IT ALL COMES BACK TO GEOMETRY

An Interview with Robyn Benson: July's MAI + t Collaborator


Cover image by Robyn Benson
Interview by Siena Oristaglio and Jett Oristaglio
Introduction by Billy Zhao
Robyn Benson’s research on the principles of mathematics through visual imagery introduces a new dimension to the second month of MAI + t. Benson's work involves placing simple objects together to create states of equilibrium. It fascinates me that she reduces her medium down to very basic materials such as bricks, wood, plastic, and string. Benson incorporates Tumblr into her daily practice as a sculptor and often refers to diagrams of engineers, architects, and mathematicians that she finds on the platform. MAI invited Benson to take over our Tumblr for the month of July, and she has since redirected her stream of research to our blog. Recently, Siena and Jett Oristaglio sat down with Benson at the Serpentine Gallery in London to discuss her experience with MAI + t, multidisciplinary research, and more.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: As I understand it, research is a large part your process. You have a work blog and a research blog that are separate entities, correct?

 

Rudolf Von Laban, Choreutics, an “analysis of forms in movement”. The three plans From: Danse et architecture. Nouvelle de danse 42/43.  

Rudolf von Laban’s research, from his Labanotation method, eventually became the standard system of notation to analyze and record any human motion on paper. Image via Abitare

ROBYN BENSON: They both work together. The research happens as it happens — the stuff I’m researching now is basically what I am posting on the MAI Tumblr. Alongside sculpture, there are things like notations. Dance notations become really interesting because a lot of my work comes from diagrams and trying to work out how all these materials balance, why they all balance, and how they react with different forces. The dance notations show the physicality of the body in a similar way, outlining the bodies' geometry and movement, which is amazing. That's how the research happens. It’s about looking at how other people are describing and illustrating their own ideas.

For example, there is an architecture school whose work is based on poetry. They do projects that respond to text and physically existing in space. This one, called Tournament Ciudad Abierta, Polyhedra versus ovoid, is from the 70s. They built a dodecahedron shape that creates a pattern in the sand because of the way the piece falls. It will shift left and it will go straight and then shift right. There are huge archives of these works online.

 

JETT ORISTAGLIO: So your work is focused finding and researching systems in which every part is necessary to the balance of the whole system.

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yes. Normally, it all comes back to geometry. Geometry is the simplest form of structure. It describes how these shapes correspond with one other.

 

JETT ORISTAGLIO: And later, you also create a physical representation of these systems.

 

ROBYN BENSON: I end up looking at things like tensegrity. I also look at how they build bridges, how weight is distributed, and how beams are used in reciprocal frames in which the frame is supported by itself. Things like that, as well as translating these ideas into art or engineering. You can learn a lot from looking at diagrams.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: What is your research process like? Where do you look for both your own personal research and for this month's curation? 


ROBYN BENSON: I guess I find them the same way. I'm not changing that process of research for my work with MAI. It's been a lot more consistent, though. It's about finding one thing and then researching that person and then I always find another person with a similar focus. I am delving into the part of research where I find links between all of these artists that are very interesting.

 

I also look at how they build bridges, how weight is distributed, and how beams are used in reciprocal frames in which the frame is supported by itself. — Robyn Benson

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Your research is mostly web-based?

 

ROBYN BENSON: Right. I have tried going to the library, but at library, you go to a section that is just sort of all sculptors and works by sculptors. It's not necessarily the best way for me to research. Looking at things that are linked, like on the internet, I find connections rather than just singular themes. It just seems more sensible.

 

JETT ORISTAGLIO: I was going to ask you if you have ever heard of a gömböc. A bunch of Hungarian mathematicians and physicists created an object that is entirely self-righting. It has one face of equilibrium and no matter where you place it, it will end up righting itself up based on its own kinetic energy. Looking at your work, I think it is something you'd be interested in.

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: They've also found that turtles shells are shaped similarly. They engineered this and then found out that nature had engineered it long before them. 

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yes, this is amazing! [Laughs.]

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: What made you interested in expressing your research through art?

 

ROBYN BENSON: I don't remember deciding I was going to do art at university. It just happened. I applied to university for art, I got in, and i’ve never questioned that decision.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Do you remember the first time you made something and felt like you'd created an artwork?

 

ROBYN BENSON: Early in school, we were asked to do a lot of works where we had to paint and make a sculpture and hand it in. The turning point for me was when we were asked to create something for a reason. That was it — finding a reason to do research and make works.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: So, for you, it was about finding a sense of purpose.

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yes. The work is an output for me to learn and demonstrate all of these things I find. It's also a reason for me to learn more.

 

I really enjoy when people ask me where the nail is and how the piece is created. They don't believe that when you take one piece away, the entire structure will fall. — Robyn Benson

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: And when did your interest in physics begin? Have you always studied physics or is this a newer aspect of your life?

 

ROBYN BENSON: It’s not new. My dad is an engineer and I've always been interested in this sort of stuff. I did maths and design school. I used to do more design than art but I ended up finding it much easier to do art than design. I really enjoy learning about how things work and was interested in doing research for my own understanding and then sharing my reasoning with other people.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: And now you're in a residency?

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yes, I got awarded a graduate student residency for 12 months, so I'm doing that right now and I have a solo show in 2015. I just got offered another residency at Hospitalfields in Scotland in October.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: That's wonderful. When you do these residency programs, what is the breakdown of how much you are researching and how much are you creating sculptures?

 

ROBYN BENSON: About 50/50. Sometimes I think if i could just learn and research and find new things, I would be very happy. But it is is also so interesting to show people the things I learn. My family sometimes gets annoyed when I find some very cool clever mathematics or any sort of theory, I always tell them about it. They are in no way as interested in it as I am, but building and demonstrating ideas for people to understand is really great for me.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you ever had a transformational moment with someone that saw your work?

 

ROBYN BENSON: I really enjoy when people ask me where the nail is and how the piece is created. They don't believe that when you take one piece away, the entire structure will fall. In my degree show, I had a work made from three planks meeting at a point on the ground and leaning outwards at the top against a loop of string making a triangle. It was all balanced and nothing was fixed, but people seemed to think it was okay to touch it. It fell down so many times. People just kept coming in and thinking it was fixed together.

 

[My father's] got classic motorbikes which he has rebuilt so we used to have engines and engine parts everywhere. It was just me my sister and my mum and we used to have to help him to lift engines into place. I always helped with the tiny fiddly things. — Robyn Benson

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: So, the materials physically illustrate invisible forces, in a way.

 

JETT ORISTAGLIO: Yes, but the system exists whether or not you demonstrate them physically.

 

ROBYN BENSON: There are a lot of repeating materials in my work, like the bricks and small wood pieces. They are all identical. They become units. It’s a way for me to take out variables and build systems from these components. It’s not really about the materials but is more to do with finding systems of support using these components.

 

"Brickwork 17" (2014), Robyn Benson. Brick and Wood


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Did you ever observe your father doing any of his engineering work?


ROBYN BENSON: He's got classic motorbikes which he has rebuilt so we used to have engines and engine parts everywhere. It was just me my sister and my mum and we used to have to help him to lift engines into place. I always helped with the tiny fiddly things. Now, he makes and repairs clocks as well. We used to build balsa wood planes with elastic band engines and we'd wind them up, adding more and more elastic bands just to see what would happen.


SIENA ORISTAGLIO: These are all things I never knew about you. How did the MAI + t keywords this month come to be and what was that process like? Do you typically do research based on keywords?

 

ROBYN BENSON: When we created that shared document, I matched your keywords with my own set. I needed to group them, so I did so and sent it back. A combination of the words became sub-themes and the others became themes.

 

THEMES:

Creating systems
Development and coherent movement through stages
Placement and Balance
Parameters and structures created by physical/mental/spatial boundaries and limits

 

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: What has your Tumblr curation process been like? 

 

ROBYN BENSON: It's been two posts a day and I just shift through ideas. Every time I find one thing, it leads me to finding the next and so the posts are linked all the way through. I'm not sure if that is clear to everyone, but I hope it is.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I looks as though you've been curating in intuitive and visual way. I look at the Tumblr and I see coherence. Some of the images have created something incredible with the idea of bodies entering these physical systems. I’ve noticed in your personal artistic work that there are no people.

 

ROBYN BENSON: There is an amazing geometry in the human body and a lot of what I've looked into has been exploring that. It's always present in my research I'm just not sure how to use it in the work yet.  

 

JETT ORISTAGLIO: I studied physics and math and I can't un-see patterns.

 

ROBYN BENSON: It's true. Its like the thing with your arm span and your height being equal.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I would be so curious to follow your work to see if it evolves based on this research process. This work reminds me of yours, but with a human in it. [Points to screen.] It is a performance by Melati Suryodarmo for which she had to prepare rigorously.

Melati Suryodarmo, "Ale Lino" (2002). Photograph by Reinhard Lutz

Melati Suryodarmo, "Ale Lino" (2002). Photograph by Reinhard Lutz

ROBYN BENSON: What I find most interesting about this piece is that this the only point in the body you can lean on like that for a really long time.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Suryodarmo is an incredible durational performance artist. I did a four-hour interview with her recently that will be coming out on the journal soon. On another note, part of what we do at the Institute is pair individuals up for collaborations. I am very interested to hear if you have collaborated with others. Are you open to this?

 

ROBYN BENSON: Absolutely. At the moment, I am creating a book project with two other artists in Edinburgh. It's basically looking at buoyancy in boats. It’s a heavily research-based project, but It’s interesting to have a discussion on something you’ve been trying to understand and then to come to a point of making something. It's about bringing all of the research together. It is not something I've overly done yet but I think it is an amazing way to understand your own research and to get to know other peoples ideas.

 

There is an amazing geometry in the human body and a lot of what I've looked into has been exploring that. It's always present in my research I'm just not sure how to use it in the work yet.  — Robyn Benson

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: What is the medium of the two other artists?

 

ROBYN BENSON: One of them, Collette Rayner, is a visual artist who's working with model-making and film. She’s heavily research-based. Robbie Forrest does a lot of drawing and text-based work. We're looking at diagrams mainly and the language of diagrams, as well as model-making and how people understand models, how they are produced, and how we can draw understanding from them. It should be quite interesting.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you collaborated with scientists and mathematicians? Is that something you would be interested in?

 

ROBYN BENSON: Yes, absolutely. I'm actually quite intimidated because my understanding of math and physics is very different. I understand it in a very intuitive way and I enjoy reading about maths and physics when theories are explained.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: We often discuss how with collaborative projects, it takes quite an amount of time to learn about the other person's field. Even a physicist that spends a lifetime doing research will understand only a little bit of the broader field. If you have someone out of your field spend two hours with you, you will likely not get much out of it. But if you spend a lot of time with that person, you will get a deeper understanding which may enrich the work that you do.

 

ROBYN BENSON: I think learning and researching is best if you do it with someone who already has a deep understanding of the field.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you ever experienced a long durational work of performance?

 

Reading about other people's experiences really helps to understand what the performance actually is. It's been part of the experience of being farther away and not experiencing it first-hand. It creates a kind of anticipation. — Robyn Benson

 

ROBYN BENSON: I don't think I have. I only have read about these works. I'm actually very excited to see 512 Hours today. With Marina's work, reading about other people's experiences really helps to understand what the performance actually is. It's been part of the experience of being farther away and not experiencing it first-hand. It creates a kind of anticipation.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: What are you expectations of going into this piece?

 

ROBYN BENSON: I expect to feel insecure about the whole thing. At the same time, I don't think i will feel too insecure because everyone is in there doing the same thing. It is obviously going to be a very personal response and I am open to everything.

 

SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I'm not going to say anything about the piece. Let's speak when you come out again. Today is the halfway point of the performance. With your mathematical interests, it seems appropriate that you are here on this day.



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Robyn Benson (b. 1990) lives and works in Edinburgh, UK. Benson graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 2013 and has since been involved in numerous national and international shows including '27062014’, Architectural Uncomfortable Workshop, Budapest (2014); ‘Design Assumptions and actual outcomes’ as part of Glasgow Open House Festival (2014), ‘Night Lights’ as part of Leith Late, Edinburgh, (2014); ‘Salonely’, Embassy Gallery, Edinburgh, (2013). In 2013 Benson produced her first solo exhibition, 'In Principle', at the Andrew Grant Gallery, Edinburgh. Currently Benson is undergoing a 12-month Graduate Studio Bursary Award at St Margaret's House in Edinburgh (2013–14), developing her work on self-sufficient structures, culminating in a solo show in 2015. The artist will also be participating in the Hospitalfields Graduate Residency, Scotland (October 2014). See her website, main blog, research blog.