Introducing _ Abrasion Studies No 2

December 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

Objects of Desire – beyond knowledge @ Johns Hopkins, Homewood Campus. Home to 4,744 undergraduates in FY 2008/09

Some two and a half years ago, I posted an introductory musing on abrasion as a category and concept in cultural analysis. My basic assumption was that abrasion is a physical process which is simultaneously a means of achieving perfection (e.g. polishing surfaces) and a destructive force (e.g. erosion). The fascination grew into a random hobby of finding traces of abrasion in the material world and relating these traces back to a thick (or thin) description of their cultural significance. As a side-note to studies of material culture, abrasion can offer unique inroads to understanding processes of interaction.

Everyday Abrasion

In his small introduction to tribology – the science of studying abrasive phenomena, Mathew Mate starts out with enumerating lots of examples from everyday life. Starting from childhood, friction, abrasion and wear are part of our life as much as eating, playing, and sleeping. “Crawling as infants, we mastered the frictional forces needed to get us where we wanted to go.” Mate goes on to wonder:

Considering how much we encounter the tribological phenomena of friction, lubrication, adhesion, and wear in our daily lives and the wide extent of these phenomena in technology, one might be puzzled why these topics are only marginally covered in our current education system. (Tribology on the Small Scale, A Bottom Up Approach to Friction, Lubrication, and Wear. Oxford UP, 2007. p.1.)

Tribology is an applied science especially relevant for engineering, where extensive tests are run on different combinations of steels with varying degrees of toughness and density. The aim is to reduce wear on surfaces and hence to extend the life range of tools, materials and machines. Lubrication has become important in this respect to either cool down machinery or reduce the amount of abrasive waste. Improving the abrasive qualities of car tires makes it safer to drive at higher speeds, but increases the load of run-off rubber on streets as well. In Germany alone, 42,000 tons of rubber go down the drain simply from cars driving on the streets. Without worn-off rubber the street would lack grip, but too much waste on the surface in combination with water will inevitably create a slippery course.

Art, Abrasion and Interaction

Those temping toes … (@ Orangerie, Potsdam) Photo: Miala via Flickr

Besides this framework, abrasion is especially interesting where it relates to audience behavior and interaction with artworks. I have always wondered about this angel on the top level of Potsdam’s Orangerie, where no visitor seems to pass by without touching the shiny, protruding toe. Is it a good omen to touch the toe? Are they involved in a conservationist effort to retain the bronze underneath the tainted, aged surface? The toe is on a child’s eye level and practically the only thing within reach. Located next to a long flight of stairs, the toe is probably the first thing a child sees upon reaching the landing – or the last hand(y)rail, before the descent.

Photo: Author’s own

Abrasion and Desire

In October, the New York Times reported on a similar curiosity in the Time Warner Center. Two sculptures by Fernando Botero called “Adam and Eve” were exhibited in the lobby, but Adam outgrew Eve in getting more than affectionate attention from art lovers. This time, the point of attraction is on the level of an adult’s eye and the protrusion has attracted many shy glances and frequent photo op’s for the family album.

“Adam” by Fernando Botero (Photo: Bridget Crawford)

Artists have little control over the ways in which an artwork should touch the spectator, but vice versa certain physical traits make haptic contact more likely. When art collectors  and exhibition designers prohibit physical contact with the artwork, the effort of often enough thwarted by an audience too curious to get more than an intellectual grip. Abrasion changes the look of the piece but isn’t it also a sign that art becomes embedded in a social web of interactions, that it matters beyond the learned discourse tightly wrapped around the statue? In this example from one of the many Jain-Temple in Jaisalmer (India), generations of salvation seekers have left their inevitable mark on two of the statues.

Photo: A Mag(i)er

We should add, though, that the female statue apparently drew more attention …

Photo: A Mag(i)er

Is not the fascination here similar in its religiosity, need for contact, or even an urge to leave a mark – a collective urge of presence? Abrasion does not explain this but can serve as an indicator of collective forms of interaction. Carl Andre made sculptures of lead, steel and copper plates spread out on exhibition floors. Usually visitors should walk on these plates to hear and feel the different material qualities. But once the space is barred by red plastic tape, how is the graphic impression of lead plates supposed to substitute for the material experience? Certainly, curators like to minimize abrasion to preserve their fortunes but if an artwork can be embedded in social practice beyond letters, abrasion seems a worthy price to pay.

Carl Andre “Copper Magnesium Plain” (1969) (via: The Opposite of Tomato)

Addendum May 2012: The curators of the permanent exhibition at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof Art Museum seem to have been more courageous with respect to Carl Andre’s work. Visitors can actually walk on the steel plates of “Eight Reversed Steel Corner” (1978) and hear the sudden clonking sound of the few plates which are slightly irregular. Be surprised.

Carl Andre: Eight Reversed Steel Corner (1978). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Sammlung Marzona


Time (Part 3)

September 7, 2010 § 1 Comment

This last part of the series will be about perception in relation to time. From the reversal of time in advertising to the reflections on time displacement through media, the structuring aspect of time seems primarily geared at perception. Gilles Deleuze talked about modern cinema as a way to “crystallize time” (Cinema 2: The Time Image). In Videofilosofia, Maurizio Lazzarato (1997) contended that visual media are “condensation machines of time” which impose their own indexicality. Following Bergson, Lazzarato finds as much truth and beauty in the moving image as an aesthetic form, as former generations could find in the written word.

That media change the perception of time is not a new claim, but digital media seem to flow in both the direction of acceleration and punctualization, the latter being equal to slowing down perception to a minuscule instance. The close-up, the long-distance shot, still life,  slow-motion shots and similar optical forms have punctualized the flow of moving images. While hundreds of frames flicker by, the image remains the same and is presented to the spectator for inspection. It is literally the experience of the duration of time, which is then offered in the visual medium, independent of the narrative, aesthetic or material qualities the image will have in a sequence.

In the video by William Basinski of the 9/11 site the music and images double the impression of time passing. Especially in the 64-minute version of Disintegration Loop No. 1.1, video and audio track play against each other by contrasting two models of time. While the loop is cyclical, the passing of the smoke against the skyline dissolves linearly. Basinski created the loops while digitizing tape recordings. Surprisingly, the 20 year-old tape was gradually disintegrating as the coated plastic tape slid by the magnetic reader head. This gradual abrasion process of the material is documented in the audio loops.

“[T]he loops themselves are stunning, ethereal studies in sound so fluid that the listener scarcely registers the fact that it’s nothing but many hundreds of repetitions of a brief, simple loop that they’re hearing. I imagine that life within the womb might sound something akin to these slowly swelling, beauteous snatches of orchestral majesty and memory-haze synthesizer. The pieces are uniformly consonant, embellished with distant whalesong arpeggios and echoing percussion.” (Review by Joe Tangari, 2004)

Basinski ascribes a religious quality to these loops, which seem to develop their own reality by proceeding in time. In an interview from 2009 he describes his first experience of the time dimension and how it played out in the recording:

“I was just blown away by what had just happened and I was incredibly moved by the whole redemptive quality of what I’d just experienced, that each of these loops had disintegrated in its own way and its own time, yet the life and death of the melody was redeemed in another medium. I was a Catholic growing up, I thought, maybe there is hope after all! [laughs].”

Basinski’s music is built around the slowed down alteration of audio sequences.  Each loop can be discerned by certain vague, repetitive elements, but the gradual linear variation creates a perception of time passing as such. Against the accelerative drive of electronic music in the 90’s, his pieces foreground the perception of details and gradual change. By puncturing a linear flow and reassembling it into discrete, cyclical units, Basinski reverses the drive of time to devour its own echo in the moment of passing. Time passing is presented on a golden tablet.

“All we can expect of time is its reversability”, said Jean Baudrillard in Cool Memories 1980-1985 (p.23). Linear and cyclical time do not necessarily relate to each other. But in digital media, both time dimensions play out simultaneously, which might explain our stupefaction with coming to terms with immediacy, where our brain is trained to reflect on perception only in retrospect. The beginning of reversal starts from the instances between each unit, from the void of silence.


Introducing _ Abrasion Studies No 1

February 6, 2008 § 1 Comment

It has been a hobby of mine to collect traces of abrasion all around me. In shops like H&M or department stores, the floor shows traces of abrasion always at certain main routes that people take to get to the elevator, the newsstand or other main points of interest. Initially I became aware of abrasion in Japan, where the art of wood work has a long standing tradition and temples are made to exist for many hundreds of years.

The abrasive legacy of centuries

A particular aspect of wood as a material is that it can get wet and dry easily, especially very hard woods, like the Japanese cedar. Abrasion makes the surface smooth and flat, allowing water to roll of and keep the surface from deteriorating. In all kinds of arts, abrasion smooths out uneven levels, makes shine surfaces and heightens the appeal and durability of certain materials. The quality of an even surface, that is the microscopic density of molecules, is largely determined by the degree of abrasion. A very fine polishing stone for metal (3000+) lets you create very sharp knives which don’t wear off easily, because the distance between particles is very low. For any process of abrasion, an abrasive tool is applied to a surface of a lower density under pressure.

“Abrasion resistance refers to resistance to being worn away by rubbing or friction. Abrasion resistance is a matter of toughness, rather than hardness. It is a necessary quality for floor finishes, enamels and varnishes.”


To my eyes, processes of natural and man-made abrasion mark counter-acting forces: For artifacts and handicrafts to develop abrasion stands at the beginning of culture and goes down to industrialization by continuously scrap off coal from the mountain or dig it from the landscape. At the same time, natural abrasion is the counter force to man-made culture, as we see in winds and water which causes erosion of coastlines and deterioration of concrete and stone surfaces. Applied over a long term, even small particles like sand can force denser structures to crumble. The keyword here is continuous.

What is abrasion studies?

So far abrasion studies (German: Abrieb) is more a hobby than a field of study. To give you an idea, I collected some pictures of abrasion and my free interpretation of them in relation to social processes. Inevitable, traces on the material floor of a station or a department store tell us something about the social dynamics, since the traces of abrasion have been brought about by a continuous, repetitive movement of large numbers of people that interact with a given material in an identical fashion. Thus traces of social movements are inscribed in the material world. Lets decipher some of them.

Brass Handrail

This a brass handrail in a museum. It is located in the left side of the stairs, so that people who descend approach it once they reach the first step on the top. However, they seem to let loose once they are on the stairs. What does that tell us? The frightening length and height of the stairs prompts you (me too) to seek safety. But once you discover that the stairs are wide enough and not steep at all, the handrail is no longer needed (for most of us).

Empty Center

My favorite example that should be familiar from many cities. Apparently the “Orange Line” is a popular way to travel the center of Berlin, as it connects East and West. As people look for their way they scratch on the map. The more people come to Berlin, the more they wipe out the center. In a very Barthesian twist (“L’Empire des Signes”), I would extend that interpretation to the city, not just the map. They more the center is designed for easy consumption and mega shopping malls, the more flows of tourists wipe out the historical center of the city. In Berlin, this center was empty anyway due to the Berlin Wall. After 1989 there have been attempts to artificially re-erect it as an island called “Potsdamer Platz”, which does not offer much of an urban experience after 10 p.m.

Fast Forward Society

This is a listening station in a department store. Apparently, PLAY, FF, SKIP, and VOL UP seem to be the most popular buttons. Does it mean that no one takes the time to listen to music attentively any more? Or is the capacity of hearing deteriorating? Does it say something about the CD as a fast-forward medium, when parts of electronica sound like a fast-forward rush? I wonder what the players in the classical music department look like? Maybe the same?

More to come…

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