The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
5
Error and Generation



James Siena is a New York City-based artist. His work is held in numerous prestigious public and private collections across the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Siena is represented by the Pace Gallery. He received a BFA from Cornell University in 1979.
James Siena in conversation with Caroline O’Donnell

Caroline
From the Renaissance until very recently, let’s say the 1950s, there was a correct and accepted way of practicing architecture, where proportion, harmony, and part-to-whole relationships, were fundamental. As a result of Colin Rowe’s famous essay, the word mathematics became synonymous with those qualities of architectural order. Today, however, mathematics in architecture means something different, it means an algorithmic process which creates a range of possibilities: variation, rather than an accepted and correct standard. And it is that trajectory between those two expressions of mathematics—from the Ideal to the Uncertain—that we are looking at in issue 9 of the Cornell Journal of Architecture.

It seems to us that there is a resonance between that trajectory and much of your work. Your process has been described as algorithmic, self-organizing, fractal. The titles of your work hint at mathematical influence: Sequence One, Iterative Grid, Multi-Colored Nesting Unknots, Boustrophedonic Recursive Combs…. Your process begins with an ideal figure, and repeats, yet it is different in each iteration because it incorporates your own human error as part of the process to arrive at an unpredictable conclusion.

James
I like to think that my work sites itself all along the trajectory you describe. It’s interesting that you talk about the Renaissance as a time of order. I love the anonymous architecture of the medieval period, when builders were the architects. Their view of the world had to do with durability, not with innovation. That somehow comes back to my work. I want a kind of structural durability that maybe calls upon some of that innocence of the pre-Renaissance builder: the idea that there’s a consistency and completeness in what I do. With that in mind, the ideas and positions behind the work, despite the presence of “error,” are conveyed.

Caroline
You are right. It was a guild system. The architect as such did not exist prior to Alberti. It was really in the Renaissance that the architect became a liberal-arts-trained intellectual, separated from the craftspeople, executing an intellectual project more than a building project. So the world that you are talking about was a guild-based world where heuristics—rules of thumbs—were everything.

James
And change was not encouraged so much as tolerated or, if it occurred, each variation/innovation was agreed upon within the guild. In A Distant Mirror,[1] Barbara W. Tuchman talks about the guild system and about this notion of continuity, which interests me enormously. But I am also interested in innovation. Creating something that is both new and respectful of tradition.


Caroline
Watching you sketching the hooks earlier, for your in-progress work [working title Connected Hooks with Arrows (Red), 2011–12], one would say you were basically executing a rule-based procedure. You said: there are the elements, and I will join the pieces in the most circuitous way. So one could consider it to be an algorithm. But I have the feeling that no computer programmer could possibly write an algorithm that replicated that. There were unarticulated choices being made, there was proximity of line that was guiding your hand, there was so much more than the instructions themselves.

James
And the way lines take-off and come in for a landing. Yes, it is the tendons, muscles, eyes, memories of other people’s curves that I’ve looked at, as well as road systems, trail systems, vehicular trajectories. That human tradition is really important.

Caroline
But let’s suppose I told you I could write that script. Would that go against the principles of your process?

James
No, I would love to see that. But then I would say: let me fuck with your script. We’ll throw in hooks that bend, and now run your script. And that, not your script, would be my work.

Caroline
See if you can make smoke come out of the machine?

James
Yes. Machine Panic. And I’ve done it. Sometimes—actually, most times—I will intentionally screw it up by changing the lengths or the angles of things.

Caroline
Yet it’s not an instructional-based art, like Sol LeWitt’s, for example; it is not something that you can pass on to another artist to produce. It is your hand, your memories, your tradition that makes the errors that are crucial to the work.


Sequence One, 2009. Woodcut on paper. 16 7/8" × 13 1/2" (42.9 cm × 34.3 cm), 36 panels, each, unbound.
Sequence One, 2009. Woodcut on paper. 16 7/8" × 13 1/2" (42.9 cm × 34.3 cm), 36 panels, each, unbound.

James
In most cases, it is. In the Triangle paintings, at first glance they look very mechanical. But they are painted by hand, following lines that are drawn against a ruler. Here, it is not so much about the hand as the mind. I was carrying out this iterative process. I divided the picture plane in two with a diagonal. That’s the only move of its kind in this image. All the other moves are the same. I turn it so that this line is parallel to me, and I draw perpendiculars from the two hypotenuses to the right angle of the triangle. And repeat until they start to multiply in a maniacal way. Then I decide we are going to do it in three colors, and the colors cannot touch laterally. Since I am doing it by hand, I may miss one or two iterations. And each error or omission has a cascade effect.

Caroline
So if you make an error, and that’s the mark of a certain humanity, you do not go back and rectify the error, you let the error propagate. And that would be the difficulty in scripting it.

James
We could say that life is a series of errors. Life on this planet. Whatever started the first amino acids propagating, and that became a self-organizing system that was able to somehow copy itself, and some of them got hit by lightning, or boiled by gas vents, or frozen in a storm (to give a few examples), and some did not. And those accidents are intrinsically creative.

Caroline
The work fascinates me not just because of what it is but because of how it comes to be.

James
I think what you are talking about is what a friend of mine (Steve DiBenedetto, a terrific artist) called slippage. While there’s an integrity to a concept or an image, it has slipped, fallen from grace; yet holds the promise of something new, in spite of its apparent failure.

Caroline
I enjoy that reading of both conditions struggling with each other.

James
But the point is not only to unlock the procedure. The point is also to marvel at the complexity of existence. Maybe they look extraordinary in some regard because they are set against reductive modernist notions, but everything is teeming with complexity.


Untitled (Iterative Grid). Enamel on aluminum, 29" × 22 3 /4" (73.7 cm × 57.8 cm)
Untitled (Iterative Grid). Enamel on aluminum, 29" × 22 3 /4" (73.7 cm × 57.8 cm)

Caroline
Battery is the clearest balance of the procedural and the complex for me.

James
I circumambulated the surface with ellipses and as I got toward the middle there was less space, so they naturally got smaller. And because of the variations in shape, they started to push themselves into not necessarily the center. I could have laid this out very carefully, made a stencil and created rows but I chose not to. I am ambivalent about this because it is too pretty.

Caroline
The edge of your painting is controlled by the regularity of the rectangle, but as soon as the errors start to accumulate, it recedes into an extremely turbulent center.

James
Yes, extreme turbulence but consistency and completeness as well. The ellipses do not touch, the saddle shapes between them have the same alignments: it all makes an internal sense. It’s as if there is some kind of growth-mediated art mitigated by error. I’m not sure about that word …

Caroline
What about the word mutation instead of error?

James
Wonderful word. I also like the word infection. I’ve made works that have variations on the title Infected Lattice. Here there is an X motif, and then wherever there is a vertex; I accumulate marks. Marks grow on the vertices, explicitly referencing infection. In the case of the toothpick sculptures, the grid derives from the placement of the now-absent grapes. And maybe that’s a poetic reference to the body or to life. I’ve also made (in the same year as the triangles) overtly sexual paintings and works on paper.


Caroline
In architecture the role of mathematics and order has often been represented by Vitruvian Man or by the body. It’s interesting that your work contains both overtly geometrical, and overtly sexual imagery. Is there an overlap between the two for you?

James
Well, we were talking about error and generation. That’s not too far from sex, is it? Lust has generated mistakes that occasionally develop into something meaningful, making it all worthwhile. But I do find the body more and more compelling as a way into structure and procedure; and that’s not too far from sex, either, come to think of it. But there’s a strong overlap in the area of the system; we need to be reminded of that when we think of our humanity, or, better yet, our “organity.” And the limit of our form, our physical boundary between us and the rest of the world, is, in these works, metaphorized into the body of a painting that functions like a visual machine (or organism: remember the sixties band Soft Machine?).

We’re going shortly to an island in the south of France called l’Ile du Levant, to spend a few months working on paintings and drawings. The image with the central line and combs (Floppy Combs Variation, 2010) that surround it was inspired by the street plan of that island which is a pedestrian village. It’s built on a hill so there’s a road called La Perspective, which is aligned with the setting sun, and radiating off of that are paths where most houses are sited.

Caroline
This brings up my own interest in the role of accident in city planning. My own article in the Journal is about a 16th-century military architect named Francesco de Marchi, who designs cities based on the contingencies of site. This is radical at a time when the pure geometry of fortified cities was considered necessary for reasons of defense and of geometry. I am interested in an architecture that is reactive to contingencies in the same way—not for reasons of sustainability, which I also believe have to or should have to be about reaction, but for reasons of meaning. A reactive system produces an understanding of the thing itself and the other, and the struggle produced in between.

Battery, 1997. Enamel on aluminum. 29 1/8" × 22 3/4" (74 cm × 57.8 cm)
Battery, 1997. Enamel on aluminum. 29 1/8" × 22 3/4" (74 cm × 57.8 cm)



James
We have as a species reacted to a hill by either dealing with the contour, or getting out the dynamite. I think seeing Colin Rowe’s approach in the seventies was influential on me. The idea of the gestalt street plan … I taught a workshop at the Studio School in New York last summer, and I had the students go for a walk and map the walk when they came back. And they got lost because we were near the West Village, where the orthogonal grid falls apart. So the nonlogical grid was gone, or perhaps logical, based on landscape which is no longer relevant. But what I said was, when maps were being made of cities 500 years ago, nobody could see them from above. They had to conceptualize. They had to go up in the air mentally. And amazingly, they did it—and even more amazingly, people could read the maps. Our species learns codes easily! From language to mapping, and beyond.

Infected Lattice, 2004. Lithograph in 2 colors. 17 3/8" × 14 1/2." Edition 20. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. © James Siena/Universal Limited Art Editions, 2004
Infected Lattice, 2004. Lithograph in 2 colors. 17 3/8" × 14 1/2." Edition 20. Published by Universal Limited Art Editions. © James Siena/Universal Limited Art Editions, 2004

Caroline
The figure-ground condition and the arrows in much of your work often reads as a kind of map. I am fascinated by this new work: notating the complex form of the vines using wooden sticks, which is also a mapping, but in three dimensions. How did this work come about?

James
When first I made these toothpick sculptures, I painted them black, to unify the inside and outside. Then I realized the shadow was doing that anyway, and there was visual interest in the contrast between the grape stems and the toothpicks. I was also drawn to the singularity of the shape, however complex it appeared to others. Lately, though, I’ve been clustering the stems in illogical ways before attaching the toothpicks, and the results are initially less harmonious looking, but with time and contemplation they hold an intricacy whose structure comes directly from the random arrangement of stems.

Caroline
An architect might read this in reverse: that the interior organic form is derived from the geometrical cage. This tessellation of surfaces is something that computer programs do as a matter of course in order to build things.

James
Yes, but as you can see, the stems vary according to species; thick and short, thin and long. And when you do scramble the stems, the program you mention is deeply important. On a craft note, you must leave them for a few years to dry, before working with them, because they shrink. I’ve found this out the hard way.

Caroline
So you are aging the grapeless stem. The parallel to wine is fabulous. At some point it feels like they are trying to get out. Which is ironic, since they generated their own cage.

James
They are incredibly strong.

Caroline
It could almost be a bridge. But it is not perfectly triangulated. If you don’t triangulate, you are risking failure.

James
Yes, I am. But without the ever-present risk of failure, what are we?



Endnote

1. Barbara W. Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Random House, 1978).

Credits

All images © James Siena, courtesy of the Pace Gallery except Infected Lattice published by Universal Limited Art Editions, © James Siena/Universal Limited Art Editions, 2004.




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