Mobile ontologies

by CarlD

Just recently I tossed off a crack about mobiles (which I make sometimes) as ontological models and then, prompted by John, elaborated a bit. That comment got lost in the shuffle but meanwhile I emailed it to Dad, who also makes mobiles, to see if I was making any sense; and he sent back some nice encouragement and a fascinating elaboration. So here’s my original comment, followed by Dad’s response (slightly edited for family asides).

That's me, top center.

Me: “I’d say that the primary ‘ontological’ features of mobiles are balance, surface, articulation, and interlock (interconnection of elements). Density and weight are secondary features. Mobiles that are low on surface and high on interlock are hardly mobiles at all (I think of them as ‘architectural’) – they’re basically stabile hanging sculptures. With high interlock and high surface you get something that’s axis mobile but not chaotic mobile, still pretty linear. For a ‘real’ Calder-style mobile you need low interlock and high surface. The surfaces are the energy-collecting ‘engines’ of motion and the low interlock gets you a big possibility space of configurations.

Articulation is how the elements are actually connected. There are various ways of doing it that afford different degrees of movement and influence. A swivel lets each element move basically independently, since energy generated by the surfaces is not resisted and the element rotates freely. A direct loop articulation restricts rotation by torquing the slopes of the loops against each other. Energy is stored and released in a mutual countermovement. Varying the sizes of the loops varies the scope and intensity of this effect. Basically the tighter the loops, the higher the torque. Adding a third loop in the middle is an intermediate solution. For fun we could refer to these articulations as translations.

Balance of course is dynamic, although less so with high interlock. Basically the whole thing won’t work at all if the elements are not balanced around each other, so in this sense the system is highly interdependent regardless of articulation; but unbalanced elements will be more locally or more globally catastrophic depending on how the system is articulated. Surface, density and weight have to be calibrated with balance and articulation; too much energy input on a dense but light system leads to high chaos, and the reverse gets you stasis, a hanging paperweight.

I would certainly consider this a promising metaphor for what Harvey calls ’social ontology’. It might have some use as a simple model for the transitions from linear to non-linear systems in ’scientific ontology’, although here I’m out of my depth. Incidentally, I don’t think anything is gained by talking about ontologies in these two areas except the jargony patina of serious intellection, but so it goes in our world. An articulation effect, no doubt, and social scientists are sometimes prone to ‘weight’ issues. As for ‘philosophical ontologies’, that is, ontologies proper, I don’t have a clue.”

Dad: “Your piece on mobiles gets directly to the core of the major distinction you point out. The traditionalist would agree with you that there is nothing to be gained by talking about ontology here. But that’s because the traditionalist expects ontology to be a noun/thing inventory. But, as you point out, mobiles are noun/thing neutral. Some people, Terry Deacon, for example, would say that this makes topology primary; others, Whitehead, for example, would say that it makes relations primary. I go either way, depending on the particularities of the system I’m looking at, and the point to be made about it. Bourdieu, in effect, did the same.

Your analysis of the mobile is also amenable to either of the terminologies (read: images or models). It’s just about the perfect analogue model, because the mobiles aren’t primarily about thing, but about the relations between them, and about the dynamics the topology enables – even in the static case – because in the best examples of the stabile ones (your medusa, for example) the topology implies action. Lurking is threateningly kinetic, so that any little motion is potentially amplified.

In the really kinetic ones (low interlock/high surface), on the other hand, the tensions are between the (inevitable) equilibria in the weight dimension, and the visual and dynamic dis-equilibria. The really boring one, with everything hanging grouped near the middle is Parsonian structural-functionalism. In the Marximobile there’s that same grouping toward the middle on one side of the class barrier, but marginalized way out on the other side is that little guy. It’s amazing to think of him as being necessary for the equilibrium, while excluded so hopelessly from the goodies at the center. That configuration seems unstable: it certainly looks unstable. And sure enough, if he recruits buddies, or, even better, if the winds of change start the system in motion, the bobbing and swaying starts, and the equilibrium is threatened. You can fill in the blanks….

Minor technical point: What you say about swivels ought to be true, but, in the fact of it, they’re always so full of friction to be useless. You get much more action out of the loops, or, even out of a material that stores energy and lets it out with a lag. That’s why I use monofilament fishing line. In effect, it’s designed to do just what the mobiliere wants it to do.”

Me again, now: I find fishing swivels pretty satisfactory, but it’s true that friction will get us all in the end. Btw the photo is not one of mine, it’s a Calder; as you can see mobiles are hard to photograph without immobilizing and flattening them. This kind is easy and I do throw one together from time to time, but I’m no Calder. I’m guessing he knocked this one out in about an hour and a half.

For more Dad see:

C. Dyke, The Evolutionary Dynamics of Complex Systems: A Study in Biosocial Complexity (Oxford UP, 1987)

Chuck Dyke and Yrjo Haila, eds., How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006)

UPDATE: Well, who knows where the brain cells go but thanks to Kvond for suggesting the obvious, video of mobiles in action, and for finding a good one on Youtube. This is the standard layout, done I think especially elegantly. You can see most of the dynamics I’ve talked about here, and notice too how much it matters when and from what perspective you’re looking at it. Any attempt to describe the system based on a single snapshot is going to be both correct and an epic fail, although if you understand the dynamic principles of the system you can certainly extrapolate some things.

At first I wasn’t crazy about some of the blobby plane shapes in this mobile. But one of the things you can do with the dynamic perspective-shifting of kinetic art is to use the motion to visually reconfigure shapes on the fly, including foreshortening of course but also by cutting contours in different elements that sometimes ‘snap’ into visual alignment with each other. Take a look and see if that’s what’s happening here.

This next ‘homemade’ one is a much simpler layout, but still nicely executed and better illustrates the dynamics of high energy-input systems.

Despite (or I’d say likely because of) its size, Calder made this next one quite simply. Note however the different planar orientations of the surfaces to catch both cross and thermal air. The time-lapse is helpful. If a mobile this big and heavy is moving fast, dive for the nearest tornado shelter.

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17 Responses to “Mobile ontologies”

  1. Nice. Think about the emptiness of the “ritual” of a mobile; think about a Tibetan prayer wheel; think about Wittgenstein’s notion of a wheel spinning: “a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism’ (PI, section 271). Where does the “mechanism” end?

  2. Very nice, indeed. It might be useful to consider the relationship of mobiles to the Entity Relationship Diagrams (ERD), used to plan databases, where the critical issue is how one entity is connected with others, via one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many relationships.

  3. I coincidentally just ran into this mobile-like image, a “global ontological map” offered by Morton Tonneson

    http://utopianrealism.blogspot.com/2009/12/expanding-horizons-interdisciplinary.html

  4. Thanks guys, I appreciate you thinking along with us here. Your examples are right on point and demonstrate vividly how difficult it is to capture the dynamic elements of mobiles in flat, static representations. For example, the connection of entities is what I call ‘interlock’ and it’s just one dimension of the mobile ontology I sketched out, and the one that is most likely to constrain the dynamics of the system. Of at least equal importance is how the entities are connected, what and where the friction points are, how the entities are surfaced and how they present those surfaces to each other and energy inputs, what their scope of movement and configuration is, how they’re balanced with/ against each other, and so on. The dynamics of the whole system are more or less nonlinear depending on all of these factors plus weight, density, energy input and variability, and other stuff I’m forgetting right now.

    If a chemistry analogy of interactive systems gives us a really big fan of basically linear (subject to recipe) input/ output solutions, a good mobile models a more truly dynamical system in which the point-solutions are both strictly determined by the initial conditions of the system and non-linear with respect to the evolving conditions and interactions of the system/ environment macrosystem.

  5. I remember your Calder post, in which you suggested that Calder’s distinctive artform may have been inspired by industrial time-and-motion studies. The completed mobile has balance, unity, beauty, fetish value; only the designer-builder knows the precision craftsmanship that goes into its manufacture.

  6. …the fetishized object in this case being not the manufactured commodity but the means of production: the factory or shop floor as a work of beauty and symmetry and fluidity.

  7. So here’s a (poor) description of how a mobile works dynamically. In a gallery downtown Rachel and I have a big mobile we did together hanging up under the ceiling. (Where nobody sees it because people think of art and its places two-dimensionally.) At maximum extension the thing is probably about 8′ across; it’s pretty planar, so the depth is maybe 4′. The cross-pieces are willow branches, the surfaces are painted circles of aluminum flashing, and the articulators are looped steel wire. It’s a pretty ‘loose’ mobile with a big space of possible configurations, with some torquing resistance in the loops but enough weight to plow through that to the points of final extension and even hold there if energy input is right. So as a system it has potentials for both dramatic dynamism and high stasis.

    When I hung the thing I noticed that the air output was right up at the ceiling and I thought Great! Energy on tap, mobile a-go-go. But what turned out to be the case (which theoretically I should have known, but it took experience to teach me) is that in the presence of quantity/ vector-consistent energy input the mobile finds a set-point and comes to rest there, with a bit of a shimmy. Changing the angle and distance of the mobile from the vent even a little radically changed the actual configuration of that set-point but not the fact or shimmy of it, so I just picked a nice spot and let it be.

    The part where changing variables even slightly amplifies shimmy into dramatic phase shifts is important. Just slightly closer or farther away from the blower; a little to the left or to the right; a slightly different curvature to one of the surfaces; opening the gallery door. It’s all so interesting that I’ve let that guy keep the mobile for a couple of years now (and he wants to keep it) despite the fact that it doesn’t sell.

  8. @ 5, 6 – Yes, and it’s interesting how what’s fetishized about art changes with the habitus and taste of the beholder. For Rachel’s family what matters about art is what might be called the craft dimensions of it – how much work went into it, how long it took to make, how neat and clean it looks, how familiar it is. These are of course exactly the dimensions that must be hidden, ignored and/or forgotten as a condition of entry into ‘fine art’.

  9. in the presence of quantity/ vector-consistent energy input the mobile finds a set-point and comes to rest there, with a bit of a shimmy

    That’s freaky. Shouldn’t there be a way to configure an articulator so that you get a Lorenz waterwheel-like effect?

  10. Had to look up Lorenz waterwheel – that’s cool. From the video I looked at it’s locked on the axis but chaotic on spin? (If that’s the right way to put it.)

    With the mobile it shouldn’t take more than an oscillating fan with output calibrated to the weight and density of the mobile. Experimenting with two or more would be fun but might get silly quick. Of course what you really want is an airspace that’s ‘naturally’ chaotic, like a hallway or foyer with a variety of door and window openings and closings.

    I think it was the Philly museum of art I was in awhile ago where they have this nice big Calder mobile in the main atrium. The problem is that it’s too massive for the available air, so it just sits there, or at least did when I was looking at it.

  11. Carl, I really like the lines of your development. I think you are onto something…perhaps even something to rival the Nike of Internet philosophy. OOO, mooove over. Its time for MOO, Mobile Ontology Orientation. Move over a night where all cows are black, you can still hear them “moo”.

    (I am not even joking.)

  12. Risking the patina of serious intellection, in a gesture towards a MOO(ve) philosophy, consider a comparison between Carl’s:

    “I’d say that the primary ‘ontological’ features of mobiles are balance, surface, articulation, and interlock (interconnection of elements). Density and weight are secondary features. Mobiles that are low on surface and high on interlock are hardly mobiles at all (I think of them as ‘architectural’) – they’re basically stabile hanging sculptures. With high interlock and high surface you get something that’s axis mobile but not chaotic mobile, still pretty linear. For a ‘real’ Calder-style mobile you need low interlock and high surface. The surfaces are the energy-collecting ‘engines’ of motion and the low interlock gets you a big possibility space of configurations.

    Articulation is how the elements are actually connected. There are various ways of doing it that afford different degrees of movement and influence. A swivel lets each element move basically independently, since energy generated by the surfaces is not resisted and the element rotates freely. A direct loop articulation restricts rotation by torquing the slopes of the loops against each other. Energy is stored and released in a mutual countermovement. Varying the sizes of the loops varies the scope and intensity of this effect. Basically the tighter the loops, the higher the torque. Adding a third loop in the middle is an intermediate solution. For fun we could refer to these articulations as translations.

    Balance of course is dynamic, although less so with high interlock. Basically the whole thing won’t work at all if the elements are not balanced around each other, so in this sense the system is highly interdependent regardless of articulation; but unbalanced elements will be more locally or more globally catastrophic depending on how the system is articulated. Surface, density and weight have to be calibrated with balance and articulation; too much energy input on a dense but light system leads to high chaos, and the reverse gets you stasis, a hanging paperweight.”

    And the Process Theology, non-moral theory of Evil (which some debt to Aristotle’s aesthetics):

    “Discord, which is physical or mental suffering is simply evil in itself, whenever it occurs. Triviality, however, is only evil in some cases. A trivial enjoyment is not evil in itself insofar as its harmony outweighs its discordant elements. But if it is more trival, and hence less intense than it could have been, given the real possibilities open to it, then it is evil. Hence while discord is absolutely evil, triviality is only comparatively evil.”

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/05/15/a-non-moral-theory-of-evil/

    Carl’s Balance, Surface, Articulation and Interlock. With stiff surface and architectural hang we have a tendency towards trivality (a possible lack of the possibilities of intensity), with too much articulation and interlock there is the risk towards fundamental discord.

  13. Ah, I see that I slightly misread the fundament of your mobile description. I should have said that in the Calder model, what you refer to as “energy collecting engines” the high surface low interlock actually works to increase intensity (and therefore defy the triviality pole of Evil provided by Process Theology (which is Whiteheadian)). For those unfamiliar you can see the energy being stored up in real time here:

    It calls to mind that as Deleuze offers, slowness is an intensification. Glacial is a tranformative speed of intensity.

    Carl, you do you have any good multiple-Mobile on-line sources that can identity the mobile schools of aesthetic? Frankly I only know Calder. I would like to pursue this line of thought.

  14. Thanks Kevin, I’ve updated the post with video at your prompting. As for sources I’m afraid my formal knowledge of mobiles is also limited to Calder, a few local artists (usually variations on the Calder themes or simpler) and a couple of companies that make very simple mobiles for home decor. What I know I mostly learned from monkeying my way up from bits of wire and string. If I were to do serious research I would start with Calder and work outward. I do know that the general field is sometimes referred to as ‘kinetic art’, but that includes all kinds of motorized contraptions and perpetual motion machines and waterwheels and whatnot.

  15. Yes, Calder is etherial yet substantive. I just imagine that surely there are high art Mobilists who said something like “Calder got it all wrong! You have to distribute the such and the such, blah, bhah, blah” and then others of the same. Its strange how much he dominates the artform, at least from this distance.

    As for your making of them, pretty cool. I makes me want to do the same to explore my own ontology musings.

  16. Wonderful site. Lots of helpful information here. I am sending it to some friends ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And naturally, thank you on your sweat!

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