© Hunter L. V. Elliott 2016
In 1592, Queen Elizabeth I changed the length of the mile from 5000 feet to 5280 feet. Equal to eight furlongs, the new measurement was implemented to accommodate for the use of a shorter measurement for the foot. The mile, which is based on the measurement of the foot, on paper, had to accommodate the increase in number of feet, while staying physically the same length as before. Some 200 years later, the French Revolution allowed for the development and first physical implementation of the metric system after years of unregulated, imprecise measurement. The phasing out or renaming of rules and measures is commonplace throughout history. Some of the earliest measurements were made using parts of the body or types of seeds, but as time went on, more sophisticated, organized increments were required and measurements like the cubit (distance from fingertip to elbow) became obsolete.
Regardless of the title or history of a specific increment, the name for the unit of measurement that we apply a physical value to, is secondary to that value itself. Those units have meaning simply because it was assigned to them. Even the meter, which was originally designed to be equal to one ten-millionth the distance between the equator and the north pole, was not only arbitrary (albeit on a global scale), but it was later changed several times, most recently in 1983, to be defined as the distance in a vacuum that light travels in 1/299,792,458th second.
One of the most fascinating cases of measurement incongruities involves the kilogram. The kilogram is the only measurement left in widespread use today that is defined by the weight of a singular physical object. Since 1889, The International Bureau of Weights and Measures in France has housed and cared for the International Prototype for the Kilogram (IPK). Fabricated under authority of the 1st General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM), this platinum- iridium alloy cylinder that sits 39mm tall and 39mm in diameter is, scientifically speaking, the Kilogram. Everything that is measured in relation to the weight of the kilogram is merely measured in relation to the IPK.
The problem with this object-based system, is that over time, the weight of the IPK (as well as the 40 or so duplicates that have been made to verify its weight) has fluctuated. Although kept in a controlled environment, microscopic contaminants build up on the polished surface of the weight, requiring specialized cleaning techniques which if done incorrectly, could also alter the weight of the cylinder. Regardless of the intense care given to the IPK and its duplicates, almost mysteriously, none of the weight fluctuations are identical. The discrepancies are small - most have less than a 50-microgram weight gain, but that differentiation of 50 millionths of a gram casts considerable uncertainty. Eventually, to correct this imbalance, the Kilogram will be delineated by a precise, replicable equation derived from nature, likely involving the relation between gravity, mass and energy, causing the IPK to become a precious, but obsolete artifact.
It is both disconcerting and comforting that so much science and infrastructure has been built around standards originally set by a marginally stable piece of alloy, or the length of a human foot, or the length of land that a yoke of oxen can plow before resting (a furlong, or an eighth of a mile). The allure of total precision and certainty eludes me, however being comfortable with ignorance and imperfection seems worse. Though we have developed more modern, sophisticated, precise measures (apart from the kilogram), the humble beginnings of these systems usher skepticism surrounding the concept of standardization. With the foundations of our current mathematical systems built on such arbitrary foundations, which is more correct between one standard or another? If there are 40 nearly identical prototype weights that are all 1 kg, why is one necessarily better than another? It becomes a question of power, and of who allows that power to be held.
Setting a baseline and then changing it is drastic. Issues relating to standardization exist almost universally, if not on an abstract level, then in practical applications. For example, modern wooden 2x4’s don’t measure two inches by four inches. While at one time, lumber was milled to allow for an even two by four inches, modern standard 2x4’s are smaller, allowing for a higher yield per log. After processing via milling, finishing, and drying, the 2x4, the most common cut of lumber there is, measures 1.5 by 3.5 inches. What would happen though, if the original measurement was restored? Would buildings be built differently? How would it change the lumber industry today?
The confusion of the modern 2x4 exists solely within its nomenclature, but language used to communicate standards and measures can be shaky and complicated. A chain is a measurement. A rod is a measurement. A fathom is a measurement. A knot, a barleycorn, a button, a bag and a butt are all outdated measurements. There are hundreds of types of fractional measurements or measurements for esoteric fields of scientific or industrial applications and each of those has their own linguistic genealogy that usually traces to a common practical word, often an object that the measurement is relating to, but not necessarily. If one was to consider the whole of the history of measurement, it’s progression and development and try to rationalize it to today’s standards mathematically and linguistically, it would be a chaotic mess.
The systematic mathematical and linguistic imprecision are symptomatic of humanity’s megalomania. We need to control and understand our lives and the space around us, and we do so through systems like language, science and technology. We make precise, intricate systems but then allow our bias to take root. By reflecting on what we put our trust into, what we create with the knowledge gained from the plateau currently reached, and by confronting misconceptions and eccentricities, we could attempt to come to terms with, or even remedy the inescapable mortal hubris that exists within the pursuit of control.
This meditation on skepticism, standardization, measurements, language, objects, and the relationship between them all informs what I address in my work. The nature of what things or techniques are supposed to do, what things are supposed to be, and what they could be are central in my exploration. I want to play with the flexibility of rigid systems, and to expose their approximations both in their utilitarian capacity, and the language we use to describe them. I take commercial products and give them a task. they don’t have to be good at the task but they have to try. They have to take what they know and make an attempt. I embrace specific approximations and precision for entirely unique scenarios. Through titles, explanations and material, I want to fade in and out honestly between truths and half-truths.
If there is one quality to be present in my work, it should be transparency; a material honesty. Even if that honesty hides behind a deception or a material confusion, I have no desire in exaggerating what is presented. Fool’s gold would be labeled as such. I don’t intentionally hide anything. There is no smoke, no mirrors, no invisible armatures. Within a set of parameters that I enact, I allow for variation and chance. I create systems that are built with eccentricities in mind. I use machine-made measuring tools for the purpose of showing their inaccuracy. I use commercial and industrial goods to show their potential outside the realm of their intended purpose. I use things that people know in order to show them possibilities that they may not realize otherwise.
By using materials such as tape and wood glue in positions of structure, or in positions of wood as equal (or lesser) to the glue – I feel I am giving the material a chance to quite literally stand on its own. Traditionally glue has always been important as a means to create, but it has almost never been the creation itself. I view that role reversal as an optimistic gesture.
Although a large portion of my work involves stretching the boundaries of common materials in a physical way, the original thought process that directed this line of questioning relied on materials with boundaries already set in place to begin with. Tools of precision that lack that very characteristic, either through mechanical production, or simply margin of error, are by nature incompatible with their function. By altering, or dissecting these rulers and tape measures, I directly examine their role, and the inconsistency in measuring tools, and by proxy, measurement as a system and precision as a concept.
Precision is usually thought of in terms of mathematical, scientific, or architectural terms, but in relation to precision’s abstract analogous philosophical relative (certainty), I question the role, and necessity of either. Certainty only meshes with reality when perspective, scale, and personal standards coincide. The possibility of absolute certainty is impractical and by most accounts, impossible. Along with certainty, concepts such as purpose and control are equally fraught with mortal doubt. These descriptors - these states - precision and certainty, and the idea of control - these are all absolutes. To be an absolute is to be one-sided. Unbalanced. Perfection on an end of a spectrum. Perfection is not necessary, and even more to the point, perfection is impossible. To me this is not desirable, it is not realistic and it is not human.
Chance is the great liberator and the great terror of being alive. It is a constant variable, therefore it is a constant variable in my work. Embracing chance is to embrace freedom. In this case, freedom to allow the material to be exactly what it is. I take something apart, or add something to it, or change something about it, but I don't want to force anything that shouldn’t be. I just want to encourage the evolutionary process, and just give it a push in a direction. I want to change the circumstance or orientation of an object’s existence and see what happens. I want to see what it’s made of (literally and figuratively), and see if it can stand on its own (literally and figuratively).
Ironically, considering my foundational source material, I try not to measure when I make work. I eyeball it. I use mostly hand tools and am not concerned with perfect cuts or finishes. I try to get the thing to appear to look like what I think it should be, but I allow the material to make unforeseen choices for me. I allowed absorption and flow. Warping, bending, crimping and build up. Smoothness or roughness will occur naturally if the conditions allow. I’m not here to fight it, I’m just here to let it happen, and to recognize it.
Differentiating between a bubble and a drop isn’t as simple as the words’ definitions would lead one to believe. When thinking of a bubble and a drop, they are of similar volume. They could be a wide variety of liquids or gasses in a multitude of colors. From certain angle or distances, they could be indistinguishable. They rely on negative space and circumstance. Their coexistence in a space is possible, and in some scenarios, it might be difficult to determine when one ends and the other begins.
Images courtesy of the artist and H Space Gallery