a labyrinth of slim pillars, but look up a little, and Big Bambu becomes a bird's nest, full of complicated, chaotic intersections. There is no symmetry in the tangle of poles, but somehow the eye finds patterns, geometric harmonies in 3D. Doug and Mike, the Starn twinssupport and direct the overall look of the sculpture, which started as an idea some 13 years ago. Previous to getting permission to nestify the Met, they built an incredible indoor bamboo arch at their studio at Beacon, just to show the possibilities of both the materials and the techniques they had in mind. 
The interior pathway  made and reminded me of the Voliera in Parco di Monza, but while that structure from 2006 squats on the grass showing signs of decay, its transatlantic cousin is currently 20 feet tall and will soon tower some 40 to 50 feet above the roof of the Museum.  Big Bambu is the Voliera taken flight; bright, busy and still growing: how apt its tagline You Can't, You Won't You Don't Stop.  
Rather than micromanaging, the Starn brothers set goal posts, and then builders, (mountain climbers, not professional scaffolders or artists) branch out, knot by brightly colored knot, - each Swiss-made 'bootstrap' takes about three minutes to tie just right - and pole by pole, to reach them. This is performance art: every move has to be calculated, small engineering quandaries must be overcome, either in private moments of calculation, or with the help of the rest of the team. The result is a unique knitting together of individual solutions to the shared problem of how to get there from here... Big Bambu is an allegory of the city that surrounds it, already complete but never finished, worked out in flows and currents. 
It's not until you climb inside the resilient, flexible and forgiving structure, however, that you really get the feel for it. Zac, one of the builders and also a guide *mmm nice smile*, leads the way.  'You're with the elements, up here. There's a feeling of complete happiness working on this project, working steadily as a team, with the wind making the canes rustle and sway a little, you feel interconnected with all the sounds, with the feel of weather as it changes, enjoying the shade when the sun beats down, being part of the work of the people around you. Big Bambu is like a cresting wave, when you get up top, you can see the overall form the Starn brothers have in mind. It's like the jungle and the ocean coming together.'
So far, thousands of strings have been tied, and more than 4000 poles of varying sizes have been gradually  hauled up onto the roof for use on the structure: 'We're rocking the domestic bamboo,' Zac said, 'All of it comes from South Carolina and Georgia.' With the exception of sensible things like making the walkway complete and safe for visitors, they try to build in such a way that it is not necessary to cut the poles down to size; they'd rather work with the dimensions and use them to invent and suggest new departures for the construction. This is prim twisting for RL, one pole at a time. At the scissor forest, His Ballyhooness completed the task without breaking a sweat. 
They say Kirsten's working on a 3D viewer, but I don't know if even she can make you feel the wind in your hair, or smell the faint woody aroma of the drying leaves, or the feel the touch of strangers with delighted eyes, or the smoothness of the canes under your hand, or sense the tangled patterns of perception, spiralling left and right. Layers of sound are breeze-driven - the din of Fifth Avenue, small voices from the lawns far below, rustling birds in the woods beyond and banter from the party at your feet, as the sun slowly sets and the city prepares for Friday night.
Oh my, Oberon, what a beautiful view! Yep, he joined me on the rooftop for a few minutes before going off to create fabulousness in the Metaverse. No teleport or 24/7 visit-at-will here in lawyer-operated RL NY - the Guided Tour group is carefully shepherded from the ticket office (in the basement) up to the roof, and then in through the bamboo gates for a twenty minute walkabout. On the narrow walkway we seem like corpuscles moving through an artery inside a great beast. We are 15 in the party, because that's how many people can fit a single elevator, not because the build couldn't take the weight, but it springs a bit, like life. 'It's not often an artwork can make you a little afraid,' Zac comments. He's not been in Second Life, yet.
No cameras, or any other droppable items, may be taken up on the walkway; luckily in SL that's rarely an issue, but, you know, in this case it wouldn't have helped to take pictures. Like Igor's misty glade among the blades, you have to be there to get it. The Starn brothers' Big Bambu pulls all of you inside, into the forest and into the beast, onto the cutting edge of complete and divine chaos.

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