14 March 2010

The Table That Can Tell Stories And Other Contraptions

It seems apt, that it was in a bookshop where I discovered, reading a magazine, that there is a first solo exhibition of Tom Foulsham’s work, at the Minnie Weisz Studios, in Kings Cross. Apt because words and books are both themes at the exhibition. An old fashioned armchair hovers a little above the gallery floor. A pair of vertical, parallel metal bars hold the chair, which disappear through a square hole in the ceiling. Tom explains, “The gallery was kind enough to let me cut a hole.”

Climbing up the gallery’s steep wooden staircase, the same metal bars are seen protruding through the upstairs floor. It is surprising to see what is governing the slight movement of the chair hanging below: a deceptively crude looking mobile is acting as a counterbalance, it’s spidery arms fill the space. The weights are books that had been sitting in the exhibition space, before Tom’s arrival. ‘Armchair Balance’ was created as a response to the venue, which Tom demonstrates, by removing one of the books. The chair downstairs floats towards the ground. “Oh, I haven’t looked at this one for ages…”, says Tom opening the book and closing it again, aware that he is giving a tour: it is apparent that he is interested in anything that appears in front of him. As the book is replaced, the chair returns to it’s place in the air. I wonder if the two rooms represent the body (chair) and mind (the books). The author Roald Dahl would sit in an armchair for his writing – the books become ideas floating around ‘upstairs’ in his head. Tom would not be out of place as a character in a Roald Dahl story. Blogger Valerie Pezeron explains that Roald Dahl book illustrator Quentin Blake’s “scrappy” style is as an influence for Tom. After the show, I imagine the hole between the two rooms will be repaired and a scar will be a reminder of this exhibition.

Giving a building a human trait is seen in ‘Breathing House’.

The Vimeo video does not show what is going on behind the scenes – we see a model house, with a small balloon inside, forcing the walls and ceiling apart and back together. Tom demonstrates the house; it is his own breathing, down a tube, that gives life to the house. Bringing life to the machine (and conversely turning life into machine) are ideas recurring in the works. The works consistently offer this moment where the behind the scenes operating method, is revealed, ‘Wizard of Oz’ fashion. Tom explains that he would like to make a larger version, that hangs together in the same way as ‘Balancing Chair’, that one could touch and the walls and roof fly apart as though gravity had ceased, by means of a mobile like structure. (The house in the tornado in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ comes to mind.) “The House is at a scale of 1:163, because I built it using parts from model railway kit”, explains Tom. Unraveling the works is puzzling. I do not understand the significance of the train set. Tom had always made things when he was a child, “Many of the ideas that I am now developing are based on things I was thinking about when I was a child, but at the time I did not have the resources to create.”

A collaboration between present and past self. Perhaps the train reference is to the steam train, that had the human like element – it would be temperamental and need attention to keep running (as sometimes, do the works on exhibition here). But perhaps this reference is a stretch. With art of course, it is quite acceptable to have ideas, which perhaps are not so easily understood and this is an art gallery. However I am attempting to thread every idea in the work together because Tom was trained at the Royal College of Art as a designer, and in design art where the art is designed, I had come to expect the ideas in a piece to fit perfectly together… I am realising that it is unhelpful to try and fit Tom’s work into an existing category.

Originally Tom trained in Architecture, before working with Thomas Heatherwick Architects and then Ron Arad. In terms of being difficult to pin down, Tom has been keeping good company. Architect, inventor, engineer, artist, and constantly curios, Tom is reminiscent of the ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’ type. The gallery walls are covered with pieces of paper, with the same barely legible scrawl, produced by ‘Wiggle Table’. Da Vinci would write in reverse in his books, perhaps so that others could less easily read his ideas. ‘Wiggle Table’ has text as the input (either via the BBC’s Internet news website or a sitter at a typewriter keyboard (today this was me). “It vibrates words and stories into the drawings and marks you make on it.”

‘Wiggle Table’ transforms the letter characters one step further than Da Vinci’s mirror writing. The mechanism is an architect’s ‘pen plotter’ that makes a drawing by moving a pen in the X and Y axis. Here the X, as well as the Y are reversed, because it does not move a pen, but a flat bed beneath a person held pen, which they move in a straight line, at a steady speed, causing writing to magically appear on the surface.

“The pens that work best are the ones that really glide.” (It is easier to hold still, so the letters appear more clearly.)

Tom reads aloud today’s news as it slowly appears on the page, beneath the pen he is holding. It is as though the words are appearing through him, rather than the machine. For a moment Tom is lost, as he is genuinely interested to find out what has been happening another part of the world today, whilst I am still trying to get to grips with what this machine is all about. I feel as though I am witnessing a séance – a message from some other. (The armchair continues to hover next to us.)

Tom invites me to type. I sit on the machine’s small trolley, which Tom pulls into the device and locks me inside the machine. “If you type something, don’t hit the delete key or the back space, because that is shut down.”

For a moment, I am unfamiliar with the keyboard “There is no punctuation,” offers Tom. “There are no numbers either.” And, “We had a poet round the other day.”

No pressure then. I type and every letter makes a loud crash, like a monstrous typewriter, as it appears on the vibrating platform, in front of my head. Tom reads, “It… is… much… more… difficult… to… communicate… like… this…” “Actually… it…is… not… so… bad… once… you… get… going… explanation mark”, Tom laughs.

Tom points to the wall. “This is the vibration alphabet. When you press for example X, the movement of the table top follows this vector path.” I press X and Tom demonstrates how the letter shape is not completely formed when he holds the pen still. I press the letter again and Tom shows how the letter forms correctly when “the pen is dragged through time”.

I ask: “So it doesn’t just draw the finished letter, it has to take into account that you are moving the pen along?”

Tom explains, “The ‘L’ slopes forwards, so that when you drag the pen, it comes out upright and corrects itself. “The typeface is made up as few directional changes as possible, because the vibrations are happening very quickly. The smaller you have the moving surface, the faster acceleration you have, so you have clearer text coming out; you can have smaller text. It would be nice if you could make it the size of a whole desk and you could place the sheet of paper anywhere.”

“How did you work out your type face?”

“That’s what took a long time.” (I have a feeling that this is an understatement.) “I modeled the parameters of each letter separately, and decided how much backward justification each one would have, so I don’t have to correct each one singularly by themselves now. With this lever here we can turn the drag up, so that it stands backwards less.” (Tom can adjust the typeface to suit the speed of the moving pen.) “But this machine is completely blind to the pen, so it doesn’t know there is a pen there or which direction it is going. There is a joystick, if you press upwards, the text gets justified up, this way, the text appears upside down.” Tom explains that he wants to “make it like a touch sensitive screen, so that it would know where the pen is and its speed and direction, so that it can manipulate the typeface on the fly and continually adjust the stretch and the size, so you could have a continuous stretch of words appearing around curves. At the moment, when you’re drawing, the only time you can read the words is when you’re coming across the page at a constant speed.

I took this to a life drawing class recently and did this drawing of the model…” I imagine Tom at his machine, amongst the other artists, at their easels.

Tom explains that originally he had intended the moving platform to be a vertical wall, but he could not give a larger heavier surface the acceleration that is necessary. Perhaps he will come back to this problem. In The Bible’s ‘Book of Daniel’, King Belshazzar of Babylon blasphemes. At that moment, a disembodied hand appears and writes on the palace wall. None of the royal magicians or advisors can interpret the writing. Daniel interprets the text for the king: “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”. (Does ‘Armchair Balance’ weigh us? Do the books that we are weighed against represent our knowledge? Perhaps it is ignorance that is our crime?) Are the daily tales of woe that is our news reports, a warning for us that we must take heed of or face consequences? (King Belshazzar was slain that night, by the way.)

Tom explains that he would also like to install the devise in a bus (he is forthcoming in explaining future ideas – perhaps he has so many ideas that he does not need to guard them – perhaps he is aware that no one else could realise them?). As the bus vibrates on the journey the passengers read identical text as it appears from their own hands. The scrawl produced from ‘Wobble Table’ is reminiscent of handwriting produced while on public transport. This ‘big brother’ control of what people communicate is appropriate for a London bus – new busses now house sixteen cameras to keep an eye on us.

This writing table seems appropriately autobiographical. The mechanism is part architect’s drawing table. I ask, ‘What is your experience of education?’ Tom asks for the angle of the question, but I didn’t give him one, so as not to lead the answer. Tom offers that he grew up in South East London, “I’ve always been making stuff. Lots of things I make now are things I thought of back then, but did not have the means to be able to make them. That’s how some ideas start, quite innocent and as I spend more time on them they become more complex. I have always wanted to make a machine that makes other stuff. I’m interested in a self-replicating machine. I studied 3 years of architecture and worked at Thomas Heatherwick’s and Ron Arad’s in the architecture department. I really found my feet at Ron Arad’s.”

I ask, “How was the transition from employee to student with Ron Arad?”

“He’s very much himself, the way he approaches things is the same, the approach at Thomas Heatherwick’s is similar”…. Not finding what I am looking for and my questions finished, I switch off my Dictaphone, which has been sitting on ‘Wobble Table’. “I like the machine”, offers Poppy, the gallery assistant. (For a moment I am not sure if she means my Dictaphone, or the ‘Wiggle Table’ – my voice recorder is small and sleek, the writing machine is large and feels as old as a decoding machine from world war two. “I received the Dictaphone from my local council, when I was studying my degree, because of my Dyslexia.”

“I’m Dyslexic” Tom gives, at last. “I had the forms to apply for support from the council, but I couldn’t fill them in!” This is ironic. The support offered to dyslexic students is substantial. “Did you have tactics for navigating school work?” I ask. “Yes, I didn’t do my homework”, explains Tom. This gives me another unsolved mystery. For someone who, must have been given impossible tasks to carry out, on a daily basis, for the formative, early, developing years of life and expected to carry out these tasks, as his peers would have, he is remarkably unscathed. Tom is optimistic, appears self confident and well balanced. Brilliant, yet humble. His creation, ‘Wiggle Table’ puts people on an equal platform – the skill of writing is to move the pen at a steady speed, in a straight line, with a moderate pressure. I imagine a schoolboy in a Roald Dahl story, dreaming up a machine that writes his homework, when he holds a pen to it. Homework would have been easier if the perfectly spelt writing would have taken care of itself, like this.

Every pen holding person experiences the same scrawl emitted from their nib. Roles are reversed - people struggle to read the writing, which Tom reads without much trouble. “The spidery writing is a lot like mine”.

Tom gives less away about the meanings behind his works. He gives a clue “It is held together like Frankenstein inside out”, but precisely what he means is not clear. Is it this putting together of lots of (‘body’) parts (the type writer, the architect’s plotting machine, the laptop)? Or is it that he brings life to a machine? When one is fastened inside the machine, one is immobilised, as the monster was on the operating table and does feel to be a part of it. The story of Frankenstein’s monster was “also a warning against the expansion of modern man in the Industrial Revolution.” When I ask about the bright turquoise colour of the machine, Tom explains that it is based on the colour of industrial machinery in factories. John Ruskin tells us, “You are put to a stern choice. . . You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both.”

Upstairs, ‘Man Machine’ produces little paper men, at the rate of one man every 140 seconds.

John Ruskin: “Men are not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanise them.”

Conversely, ‘Man Machine’ is prone to error: “This did not connect, so it did not make a man this time” explains Tom, fixing the machine. Another time, “this one has a leg missing” and “we just about have both legs with this one…” My presence has always had ill effects on machines. When I am in range, computers crash, factory machinery packs in. With this in mind, Tom’s machines have been holding up remarkably well.

A reel of cash till paper unrolls. Two metal man shaped templates clasp the paper. A flame is pulled under the paper, which catches fire. The flame is pulled away. The paper does not burn where the metal shaped templates clasps it. The man-shaped scrap of paper is carried by the lower template, to a brush that sweeps him to the floor. Both this ‘reverse branding’ and the sweeping indicate that the men are not valued.

Man Machine appears to be a comment on the industrial revolution – the paraffin lamp, which ignites the till receipt paper uses the same fuel which illuminated factories in the era. Men were put out of work by machine – here the machine sweeps them to a pile of ash on the floor. The receipt here is not for goods purchased by the men. Men are ‘burnt out’ by years of factory work. Carbon represents life and is released, leaving behind the ashes of the men. Both ‘flames of Hell’ and cremation are brought to mind – these men are dead even as they are created. Resurrected phoenix from ashes, these men are not.

“How do you make a living?”

“Part time work – the project I just finished was for Ron Arad’s retrospective exhibition at the Barbican – I collaborated with Valentin Vodev and made a mechanism to rock chairs.” The pair also designed a bar for the exhibition, open every Thursday evening until 10pm.

I ask, “What was your path to where you are today?” Tom points out still early days. This is a start. I realise that Tom’s journey ahead is not a predictable one. He is currently keeping his eyes open for an ‘artist in residence’ position, possibly overseas.

“Could there have been an alternative life path?” “Definitely, but I can’t think what it would be.”

I’m putting my Dictaphone away into my tatty bag and explain, “It is an anti-theft bag – no one would imagine there is anything of value inside”. “I have a bicycle like that,” says Tom, “but it actually is falling apart”. After seeing the machines at the gallery, I try to imagine what his bicycle could possibly look like…

It was probably ‘Drawing Machine’, which involves light and camera that brought Tom to the attention of photographer gallery owner Minnie Weisz. Minnie has her own methods of reversing the X and the Y axis and pulling the world outside in. (Hotel rooms are transformed into giant pinhole cameras.) Minnie points me in the direction of a photography exhibition, at the British Library, which appropriately punctuates my story that started in a bookshop, like a giant bookend.

‘The Table That Can Tell Stories And Other Contraptions’ exhibition has been extended until the end of March 2010. Viewing by appt only, email mw@minnieweisz.co.uk


Ron Arad’s Restless continues until 16th May 2010. Tom Foulsham and Valentin Vodev are giving a talk about animating the chairs, at the Barbican on 25th March, 7pm.