This Machine Turns Your Mental Map Into An Architectural Structure

Ion Popian's new installation turns your thoughts about a movie into a physical form.

If you’ve ever waved your hand in front of yourself and wished you could pull off any kind of Jedi mind trick, a new show opening tomorrow at Harvestworks in Manhattan, will be your time in the sun. Architect Ion Popian’s latest project, Mental Fabrications, mixes architectural provocation with a feeling like the uncanny in an installation piece that is part architectural research lab and part social experiment.

Instead of creating a structure built with expected building materials, Popian builds forms with data culled from your unconscious. Let us explain. 

The show consists of two parts. In a a secluded space in Harvestworks you’ll have a chance to be fitted with a new lightweight EEG (think of a sports commentator's mic covered with a hairnet) and be shown a film that Popian developed with filmmaker Noah Shulman (with whom he recently worked on the visually exciting film Genesis).

The EEG marries mental activity with information about muscle movement to create a three dimensional map of the thoughts and reactions you had while watching. In a Max-generated landscape, areas of focus and relaxation are marked by peaks and valleys respectively. These are then turned into the aforementioned structures. This forces you to essentially watch your subconscious activity, in an installation that feels like a mixture of architecture and something by Charlie Kaufman (though maybe the penultimate scene in A Clockwork Orange is a better comparison...).

Those who don't want to don the EEG can watch the action onscreen, as the topological map is made live in the 3D space that artist/programmer Thomas Martinez has developed. While watching someone else’s unconscious unfold before them, a camera will process viewers' movements and proximities to each other. 

That information will be mapped onto the mental topography to create the ultimate voyeuristic experience, in which you watch the mental activity of a stranger mix with your own changing physical reactions.

The two data sets are then mapped on top of each other to create the form and skin of the structure. The results are widely varied with some emerging as polyp-like structures and microbial blooms.

After watching and wearing, my map was lively save for a few places where I seem to have had absolutely no mental activity.

Even though these unquantifiable (and sometimes even ineffable things) were driving his decision making, Popian found that they remained removed from his work by a constant need to justify his work based on known quantities. Architects use emotive responses to their environment to inform their practice everyday, and Mental Fabrications is a tool allowing them to integrate that into their process. 

The two components of Mental Fabrications—data from the EEG and from people’s responses within the gallery — open a door to otherwise inaccessible unconscious reactions.

About this Popian said, “In the design stage a building feels very lively and has a life of its own. The moment it begins to exists in the world as a built structure it begins to ossify and die. I want to develop a design process that helps the building keep pace and share a symbiotic relationship with the energy of its users.”

A type of subconscious intervention is necessary. The human-to-human filter that assesses only quantifiable information is ill suited for the kind of experiment Popian has developed. 

Mental Fabrications navigates techno-novelty and architectural experiment. When I asked Popian about the scope of the project he said, “Think of its various scales. This is potentially a tool for a type of urbanism.” 

Shifting this work into a means for the advancement of psychogeography, the study and engagement of all of the affective elements that contribute to urban geography, developed by the Situationist International, is the most seductive of the project’s goals.  

Regardless if Mental Fabrications will advance the future of urban landscapes, this is a literal mind-bending installation that forces you to witness your inner gears and levers. 

Images courtesy of Ian Popian