I Contain Multitudes
We’ve finally realized that our nation is filled with monuments that don’t accurately tell our true history. What do we replace false monuments with? I’ve been prototyping a new type of art – a sculpture that creates new permanent monuments – and I’m looking for other artists to collaborate. Under human power, this sculpture slowly carves a block of limestone into a permanent stone sculpture approximately 5’ wide by 6’ tall. It takes approximately one year to complete each sculpture. After each sculpture is finished, I Contain Multitudes can make the same monument again or an entirely different monument.
The Title “I Contain Multitudes” Has Three Meanings
It is a machine that contains many potential offspring because it can make an unlimited number of sculptures over the years. The limestone with which it works contains the remains of many life forms. The first monument that this sculpture could carve is a multi-racial, gender-fluid form that blends many of America’s populations - in the way that Walt Whitman meant when he wrote: “I am large, I contain multitudes” in his 1855 poem, “Song of Myself.”
A New Kind of Public Art
The idea for I Contain Multitudes came from speaking with young people in Lexington, KY who said, ‘We don't want a pretty sculpture. Give us something to do. Make us a machine to change the world.’ I find this sentiment echoed in communities all over the country.
This Art Piece Is Novel Because
It provides visitors with something to do in a social and physical context —not just look at. It is an evolving public spectacle.
Is a permanent sculpture that is always evolving.
It produces monuments, which have received much attention lately.
The public creates the monument by turning a large wheel which carves the sculpture out of limestone - slowly revealing the final artwork over the course of a year. The more people who interact with the piece, the more quickly the sculpture appears. Any 3D model can be scaled and used as the basis for carving the first sculpture.
What New Kind of Art is This?
We expect people will be drawn to I Contain Multitudes initially because it is colorful and provides a social activity. Plus, there is the mystery of the secret form slowly revealed - first the tip of a nose, then the cheekbones, then the ears. But a good art piece has more than just initial appeal. When people visiting this sculpture have had a chance to reflect, we hope that they will realize that this art piece ‘works’ on at least two symbolic levels. Here is how it would ‘work’ in Lexington, Kentucky, the city whose young people requested it, although it would work elsewhere.
Figurative Monuments for the 21St Century
I Contain Multitudes attempts to go back to our nation’s founding and redress that crime as well. The US is already starting to remove scores of false-historical monuments, leaving a vacuum of human forms in public spaces. This machine seeks to create new monuments for the 21st century, beginning with a handsome multi-racial gender-fluid young person ready to make a new American century. This face combines strong features of several races as well as masculine and feminine attributes - eager to engage, compassionate, but not accepting excuses.
If this monument for the 21st century appeared instantly it would lack the gravity that it does when it emerges after a year of work. The small motor that slowly drives the wheel chips away at the future, but things really happen when people join in. As people rotate the driving wheel, the stone rotates faster, the colors change, and the dust falls as the future takes shape.
Appearance + Placement
There are many public places that would be appropriate for I Contain Multitudes. It is tall enough to be seen from above and at night the colored shadows that surround it will be highly visible from afar. It will function as a beacon from a distance as well as a human-scaled environment up close. It could work equally well in an urban plaza or a grassy park.
LED lights integrated into the art piece cast colorful shadows at night, including a strong ray of light that rotates around like a lighthouse beam as the rock rotates.
An Interactive Experience
I Contain Multitudes creates a semi-shaded space that is fun to inhabit. We chose a large horizontal hand-wheel as the power source for this machine. As visitors to I Contain Multitudes turn the large wheel, the sculpture slowly carves a block of limestone into a figure, creating colored shadows, moving lights and the rhythmic background sound of a machine at work. The faster people turn, the faster the machine beats time and carves the rock.
People like to work together in pursuit of a common goal, but sometimes they are by themselves. Because of this, the wheel accommodates one to five people around its circumference, powering the machine. When no one is at the sculpture, a slow-speed gear motor slowly turns the wheel and carves the sculpture at a barely perceptible rate.
I Contain Multitudes Provides
A space to hang out and work with others
Rhythmic and engaging sound
Color during both night and day
Fun and engaging lighting effects, creating a beacon at night
Prototyping a Monument
The best way for this project to move forward would be with the involvement of another artist who would sculpt the first model. While I have sculpted an example of the models that the art piece could carve, I would be excited to step out of the way and let artists from systemically under-represented groups supply the first several years of models. Simply to show what might be possible, I worked with my good friend Alex Heveri to sculp a series of figures that express an eagerness to engage, an openness to dialog, and an inner strength and unwillingness to settle for the half-solutions of the past.
Our real goal, however, would be to find an artist from a systemically under-represented community who has been working on a small scale, and work with them to produce the first few designs.
I Contain Multitudes can work with either a 3D computer-generated file or a hand-sculpted clay model.
How it Works
Human-powered rotation is geared down
The carving wheel follows a hidden 1/8 scale model that directs the carving
It works slowly even when no one is around Human power speeds it up a form slowly emerges
There is nothing electronic or computerized about this sculpture. A hidden 3D ‘cam’ contains all the information needed to carve the block of stone. The mechanism that carves the stone in response to the shape of the cam is similar to the principle behind duplicating lathes used to make axe handles and pantographs used to enlarge sculptures - both technologies that go back centuries.
I anticipate that this simple durable system will achieve a resolution of approximately 1/8” in sculpture carving. I Contain Multitudes relies mostly upon human energy to move the rock around and drive the diamond wheel according to the cams. A small electrical motor rotates the wheel when no one is present, and the diamond wheel that slowly forms the sculpture is also driven by a small electric
Prototype + 3D Model
We built a fully functioning prototype that demonstrates a section of a face being carved into limestone. These photos show the carved lips and upper nose of a figurative monument.
Fully-functioning prototype of I Contain Multitudes carving the lips of the bust prototype.
A close-up of a physical model of I Contain Multitudes, displaying the night time effects of its LED lighting and colored panels.
Producing the Hidden Model
Once a finished sculpture is removed from the enclosure and a fresh slab of limestone is in its place, a new miniature model of the next upcoming monument will be needed. The model for the new sculpture can be formed in clay, plaster or another physical medium and be digitized by a 3D scanner. Or it may be generated entirely within 3D modeling software. Either way, the form needs to become a 3D digital file that can be scaled in the X and Y dimensions by a factor of 8, but not scaled in the Z dimension. This creates the hidden model that the cam follows to cut the stone. This model is then broken into a series of pieces that can each be 3D printed and stacked onto the armature.
Materials + Maintenance
The frame of I Contain Multitudes is mild steel with a primer and high-quality paint. The stainless steel moving hardware resists rust. The mechanism is fairly simple: waterjet-cut sprockets, heavy drive chains, and a simple cam and roller to move the diamond cutting wheel around limestone slab.
Infrastructure + Operations
This art piece should be considered semi-permanent. It is heavy enough that it will remain wherever it is placed. Its base is a heavy aluminum ‘waffle’ that lets it set on slightly irregular ground and be moved if necessary with a large forklift. At heart, it is a simple, rugged (albeit heavy) machine based on 19th century technology. It will require some thought regarding its location and maintenance.
A Call For Collaboration
On a day-by-day basis this art piece is a spectacle. On a year-by-year basis it becomes an ongoing program with a new artist involved every year and a new monument created.
Because it makes a new monument every year, it provides an opportunity for continued community engagement and to involve artists who have traditionally been under served. I am looking for an artist from a systemically-underrepresented community to direct the first monuments that this sculpture makes. My role would be behind the scenes as an ally, supporting your vision.
By Joseph O'Connell + Creative Machines