Gaston Nogues and Benjamin Ball joined forces in 2004 and formed Ball-Nogues. In 2007 they won The Museum of Modern Arts PS1 Young Architects Program Competition and recently their work became part of the permanent collection of MoMA. Ball-Nogues work embodies monumental deterioration – personal humor, contemporary scenarios and nostalgic ideals. It is simultaneously rough, urban, sophisticated and highly cerebral.
Since the beginning of this year, Ball-Nogues have been awarded the The Talus Dome Project by the City of Edmonton. Ball-Nogues refers to The Talus Dome Project as “a sculpture in the landscape and a mirror to the landscape.” They consider Talus Dome to be an earth work fashioned from a non-earth work material. While The Talus Dome is in the works, Ben and Gaston are simultaneously creating Air Garden which will be installed in LAX Airport’s new Bradley West Terminal in 2012-Their plates are full and they are rising at lightening speed.
Natascha Snellman: How did Ball-Nogues come about?
Benjamin Ball: Gaston and I met at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI Arc). After graduating, Gaston worked with Frank Gehry for ten years. I had several different jobs – I was an art director/set designer for films, an architect, and I assisted an artist. In my spare time in 2004, I began working on a project that we called Maximilian’s Schell. To design and construct it was going to be a big undertaking, so I asked Gaston to collaborate. It was very satisfying and it generated a lot of buzz in the press. We figured we were on to something, so we decided to keep working together. A few months later, we quit our day jobs and more commissions rolled in. We have been insanely busy ever since. Maximilian’s Schell started it all; it set the pace and codified the methodology that we use today.
Natascha: Given the nature of studying architecture was there anything that needed to be unlearned after graduating from SCI Arc, in terms of traditional architectural practices?
Benjamin: SCI Arc defies the nature of traditional architecture education and practice. At the time we were there, you could do a performance for your thesis project; you could make paintings, as long as you could tie the work to discourse about architecture. My education didn’t prepare me for the day-in, day out of architecture as a profession. SCI Arc isn’t focused on making mainstream practitioners. It was about critically expanding our sense of what architecture can be. It fostered the development of our own process.
Natascha: How does Ball-Nogues seek out materials to work with, are there boundaries you give yourselves when choosing materials?
Benjamin: There are no boundaries of which I am cognizant. One of our main interests is in creating space and structure. These interests are often integrated in our work. Our installations are different than shelters in the architectural sense of the word. Shelter demands particular kinds of performance from spaces and structures related to keeping the rain out, the heat in, thieves out, etc. In many of our installations, we don’t deal with these issues – we are dealing with the “useless” aspects of architecture, the unquantifiable aspects. The installations are a means of exploring new kinds of structure and assembly and the feeling of the space rather than architectural performance in the sense described above.
We typically start with a hypothesis about how a particular material could be used to make structure, space, and atmosphere. We then do a lot of research and testing of the material to determine its potential and economic feasibility. Once we believe we can successfully work with the material, we try to get a sense of how a space constructed from it might feel and what it might signify in a particular form.
Natascha: Many of your pieces reconsider material, how do these material transgressions come about?
Benjamin: There is not a formula for these, but I’d say one reason is that we use particular materials to make spaces at scales that have not been seen before. We employ non-architectural materials to make spaces that are suggestive of architecture; the viewer often associates our installations with the size and structural systems of architecture. For example, the use of string provokes the question “can we use string to make a space that envelopes that body like a building or a room?” So, we are using non-architectural materials to make spaces that address some of the concerns of architecture because of their size relative to our bodies. We use string to make “archi-things.”
Natascha: Feathered Edge poetically transformed the mood and the space of MOCA’s gallery at the Pacific Design Center, how did you go about interpreting that space?
Benjamin: We tend to work in series; we explore a process again and again, evolving it with each successive project. We decided shortly after being invited by Brooke Hodge of MOCA to do an installation that would be a Suspension. Suspensions are a series of hanging installations; the physical aspect of which can be understood as something between object and vacuum, presence and absence. They have a penetrable quality to them yet have shape and form. They are atmospheres which envelope the body rather than objects. Relative to the two previous venues where we have done Suspensions, the PDC gallery doesn’t have visual noise. It has a double height space that is like a big cube extending above the main ceiling of the gallery. We thought that the atmospheric quality of a Suspension would create a dialog with the solidity and Euclidean geometry of the architecture. We used the double height space as vessel from which this atmosphere would pour into the gallery like it was falling from the sky. The atmosphere would modulate the space of the gallery; it would change the way one perceives the gallery and their movement through it.
Another consideration was the view from the entry of the gallery. The ceiling of the double height space is not visible from the entry; this set up a condition where the piece seemed to extend infinitely upward. The sense of the work being a gas or vapor was complexified by our approach to color. This was the first time we employed the digitally controlled machine we designed an fabricated (Installator 1, with the Variable Information Atomizing Module) to color individual areas of each string. This gave the colors the form of three-dimensional ghostly shapes hovering within the array of strings.
The lighting conditions of the PDC space played a roll. Track fixtures lit the piece from above. Shafts of light filtered through the array of strings. It was suggestive of the way light penetrates the canopy of a forest. As we developed our computer models we recognized that the hovering colored shapes resembled light itself, so we tried to intensify this similarity to play up the effect. The colors and patterns of light invited the viewer to question whether they were looking light phenomena or something that mimicked light.
Natascha: Is each Ball-Nogues work meant to be appealing to the eye of the beholder, or do you and Gaston find your selves often questioning the idea of beauty and elegance?
Benjamin: What is beautiful? We don’t know what is beautiful or elegant. We don’t start, a priori, with a notion of beauty and try to make it. If there is beauty or awe in our work, we arrive at it by way of exploring a process.
Natascha: How did your commission for Agnes B in Paris come about, did you also meet her while visiting?
Benjamin: It was actually for Agnès b. Soho. Agnès b. was one of the sponsors of the Summer Warm Up music series at PS1 in Queens. We did an installation in the PS1 courtyard in 2007. The Agnès b. company asked us to do something in their store window that related to the PS1 installation. I think most of the people who have been commissioned to do summer PS1 courtyard installations have done this as well. I only met the Agnès b. very briefly.
Natascha: What are your thoughts on the alliance between art and fashion – the Rodarte exhibition at MOCA’s Pacific Design Center is a current example?
Benjamin: There has been an alliance for a long time. More recently, fashion and architecture have started snuggling up with one another. We have built a career straddling boundaries, so we don’t take some purest stance against these affiliations. The over-protectiveness of creative fields from practitioners sometimes seems a little ridiculous. I think these alliances can be interesting. In spite of use (the primary factor that distinguishes design from art), clothing can do some of the same things as art. It is the commoditization of the two fields by one another that is problematic. When I consider money, the alliance between them is unappealing. It becomes about marketing and obscures a lot of interesting parallels between the fields as creative practices.
Natascha: While researching your work I read that Table Cloth referenced Paco Rabanne, and Built to Wear was a collaborative work with American Apparel…tell me more
Benjamin: Built to Wear and Table Cloth developed from the same interest –designing the disappearance of installations. We wanted to make installations that had no ending. In each case, the components of the installation served double duty as consumer products. We gave the products away after the installation came down so they could have a second life in people’s homes, offices, etc. The components of the installation served double duty as one of a kind home wares. They can have more value than discarded parts of an installation. Perhaps, the sum of the parts is worth more than the installation itself. This leads to a sustainability discussion. We call the process of fabricating something with these characteristics “cross manufacturing.” Built to Wear was designed for a Biennale in Shenzhen, China. We live in LA. The logistics of fabricating a big installation in China in the time that was availabe would have created a lot of headaches. We needed to use a component that was pre-manufactured in the United States. We had worked with American Apparel on a project for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, so when the idea of using clothing as building components came up, we thought of American Apparel. Working with AA enriched the work conceptually by contributing to an economic narrative. The Pearl River region is a huge producer of garments and consumer goods, so here are these American guys making this big dragon like thing from 12,000 articles of overstock American Apparel clothing that were shipped from a sweatshop free factory in LA. The work reversed the typical flow of garments coming out of the Pearl River region while hinting at issues about working conditions in factories and the amount of energy necessary to ship products overseas.
The reference to Paco Rabanne came about after we built Table Cloth. Two hundred and sixty eight components (purpose built tables) comprised that work. They attached to one another to form a tapestry that draped across a courtyard. This idea grew out of thoughts about fabric a model for structure. The Rabanne dress comparison came later as a means of explaining the project. The dress is a good reference for someone who did not see the work in person. Ninety percent of the people who see our work see it through images in the media – a characteristic our work shares with a lot of cultural products today. By looking at an image, it is difficult to get a clear sense of how the tables attach to make the tapestry. Seeing the work juxtaposed with the Rabanne dress gives a sense of the flexibility of the structure. Describing the installation as a tablecloth or a dress also helps one understand it as a kind of adornment for the architecture of the courtyard.
Natascha: Your mother was in theatre, and I know you’re Robert Wilson fan, as well as having done set-design for films- have you ever considered collaborating with a theatre production or ballet co. and designing sets? Miro and Dali not only did sets, but costumes as well…
Benjamin: Gaston and I think about working in theater, dance, and opera quite often. We’ve been approached to work on productions, but like many creative endeavors, they stalled or disappeared. We are hoping for more opportunities!
Natascha: Are there any films that have been influential to your practice?
Benjamin: I used to watch a lot of films, so there are probably a lot of them roaming around my sub conscious. I’m interested in the way that Antonioni used space and architecture in his films.
Natascha:What are the next three films on your Netflix queue?
Benjamin: A documentary about architects Herzog and De Meuron, a documentary called Engineering the Impossible: Disc 1, and a documentary called Aboriginal Architecture. I’m into architecture documentaries lately.
Natascha: Tell us about Air Garden for the Los Angeles Airport.
Benjamin: It is a large permanent Suspension piece for the new international terminal. It will be a moment of pause within the cacophony of signage and control protocols of international travel. The airport awarded commissions to three artists – Mark Bradford, Pae White, and Ball Nogues.
Natascha: In the middle of everything you’re doing, has Ball-Nogues been approached about being published in a book format?
Benjamin: Yes, we are talking to a couple of publishers.
Natascha: Would a Ball-Nogues book be in the form of a traditional coffee table book or an artist’s book that becomes more of an object?
Benjamin: We would explore the production method of the book itself – this would affect its design. We would also explore its tactility. A book can be more than a medium for the presentation of images, drawings and text. A book can be a record of our projects but also a unique object that develops out of our approach to design.
Natascha: Does the music you listen to influence the work you are creating at that time?
Benjamin: On some level, I’m sure the music we listen to is influential. Perhaps it just propels us forward when we are in production mode. Our tastes drift toward the atmospheric, dreamy. We also listen to a lot of minimalist rock. Gaston and I are both attracted to hypnotic, droney things like Can and stripped down rock like Michael Yonkers or Captain Beefheart.
Natascha: What are you currently listening to?
Benjamin: Harmonia, Hawkwind, and Four Tet.
Natascha: Are there any other influences you want to mention?
Benjamin: We glean a lot of ideas from craft and manufacturing demonstration videos on YouTube. It is inspiring to see do-it yourself videos about how to make things.
Above image: Feathered Edge, photograph by Benny Chan