by Brian Droitcour
Energy Lattice catalogue


Benjamin Phelan’s sculptures look like monuments, or fragments of architecture. But they don’t do everything that monuments do.

Phelan’s Lenticular Icosagon Reaction Funnel (2013) is big. It is white, like the marble that some monuments are made of. The crests and rivets that wind along its otherworldly body speak to the subtractive labor of sculpture, the work of carving into marble or other stone. Its body rests on a grounded base. Yet it is also unlike a monument. Its shape—irregularly bulbous and curved—is alien. It does not belong to life now and never did in the past. Perhaps it belongs to the future; the name of the work suggests a tool, an element in a complex technology that has not been invented yet, rather than a person or an event that made history, and its base, too, is tool like—faceted like the head of a bolt. A monument, though otherworldly, appeals to human aspirations and dreams; it is at least part human. Phelan’s sculpture is wholly inhuman. Its substance is synthetic. The white color of its body isn’t marble, it’s Styrofoam, and the weight implied by its size is belied by the lightness of the material. Styrofoam makes the work hard to think of as a monument because nothing made of Styrofoam is made to last. Marble lasts eons; monuments of marble situate human history in geological time. Styrofoam is the stuff of consumer-goods packaging. It relates sculpture to the everyday cycles of goods and garbage, purchase and disposal.

Lenticular Icosagon Reaction Funnel, with its alien shapes and disposable materials, inverts the monument’s relationship to time. It has nothing to do with the past; it does not put the past in the present, orienting it toward the future. In making this work, Phelan has looked to a possible future and imagined what could be there, then brought it to the present—a cyclical, disposable present—where it directs attention back toward the unknown future.

One of the futures that interests Phelan is the future of production. How will things be made and consumed a few decades from now? The present already shows developments in 3D printing and milling machines, and in sophisticated computer modeling software that directs the activity of these machines. There are touchpad technologies that eliminate the difference between looking and touching, and if they are hitched to the aforementioned technologies of modeling and printing, they can fuse wanting and having by turning drawing into a consumer process—a kind of drawing that replaces shopping. It promises to make true the science-fiction dreams of the 1950s and '60s, when explosive growth in light industry and plastics—and the unprecedented levels of affluence and convenience that it brought—fueled visions of instant consumer gratification. Today’s prophets of 3D printing predict a universal means of production that creates instant everything. Minimizing desire makes everything as disposable as Styrofoam.

To make his latest series of works, Phelan has used the CNC milling machine at the Center for New Art of William Paterson University. It is close to the developing technologies of instant production. The machine, linked through its software to Phelan’s motion capture models, produces a set of drill tip motions, thousands of lines of code listing the x-y-z coordinates of the object to be milled. Sketching becomes one with making, vision becomes one with sculpture. In the present, the most common use of milling machines like the one at WPU is the production of the fanciful statuary that populates theme parks and restaurants, or the eye-catching elements that protrude from billboards—forms whose features require fine detail, to be made at a budget that can’t cover individual artisanal labor. Milling machines are also used by the studios of artists like Jeff Koons and Paul McCarthy, who draw inspiration from those pop forms. The milling machine at WPU is not a high-end commercial model. It’s not for producing highly refined sculptures, but for learning how it is done. It may not be the ideal tool for every artist, but Phelan is interested in speculating about the technology’s potential rather than exploiting the cutting edge of it capabilities, and so for him the machine at WPU is a perfect match.

While milling machines can work with a variety of materials, including wood and steel, the Center for New Art at WPU limits the material it uses to four-inch planks of Styrofoam. Cheap and easy to cut through, Styrofoam is a low risk material. Styrofoam is the common name for expanded polystyrene, a synthetic polymer foam of friable beads extruded into brittle slabs. Extrusion creates objects from a two-dimensional profile, by pushing material through a cross-sectioned die. It is like drawing and it produces a volume—in fact, extrusion is also a term used in modeling programs, when a line drawn is translated into a volume—as happens when a sphere drag produces a model in Phelan’s motion-capture software. Extrusion as an industrial process that produces Styrofoam, extrusion as the means of manipulating it via the computer—the rhyme of the two processes in the WPU context is an accident, but it points to a fluidity of protocols across modes of production that interests Phelan.

It’s the machine, not Phelan, who directly touched Styrofoam to make the sculptures in the artist’s latest series, and yet by operating the machine, Phelan still had plenty of contact with Styrofoam’s substance. As the mill cuts the Styrofoam, the floors around the machine swell with crumbs. Instead of the dust and chips of granite and marble that pollute the studio of the classical sculptor, in the WPU studios synthetic particles are the pollutants left over from production. The artist vacuums them up as the machine grinds away at the slabs; he behaves as the machine’s assistant. But as the machine sculpts it accrues mistakes and errors. Signals misalign, producing tangible interference and noise as the machine tries to work around instructions it can’t understand, adding elements that it thinks needs to be there. Phelan talks about using the machine as measuring human wit against artificial intelligence—coming up with ways to outsmart the mill so it does exactly what he needs it to do. The artist is the machine’s assistant, and its rival.

Before he came to WPU, Phelan had limited experience working at this level of abstraction from the physical process of making art. He had experimented with 3D printing but found the relationship of cost to scale ineffective. For the most part, Phelan has worked on computer models of objects, and he has made sculptures, and though formal similarities recurred in his work across these two mediums, the processes were wholly separate. He drew the models in the computer and he sculpted the objects by hand, sanding the surfaces and doing the rest of the painstaking work himself. Now that the milling machine has made it possible to collapse those mediums in a single, abstracted process, Phelan continues to work at the surface of his sculptures without a direct touch.

Earth Pipe Linkspace Conditioner (2013) is one of the sculptures with a custom LED system installed in its base. The prismatic lighting system continuously modulates the way the sculpture is seen — it mediates the surface with the time of the viewer’s gaze, just as the milling machine’s contact with the slab is mediated by the haptic technology of the modeling software that determines the drill bit’s movement along a set of coordinates.

Earth Pipe Linkspace Conditioner is one of Phelan’s works that recalls the things you find in an encyclopedic museum—slab-like tablets, scored fragments of friezes, a monumental body on a base but with unfamiliar contours and surfaces. It is a skeletal catacomb with viscous-looking walls; the branching beams of its interior gather in a loose pyramid. It echoes the relief of Cosmic Voronoi Vision Sys (2013), in which tubes emerge from the surface and mingle like worms after rain. It’s strange, even alien, but if it recalls a relic of an alien civilization it is because the piece is commensurable with the size and shape of human relics. The ground of a tubed frieze panel in Alias Protocol Haptic Array (2013), looks like convenience store shelving— a system of display that aspires to universality, to be open to holding anything. And the beveled geometric patterns that web its surface are inspired in part by Phelan’s research into the structure of the central cortex—the visual forms built into its synapses that are revealed when you rub your eyes, or suddenly move from a dark space to a bright one, or ingest hallucinogenic drugs. Protocols of the body—the controls of fundamental, unseen levels of sensory perception— operate here as reminders of sculpture and architecture as universal functions—how bodies experience what is situated beyond them, through the networks inside them.

A monument commands attention because it fuses in one object values and bodies, ideas and form—the human condition of balancing the worldly and the otherworldly, in a thing that can be seen and touched. But the tangible is less impressive now when images on screen command the greatest attention. Objects are disposable and easily reproduced and replaced. Objects belong to the purview of machines, not people. Forms of attention cleave away from objects and regroup in bodies; objects of attention mutate in forms of control. Apple with its touchpads and Google with its movement controls for Glass are branding gestural environments, just as Facebook branded the interior structure of making friends. As the ephemeral experience and gesture are bound to each other in systems of managing the body’s relation to its physical environments, and its social, affective ones, objects become a waste product, like crumbs of Styrofoam. Phelan’s emptied out monumental fragments resist empathy, with alien shapes and the forbidding strings of words in the title; they direct attention instead to their material, to a speculation about the process by which they were made. They open up reflection on universal technologies of making and seeing.