To experiment is to create: the organization and production of verifiable data relies as much on the spatial allocation of artifacts as it establishes temporal parameters for their testing. Instruments are calibrated, tolerances calculated, clocks set. Yet as historians and theorists concerned with “visual cultures of science” (and other similarly named fields of expertise) have demonstrated, the domains between scientific and artistic practice are not isolated entirely. Interactions between the two ensue, indelibly woven into each other. Like language, painting, or photography, the visual output from experiments generates a kind of aesthetic event in the Bakhtinian sense, producing knowledge and presenting it to audiences outside scientific communities, as well as in the Borgesian mold, as something that surrenders itself, changing itself and the viewer.1 Such elisions between the experimental and aesthetic domains of creativity—as well as between science and art, or perhaps even art and architecture—are central to Jorge Otero-Pailos’s excellent Space-Time 1964/2014, held at MIT’s Keller Gallery this past February.
For this show, curator Irene Hwang capitalized on the Keller Gallery’s diminutive 200-square-foot gallery nestled inside MIT’s Department of Architecture to cast a singular light on the considerable dimensions of Otero-Pailos’s artistic work. Upon entering the space, viewers approach a blank wall centering a lightly foxed, somewhat worn reproduction of “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple,” the late Harold Edgerton’s iconic 1964 photograph of a McIntosh apple being pierced by a .30-caliber bullet. Edgerton, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT, made a career of using stroboscopic photography to capture moments that were otherwise imperceptible. “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple” is no exception. It is arresting, literally, as it preserves the very moment that the projectile’s supersonic shockwave triggered Edgerton’s microphone-and-strobe-activated medium format camera, entrance and exit holes appearing to eject pieces of pulverized and seared apple in opposite directions. The viewers’ eyes then follow the bullet’s logical trajectory along the Keller Gallery’s space, slightly upward, and on the next wall, where a projection of a short video documents the exhibit’s putative subject: Otero-Pailos’s reenactment of the 1964 photograph using Edgerton’s original equipment. Made inside MIT’s Shooting Arts Center, the film documents to a high degree of detail how Otero-Pailos, along with MIT students and staff from MIT’s Edgerton Center and archives, used Edgerton’s Springfield M1903 rifle, rifle stand, bullet catcher, James and Burke “Orbit” camera, and laboratory notes for this reenactment (near substitutes were found for the original stroboscopic equipment as well as the wooden stand on which the apple was placed). Their research uncovered little-known, sometimes surprising aspects of Edgerton’s work. A case in point is the discovery that some of the original versions of “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple” were produced from reversed negatives. Almost everything, from the location of the microphone and strobe, to the angle of the shadows inside the testing chamber, was repeated faithfully with the aim of remaking Edgerton’s iconic 1964 image.
Otero-Pailos, an architect, artist, and theorist who advocates for historical preservation as a kind of alternative aesthetic practice, is not one to use terms like “duplicate,” “remake,” and “re-create” capriciously. He labels Space-Time 1964/2014 a kind of “experimental preservation” that reregisters or revisits the one-third of one-millionth of a second that it took the .30-caliber bullet to set off the stroboscopic flash in 1964. The disparity between the amount of time elapsed from gunshot and image capture and the amount of preparation needed to make this image hints at one of Otero-Pailos’s main conceptual points. Indeed, as we watch the MIT’s crew painstaking reenactment of the experiment, we are made to understand how the experience of registering space and time varies according to the individual subject, whether exhibit-goer, archivist, artist, or curator. This experience is relative and yet dependent on motion—or rather, on modulating between alternating conceptions of historical time. This is, of course, a truth that may not be necessarily revealed in Edgerton’s original photograph but that is still brought to bear because of Otero-Pailos’s artistic interventions. Within the Keller Gallery’s small space, the viewer is required to oscillate between temporal frames of reference, with movement between a photograph from the past and a film made in the present demanding a reexamination of what it means to be in a single space taking in all of these moments.
It is in this sense that Space-Time 1964/2014 provides a subtle if not latent role for architecture and architectural history in the re-creation of this moment from 1964 in 2014. A first edition of Sigfried Giedion’sSpace, Time, and Architecture (1941) is the exhibit’s skeleton key as it alludes to Otero-Pailos’s artistic ambitions. Displayed prominently underneath the film, a viewer can flip through the book and examine instances when Giedion referenced Edgerton’s work, such as a spread including a Paul Citroen–like photomontage of images of the Rockefeller Center taken from ground level alongside Edgerton’s stroboscopic photograph of a golfer’s swing (taken with the assistance of Gjon Mili). Giedion once described how a viewer could experience simultaneous and dynamic volumes while walking around a building, resulting in the new “space-time conception” he was so adamant in characterizing. By substituting walking outside the Time and Life Building and Rockefeller Center with standing inside the Keller Gallery, Otero-Pailos clarifies Giedion’s point that architecture must be consumed from multiple vantage points and multiple images. Here, however, Space-Time envisages something else: the role that time, whether actual, recorded, or perceived, can play in Giedion’s formulation. To put it another way: movement between different temporalities is physical movement.
This is made clear when Otero-Pailos includes his version of “.30 Bullet Piercing an Apple” on the wall opposite from Edgerton’s 1964 photograph. Standing in front of the film, with Giedion’s book an arm’s length away, and flanked by enlarged images of bullets perforating apple flesh at over twice the speed of sound, a viewer is confronted by multiple viewing planes, each representing a different moment, each experienced while moving inside the Keller Gallery. These moments are not necessarily discernible as separate events, however. Except for changes in tint and hue, Otero-Pailos’s photograph appears indistinguishable from Edgerton’s. Yet the production of both images involves material cultures that were virtually identical. The small differences that are not captured by dint of the photographic image, such as changed locations, alterations in stroboscopic equipment, and even variations in labor, only remind us of the profound temporal gulf separating the production of these two images.
This gulf, this moment between moments, has been the topic of recent exhibits and monographs. In 2004 and 2005, Laurent Mannoni curated an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay featuring photographs taken inside reconstructed versions of Étienne-Jules Marey’s wind tunnels built from 1899 to 1901.2 The new images focused more on the aesthetic impact of the original photographs than on Marey’s use of buildings to create his foresighted experimental aeronautical practice. Like Edgerton, Marey was also invested in capturing and documenting an “exact” moment, a kind of scientific practice given a compelling historical and aesthetic treatment in Jimena Canales’s A Tenth of a Second: A History (2010).3 Other practices advocate for reconstruction and preservation as literal and physical interventions. A case in point is David Gissen’s proposed reconstruction of the Mound of Vendôme from 1871—the large berm of dirt, straw, and mud designed to soften the collapse of the demolished Place Vendôme Column on May 16, 1871, while protecting the nearby urban fabric.4 First published in 2012, Gissen’s proposal gives an architectural and urban urgency to what novelist Thomas Pynchon labeled “preterite” history, or the forgotten history of those crushed under the maw of capitalist development.5 For all of their scholarly acumen, these examples invite only more opportunities to investigate how architecture, whether through space planning or exhibition design, or even architectural history, via a reexamination of canonical texts like Giedion’s, are practices poised to gain much by taking into account their unique conceptions of time. Within such contexts, Space-Time 1964/2014 may appear as being too modest, perhaps circumscribed physically and conceptually by the Keller Gallery’s tight confines. This is only a cavil, however, as Otero-Pailos’s work shoulders quite a lot when it comes to articulating the relation between conceptualizing architectural form and theorizing historical time. Perhaps this places Space-Time 1964/2014 squarely in the domain of historical preservation. Perhaps it opens up new vistas, new realms of inquiry for preservationists. Yet, as Otero-Pailos has demonstrated, these considerations not only produce architecture but may also lead to new architectural histories.