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New Public Art in Bessey Hall

Posted on February 27, 2018 at 3:59 PM by Nancy Gebhart

New Public Art in Bessey Hall

An Interview with Artist Benjamin Ball and Professor Rob Wallace


Artist Benjamin Ball of Ball-Nogues Studio in Los Angeles and Associate Professor Rob Wallace of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology (EEOB) at Iowa State University were interviewed by University Museums Public Relations Assistant Aspen Pflanz on Tuesday, January 23, 2018 about the new public art installation in Bessey Hall, 96 Variations on a Phylogenetic Tree. This is their edited conversation.

Aspen Pflanz: Rob, could you talk about how Bessey’s Art in State Buildings Committee, which you volunteered to lead, developed the mission statement for this project?

Rob Wallace: The mission statement develops a conceptual or thematic relationship between the artwork and the occupants of the building as well as what kind of activity goes on in this building. In Elings Hall, for instance, the beautiful sculpture hanging in the atrium, represents agriculture and engineering. We developed a statement specific to our buildings and areas of study, and then we sent out a call for artists. Ben and his colleagues [from Ball-Nogues Studio] submitted a proposal, as well as ten to fifteen others. The committee deliberated these choices and decided on Ball-Nogues Studio to be the artists for both the Bessey Hall addition and the new Advanced Teaching and Research Building (ATRB).   

Aspen: Ben, could you talk about how you took that mission statement and turned it into this beautiful Tree of Life hanging above us? You mentioned [in another interview] this morning that it was a lot of trial and error.

Benjamin Ball: Rob gave a good overview of the process up until we started working on the project properly. We proposed some ideas about working with this material and these kinds of formations, which then opened up a dialogue about how we could look at this series of catenary projects that we’ve been doing for ten years now through the lens of biology, pedagogy, and layer biological meaning onto the project. We could use that not to represent something literally in biology such as, say, draw a cell, but use it as a guiding set of principles in guiding the work. Rob was amazing in that process because he’s got the mind to bridge that gap. It was a series of productive conversations with him that led to that.

Rob: When he proposed the initial catenaries – I call them nested catenaries – the committee just loved them! My only concern was that it have some kind of biological relevance, and Ben just jumped on this idea. He was like one of the best students I ever had because he was asking all the right questions about how that shape could be developed. His background is not in biological evolution, yet he grasped those ideas and made them in three dimensions. That’s what jazzes me.

Ben: My partner [Gaston Nogues] and I love to be challenged in that way. Some people say that you don’t want to have any rules when you’re making something like this. But no, you absolutely want to have as many rules as possible! What we did was create a set of rules, really, that guided the making of this. It was great! Sometimes in these working relationships, there’s no bridge, but with Rob it was amazing.

Aspen: Rob, what surprised you most about this project?

Rob: I have a very strong appreciation for what artists do and the challenges they have. I saw the initial catenaries and said, “That’s a three-dimensional, floating cladogram.” It doesn’t matter what level of organism you want to work with, if you want to work with a bacteria, or the wolves in Northern Iowa, they’re on that Tree [of Life that is represented in this public art installation]. It contextualizes the entire function of this building, in terms of everything no matter who you are or what part of the world you come from, you’re part of that Tree. If we have birds or bats flying in here, they’re going to be part of that Tree. You slide your finger across the floor, and you have the bacteria that you just picked up as part of that Tree. For me, at least, how I like to interpret this is that it brings it all together. That’s what the exciting part about this is: students are going to walk through this building for decades and be able to see this [art] and also interact with it. Every time they glance at it, they become part of that Tree. That’s what’s exciting to me.

Ben: It is a general enough principle of biology that for anyone in the biological sciences, it will have relevance.

Rob: Evolution and phylogeny are the central themes of all biology, no matter what you do. If you’re a neurologist, if you’re a physiologist, if you study the ecology of how nitrogen moves through the environment… it all comes down to evolution and the process of evolution which is captured in the symbolism of all that branching [represented in the installation].

Aspen: Ben, in the studio or in your initial designs, were there any challenges apart from the biological concepts that were new to you? New materials, new shipping methods, or something else that you were able to learn from this project?

Ben: When we started this project, before we even had a real discussion, we had decided to work with this [colored ball chain] material. We’ve worked with this material before, but in a simpler way where the chains are anchored to a single point. Long story short, without getting too wonky, that is a lot simpler to compute. We use a lot of computers to do this, and when you start to make [the chains and their anchored points] interact with each other, that means that the computation problems are an order of magnitude more complex. It also means [we needed to] develop a system to assemble this installation and keep track of all these parts as they go together, as well as how to check for errors.

Rob: These things had to come together because if you put it the wrong way, the weight of the chain is going to pull everything. They all interact. These catenaries all have to be point to point, and there is a mathematical equation of how that catenary curve is designed both with the distance and the mass of the material. All of those things interact, so if you don’t get those exact, you aren’t going to get that nice layered effect. It would be askew. Even just one point is going to affect the entire unified mass coming down.

Ben: The whole thing is a system in balance. In theory, if you pull or move any of the chains, the whole thing responds. It I similar to ecological balance or the interaction of different biological systems. You throw one out of whack, that’s going to throw another out of whack and another out of whack. But back to the logistics of it, yes, this project is substantially different than anything we have done. We had to ask new questions about how we’d package it, how we’d pull it out. We needed to assemble as much as possible of it within the studio. We hung [the installation] in the studio as high as we could to check it, and then we lowered it into boxes that looked like thin partitions, sort of like LP record sleeves, to keep the parts all separated so they didn’t tangle.

Aspen: Rob, what are you most excited about for this artwork in Bessey Hall finally?

Rob: First of all, this is the first real piece of artwork that Bessey Hall has ever had! I am excited that we have art in this building now. I am also excited that we will be able to use an artistic background and delivery medium to symbolize the unified nature of biology and that all organisms, no matter what they are, all connected on the Tree of Life. It transcends old and new, up and down. No matter what discipline you are working in, you are reminded when you walk by this that you are part of the Tree of Life. There is a lot of symbolism that I see as an artist that is contained in this piece.

Aspen: What would the two of you like people to know about this project or communicate to its audience?

Ben: I would like people to understand that this is something that symbolizes the interconnectedness of all things, all life forms. Like we were saying earlier, if one of these chains [in the installation] were out of place, there would be a response in the whole thing. That is an interesting and important way of looking at the world right now, where you have certain ecosystems being destroyed. That’s going to be problematic down the road and otherwise! It’s a spiraling, cascading problem, so I’d like people to maybe think about that a little bit.

Rob: As a professor, I have been here now for 28 years in the same office on the third floor, Bessey 311. I was able to look out to the east here and grow my plants in the windowsill. I can’t do that anymore, but now that’s been replaced with [this artwork as] a reminder that scientists can connect with art, that there is this interconnectivity. Artists can be separate, scientists can be separate, but when you put them together, what you result in is greater than the independent parts. We [as teachers] can come out here now and say this artistic piece takes everything that you are learning in class, from the eubacteria and the archaea and the eukaryotes, and puts them in three dimensions. This allows you to really understand that it’s not just a diagram made out of ink on paper. There is actually some three-dimensionality to the whole process. There are educational or pedagogical benefits of this artwork, but also the benefits art inside the biological sciences building, which has not been here since the building started out in 1965! That’s really different.

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