- A walk with A3

Samuel Adam Swope: Updraft, updraft
楊陽 (Yang YEUNG)
at 7:25pm on 14th June 2017

Maple seeds in Updraft, updraft by Samuel Adam Swope

(原文以英文發表,評論Samuel Adam Swope在霎西街一號A3樓梯鋪的創作Updraft, updraft。)


Shortly after sunset to two hours before sunrise, Samuel Adam Swope’s Updraft, updraft configures. A rectangular 3-sided wooden case from ceiling to floor is punctuated at the bottom left and right by two fans, programmed to start and bring hundreds of paper copies of maple seeds in the air. In flux, some crash onto the walls of their cage; others cluster around a bottom corner or stay at the ceiling; the rest trembles in midair.

Then, the fans stop, the seeds drop, and the white fluorescent light tubes in the case go off. At the same time, another fluorescent light tube outside of the case turns on. With a color like sunset in its last breath, it brings the apparent incongruity of flux and stillness into perspective. This light is localized and has no ambition to illuminate the back lane where A Walk with A3 is situated, but by obliquely addressing the lane, it shows the presence of darkness as its specter, or the presence of the spectral as darkness.

Updraft, updraft is not an exhibition, but an intervention. Upon what does it intervene, and how? I propose that one crucial component of the intervention is the waiting time between the flux and the stillness that the artist composes. Depending on when one arrives at Updraft, updraft, one encounters either the eccentricity of restless movements or the immeasurable weight of stillness. Depending on how long one stays, one encounters either the magnitude of darkness or its rupture. In between lies the wait as a duration full of anticipation, evoking simultaneously hope and anxiety for that which is to come – when and how would the maple seeds succumb to the artificial storm again?

With the uncertainty is also the precision of the wait – by this I do not mean that the wait could be quantified by and subjected to external units of measure like clock-time (although it is possible the artist has sought help from the like). Precision here is the quality Swope has given to the wait as time in relation to the flux and stillness within the installation, giving them definition by pacing them out in time. On one end of the wait, one accesses the randomness of the movements of the seeds, or, they are determined to move in such infinitely probable ways that our experience of the multitude becomes near random. As a quality of how flux and stillness are activated, composed randomness is the artist’s way of letting go, a principle generously laid open for us as viewers to engage with and immerse in. It is an invitation for viewers to live directly his time, his composition. On the other end of the wait is another kind of uncertainty – that of the meaning of the light, what it is and is not directing our attention to. The wait in between the two ends produces our conflicting desires in finding either or both as pleasurable. Definition within enables the indefinite without. In Six Memos for the New Millennium, Italo Calvino proposes in the essay “Exactitude”, that the poles of “exactitude” and “lack of definition” are also the poles of (citing 19th century poet Leopardi’s work as example) “rigorous abstraction of a mathematical notion of space and time, and compares this to the vague, undefined flux of sensations.” (1988/1993: 64) The long history of this philosophical divide between eternal form and the sensible world illuminates less what Swope’s work thinks through, but more the way his abstraction – its power – is a little different, and more generally, how the artist is always bringing necessary unease to established categories of understanding. I would like to explore how Swope plays with the notions of time and air in Updraft, updraft as well as his recent works. By abstracting them for different purposes, Swope contributing to more nuanced ways of understanding art supported and mediated by machines – be it “aerial art” (a term he uses to define Updraft, updraft), “new media art” (for involving the digital mode of production) or others.


Time is complex. Martin Heidegger speaks of time as having an “unsettling transitional character that marks metaphysics at its beginning.” (Parmenides, 1982/1998:139) This ‘time’ in which we dwell, he says, is “indeterminable by man and always given the stamp of the current time, to release beings into appearance or hold them back.” (141) The stamp of current time can be commonly understood as a function of time-telling; clock-time tells time by dividing it into spatial units and confining who we are in them. Swope’s intervention works with and shows a different time that is both current and yet-to-be-given – instead of telling time; it frees time up from what has appeared by composing rhythm, interrupting routines that are timed.

What is rhythm? Henri Lefebvre says, “For there to be rhythm, there must be repetition in a movement, but not just any repetition. […] For there to be rhythm, strong times and weak times, which return in accordance with a rule or law – long and short times, recurring in a recognizable way, stops, silences, blanks, resumptions and intervals in accordance with regularity, must appear in movement.” (Rhythmanalysis: space, time and everyday life, 1992/ 2004: 78) I am not sure if I agree with Lefebvre that rhythm therefore could only occur in non-mechanical movement, but I find his account of rhythm helpful in reading the kind of rhythm Updraft, updraft has composed. In Updraft, updraft, there are two kinds of repetition – in each is a multitude, and for each, they produce rhythm; the repetitions arise from the need of each to be in each others’ rhythm. The first repetition is constituted by the continuous switch between the movement of the maple seeds and the stillness marked by the orange light. As one goes into action, the other rests. The flux of the paper objects presents varying and detailed activities of rolling, somersaulting, spinning, tumbling, hovering… Within the stillness of the orange light is a silence that holds the viewers’ immediate memory of the flux – visual (for the white light), tactile (for the movement), sonic (for the multitude). The second repetition is within the waiting time: waiting time repeats itself out of the repetition of flux and stillness. For the viewer, the waiting time becomes ambiguous – is flux waiting for stillness or the other way round? While being a regular occurrence, the waiting time also suggests the indeterminate. For the questioning of its own origin, the wait becomes movement, too, contributing to the cinematic quality of Updraft, updraft as an intervention in time and of time. By pacing out the routine layer of current time, it lets in a slow and expansive kind of time that no longer functions as currency in current time to serve our imperative to exchange for what time can output for us. Instead, time at Updraft, updraft is ritualistically lived, intensified with a tinge of the sinister, as if to immortalize the moment.

The second gesture of abstraction is concerned with air. In recent years, air seems to have become a notion for the understanding of contemporary new media art. Air as sphere, as atmospheric air, is contrasted with the more human-centred air as ‘life support’, rather than life itself (Bruno Latour, “Air” in Sensorium, 2006:106). Mediated by air-conditioning and ventilation systems in the built environment, for instance, air belongs to humanly-devised systems. Indeed, looking at the maple seeds in its regulated environment, one could be reading what is in the air as prominent in defining what is happening. It took me visiting Dead Air, Swope’s solo exhibition running partly concurrently with Updraft, updraft to see how air is conceived quite differently from the predominant language.

Dead Air is an installation in very dim light (with no highlight) in 100ft park. Walking into the gallery, one is arrested by the staleness of air, which instantly calls any body movement to stop. On the ceiling near the entrance is a curved rod titled 46°, glowing in orange and emitting heat. In the middle of the gallery ceiling is a fan, with each of its four propellers installed with smaller propeller fans. These smaller fans are programmed to switch on and bring the ceiling fan (a dead and found one) into activity – a forced aborted flight for the propellers that propel nothing in a forced circular motion brought along by the small propeller fans. Without adequate power to bring the ceiling fan into full speed, a sense of inertia arises, only to be interrupted by 12°, a set of copper pipes on the ground, sweating because of the cold air they are fed with. The set of pipe is hardly visible; when one manages to find and touch it, one’s entire body is seized with an acute, ice-cold sensation. The sound of water dropping enhances the slash of the cold, which expands the imagination of the radiating rods above: they seem to be sweating, too, by melting the air around it, or dropping thick hot air in an exaggeratedly slow speed around the room. I find Swope’s naming of the two “abstract ritual objects” marking a “line of heat” and a “line of cold” succinct. Their ritualistic qualities, I believe, come from how they compel our solemn observance of their behavior, without necessarily knowing how they relate to each other.

Returning to Updraft, updraft after experiencing Dead Air, I find the power of the former not so much in the objects suspended in midair (however beautifully and meticulously made they are – fragile while resilient) as in the relation they have with the extensive layers of airstreams in the case and the air that the orange light gives volume to. Swope writes in his artist statement that Updraft, updraft is inspired by an image of Moholy-Nagy levitating a chisel with compressed air (Vision in Motion, 1947). “In Updraft, updraft, the perceptible volume is a life-like swarm due to air and accelerated motion. In this windy landscape there is order and not. The paper maple seeds are in a constant rise and fall of aerodynamic logic in the sequence of governed airstreams,” Swope says. It seems that Swope has been living with the idea and materiality of volume in the air for quite some time. With an interest in the movement of air and how it could be mediated, air, for Swope, is “an aesthetic dimension.” In 2009, for instance, he installed Untitled as part of the group exhibition Dwelling in Osage Gallery. Untitled is a set of four glass cases designed based on the matryoshka doll. Each layer is filled with scented smoke sequentially, which eventually blew out into the gallery and taken in by those in the gallery. One could interpret this as the artist’s fascination with the power of air to equalize and connect us socially. One could also interpret this as his fascination with the literal filtering (or its failure) of air, or perhaps the anxiety that could be created in the ambiguities between imminent danger and instant pleasure. Instead of playing with what air may result in (bringing objects into weightlessness, defying gravity), he works with what air in its varying quality as a state of being in itself.

With a longer range view, it seems Swope has been moving back and forth between flight itself that is self-sufficient to the flying object, and forced flight of objects that can only be in midair with the help of other forces. It is as if Swope is researching on and reflecting upon the conditions of flight, or the constituting layer of flight. The struggle shows itself in such iterations as the very recent Floating Room, in which such domestic objects as lamps are installed with propellers, hovering in a caged living room. Viewers sit outside of the cage, with which and through which we see ourselves and our future. As a whole, it is simultaneously a warning (that cautions actual and imagined danger) and an enticer: the closer we get to something that confronts us safely, the more we want to provoke that which is caged. We mesmerize at their imagineered future. In ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, a performance involving shooting paper planes at 30 pieces per seven second over a rooftop in the industrial area of Fotan, movement that the paper planes are induced into are first mechanical (for having been shot out into open air) and then natural (subjected to the wind and law of gravity). The paper planes can do nothing but be at the mercy of air that is constantly moving. While these earlier works place more emphasis on addressing and questioning the desire to follow flying objects, in the dialogue between Updraft, updraft and Dead Air, Swope’s attention and sensitivity are with air, which mark a productive retreat, enabling a different kind of artistic concentration. Showing how his chosen objects make their own environment to live, Swope has crafted a new set of coordinates with which and of which flight could speak.

In speaking of colors in painting, Brian Massumi says, “Bearers of each other, triggered into being by an edge. The convivial edge of emergence: one line indicating all, presenting the continuity of variations that is the shadowy background of existence. And at the same time effecting separation: the spectral distinction of what actually appears. Merging; emerging. Virtual; actual. One line.” (Semblance and Event, Activist Philosophy and the Occurent Art, 2011:88) Borrowing from Massumi’s insight, one could find reasons for how Swope’s work could be seen as much more complex and embodying many more events than a divisive field of vision offers: to engage, to embody, is to recede into a different distance as the artist has. 

This article was first published in A Walk with A3 website, April 30, 2017



- 2017