Tuesday, April 5, 2011

the Man behind the METROCARD BENCH -- Interview with Steve Shaheen

1. What was your inspiration for the project?

A large part of my creative work over the past few years has been in the area of seating design. Although I make a great deal of fine art, I truly enjoy “livable” art, and exploring the porous borders between sculpture and architecture, sculpture and design. When I heard about an exhibit happening in the city last month (“Single Fare 2”, at Sloan Fine Art Gallery, 128 Rivington St) with the theme of all artworks being created with used Metrocards, I saw it as an opportunity to challenge myself to do something which at the outset seemed absurd: to make a sculptural seat out of these thin pieces of plastic that a person could actually rest on. Most of the exhibiting artists chose to treat the card as a miniature canvas, making smaller versions of their trademark styles. While this itself poses difficulties and opportunities for creativity, I felt like the confines of the card's rectangle were keeping me thinking, quite literally, "inside the box." It was important to me to use the Metrocard in a way that honored the material, treating it as a “medium”, and acknowledging what it represents.

2. Take us through your design process. Did you know exactly how it
would look and how you'd put it together at the outset, or did you go
through multiple iterations? If the latter, can you describe them some
and how you arrived at the final solution?

My current design employs a 1/8” steel understructure, but my original intent was to use Metrocards exclusively to create a self-supporting structure that would also hold a person. I experimented with bending individual cards into tear-drop shapes, then attaching them inversely in rows, almost like the cell structure of cardboard. At that early stage I was daunted by the sheer number of Metrocards this approach would have required (though ironically I still needed thousands to create just the laminate). If I had gone the first route I would have united several horizontal bands, hoping to achieve a spongy but supportive chair. It was more daring and risky, and perhaps ultimately a more appropriate solution to the prompt, however the very short timeframe persuaded me to start planning with an armature.

The benefits of this latter approach went beyond expediency: the use of steel allowed for much greater strength and durability, and offered the option to play with the Metrocard’s physical identity on a macrocosmic level (extending the bendy quality of the unit to its aggregate). Once in this mindset, I toyed with several variations.

When sketching and brainstorming, I try to stay loose: aesthetics are foremost on my mind; however I quickly move to consider engineering. All of my ribboning designs for Metrobench had careful points of attachment that would allow such thin steel to support actual people. In the end I chose a design that was more essential than other, more baroque iterations, capitalizing on the strength of cylinders and keeping an open and balanced form. In retrospect, the two circles and diagonal element recall train wheels, though admittedly I wasn’t conscious of this when designing.

3. How exactly is it held together?

I have become an expert in the esoteric knowledge of plastic glues because of this project. Single cards are held together by Gorilla Glue. I chose this not so much because it’s the best binder, but to make assembly more fluid. The rows of Metrocards are glued using aquarium-grade silicone. Again, this was a choice based on my reluctance to be encumbered by epoxy’s mixing time, mess and noxious fumes. Ultimately, however two-part plastic epoxy was the most reliable binding agent in areas of high tension (the loops inside the “wheels”, for example). The Metrocard sheets were laminated on the steel, in sections, using contact cement.

4. How much weight can it hold?

It can hold three adults sitting across it; the cylindrical supports are very strong.

5. I understand you got the cards through Craig's List. Cool!
a. What did your ad say, and what did you post it under?

As I detail on my website’s blog, I posted under Craigslist Jobs, the category called “Etc.” The ad read:

$$ for old Metrocards! Fast cash…

I am working on an art installation made out of New York MTA metrocards. I’ve been picking up the discarded ones in stations, but could use some help as I need a lot. Here are the specifics:

1. I will pay 10 cents per card.

2. Only yellow, plastic metrocards accepted (not the white ones)

3. This project has a deadline, so cards need to be gathered within the next week.

4. Please have the cards rubber-banded in groups of 50. I will do a quick count and pay cash.

5. Do not submit more than 500 at a time, and please contact me before gathering so I can let you know how many I still need.



From that point on I treated all volunteers as a team, setting up an email list and sending daily updates. The response was terrific. I had more than thirty people write to me within the first 24 hours.

b. Did people mail you their cards or did you have to pick them up?

I actually went out to meet people in public places, like Union Square. I think there was a mutual curiosity to see who would dream up—and who would participate in—such a nutty project. This was the most enjoyable part of the process for me, interacting with people from all different backgrounds who chose to be involved in a very random act, perhaps for a little extra change, but I think mainly to be part of a creative endeavor. One NYC resident, Sarah Perez, involved her family and ended up collecting over 2,000 cards within days, to my shock. I later asked her motivation for helping out, and she wrote:

"Participating in a project like this is kind of like being part of the final product. Sure, the incentive is a little pocket money or laundry cash, but collecting a waste product that somebody intends to turn into an artwork that utilizes the beautiful elements of the garbage's design feels a bit like being part of the process and end result. "

c. How long did it take to get all the cards you needed?

Just under one week.

d. Any idea if they have money on them? If so, can you guess how much, total?

I’m sure there’s some value on the magnetic strips, though if most people are like me they won’t trash a Metrocard with anything more than pennies on it. My guess is that several are expired unlimited rides.

e. Why couldn't you get cards from the MTA?

Actually, although the final solution of tapping into the people of New York to get the cards was conceptually (and practically) the best choice, it was not my first. In the beginning I wanted to try to gather the cards myself, asking station managers if I could place boxes at the booths or collect the daily throwaways. However during the three weeks I had to actually execute the seat, I was in the middle of moving my studio and had two other large projects underway; there was literally no time. I then attempted to contact the MTA through various channels—the Transit Museum, the Arts for Transit Program, and eventually the division of MTA headquarters that handles production and distribution of Metrocards. As you might imagine, responsiveness was fairly slow (given my deadline), and ultimately I was told that it is MTA policy not to give away or even sell uncredited cards.

6. Is it for sale? If so, how much does it cost?

My original intention was to donate it to the Transit Museum, however after offering this I was told that neither their mission nor storage capacity extends beyond the housing of historical artifacts of the public transit system—not contemporary art. In lieu of this, I would work out the details with anyone interested in acquiring it. Frankly, it is of greater interest to me to get it out there into a design or functional object fair (such as SOFA) for people to experience firsthand.

7. They should put these in subway stations! Think they would hold up?

If this were for quotidian use, I would use another design I created (completely different) that has a back support. It would have to be coated in resin so that it could hold up to thousands of persons using it weekly.

8. Where is the bench right now?

I just removed it from the exhibition at Sloan a few days ago. It’s in my Brooklyn studio.

9. Any plans to make more subway-themed furniture?

I am toying with the idea of realizing some additional design iterations on this theme. I actually gathered more than 5,000 cards and would like to put the surplus to good use. On the other hand, the conceptual statement has been made, so any further extrapolation would need another layer to its purpose to justify the creation (for me). Making a beautiful form has its own merit, as does a form that follows function. However that which engages me most fully is design wherein form and function are closely tied to both the symbolic and practical meaningfulness of the material in which it’s realized. If it’s a found object, I want to consider what that thing did in its “previous life,” before it was upcycled or repurposed. In its new incarnation, as fragment or aggregate, ideally there should resonate something of its former character and raison d’etre. Although far from contemporary, the Inuit anorak is a fine example of very “complete design” in this sense. The waterproof parka is comprised of seal intestinal walls (in itself a kind of societal discard, or by-product of the principal industry of food procurement). These “upcycled” objects, originally functioning to imperviously retain liquids, are attached in horizontal bands (that still recall the intestines’ profile) to form a sort of collective vessel, this time with the function of keeping fluids out. I don't know that designers and artists can always hope to juggle all of these balls at once, but that is my objective.


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