portrait of X's empty

Eric Ellingsen

Reviewed by Jonathan D. Solomon

26 Aug 2017

Bernadette Mayer’s poem X at Half Inch inter­vals was bro­ken up into half inch inter­vals. These inter­vals were dis­trib­uted to twen­ty archi­tec­ture and land­scape archi­tec­ture stu­dents at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty in the fall of 2014, as part of the sem­i­nar SPACE ACTIVISM. Every­one was asked to cre­ate some rule, some log­i­cal or illog­i­cal con­straint by which one’s reg­u­lar inter­vals and pat­terns of move­ment would inter­rupt and be inter­rupt­ed with strangers in pub­lic spaces and cre­ate encoun­ters by ask­ing: (1) what some­thing means and (2) where to go next. This could be com­pared to land­scape archi­tect Lawrence Halprin’s Mota­tion and Take Part Process­es but doesn’t have to be. As Ali­son Bick Hirsch says, Halprin’s goal was to design pub­lic spaces that stim­u­lat­ed move­ment response and enhanced oppor­tu­ni­ties for choice, chance, encounter, and exchange.”

Mayer’s inched inter­vals became anoth­er foot­ed inter­val for our walked lines of mea­sure. We asked peo­ple to trans­late Mayer’s inter­vals from Eng­lish into some oth­er lan­guage and then, with some­one else, back into Eng­lish. Encoun­ters were notat­ed. The nota­tions were then report­ed back dur­ing a din­ner in which every­one was asked to bring flour, potable water col­lect­ed from the city, lines of string of any length, and oth­er inter­plan­e­tary com­mu­ni­ca­tions. We walked an ERU­VIN across cam­pus, through build­ings, and into the kitchen. We mixed the parts we col­lect­ed from the places we lived in with the ideas of the place we live with with the ideas of the way places could be with mem­o­ries of places from the places we come from. Our flour parts were com­bined with a cul­ture from Wide Awake Bak­ery. (In the four­teenth cen­tu­ry, the ERUV was not only an intact bound­ary line designed around a house­hold’, but also con­sist­ed of bak­ing a loaf of bread from flour col­lect­ed from indi­vid­ual fam­i­ly units inside of the ERUV. Until the bread was bro­ken, the ERUV remained intact.)

Our indi­vid­ual lines from Mayer’s X were twist­ed togeth­er in the Human Ecol­o­gy build­ing where teach­ing kitchens could be used to slip under uni­ver­si­ty food prepa­ra­tion unions, lia­bil­i­ty, and con­tract­ed provider rules. In the teach­ing kitchens we mixed our flour, pooled and boiled our water, added the donat­ed cul­ture, read aloud and nib­bled at excerpts of books by Daniel Spo­er­ri to Gertrude Stein (Ten­der But­tons), worked out pas­sive forms, and in gen­er­al, per­formed the con­tent that we were speak­ing about.

I have been build­ing these trans­la­tions and maps as Urban Scores since 2010. The Scores seek to engage in the mate­ri­al­i­ty of lan­guage in space per­cep­tion and space co-pro­duc­tion with non-exclu­sive publics. In oth­er words, in some sense, poems are tak­en for walks. The lit­er­al foot notes are mate­ri­al­ized in a chore­o­graphed poet­ics of move­ment, feet, lis­ten­ing, and mea­sure. The walks inter­fere with pre­de­ter­mined encoun­ters, and irri­tate assump­tions of insti­tu­tion­al affin­i­ty and affir­ma­tion as to where poet­ry can be found, insti­tu­tion­al­ized in what jour­nals, chap books, press­es, read­ings, and cod­i­fied in oth­er schools of thought. Lis­ten­ing now becomes a cen­tral ten­ant of com­po­si­tion. And the trans­la­tor must face the task of con­stant­ly hav­ing to rene­go­ti­ate their own selec­tion cri­te­ria and com­fort lev­els by which they choose whom to engage with and where. In the process­es, we are forced to ask if we actu­al­ly hear what is being said, or are we only able to hear what we are ready to under­stand? Are we look­ing for some­thing that we already know ahead of time? Do I actu­al­ly ever see what you are saying?

One of the inten­tions of the Urban Score is to design the con­di­tions which gen­er­ate new options for per­ceiv­ing the spaces we live in and the val­ues that shape us. Anoth­er inten­tion is sim­ply to stop and talk and lis­ten close­ly with and to dif­fer­ent publics. And as we design fil­ters for how to notate what is being said, we start to lis­ten not just to what peo­ple say, but also why they might say what they say. In terms of con­nect­ing with and respond­ing to dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics, beliefs and val­ues on the street in shared spaces, we become mind­ful of how lan­guage informs world views through words as we evolve our own lan­guage as designers.

But so far, one thing is clear to me: he’s absolute­ly deter­mined to dis­man­tle an emp­ty, dis­solve it in acid, crush it under a press, or melt it in an oven.” Arkady and Boris Stru­gatsky, Road­side Picnic

POETRY URBANISMS: spatial notations shaping volumes, RADICAL IMAGINATION COMMUNITY, from the exhibition “Outside Design,” Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 2015. Experiments selected above are based on a notational system originally conceived by Andrej Bely (Glossolalia, 1922). The drawing system requests that (1) each person slow down and say out loud each letter in a language and (2) create a notational system that attempts to capture the physiological relations which embody the production of each spoken letter. In other words, use drawing to communicate a spatial/directional relationship of places in your oral cavity where the elemental building blocks of your words are produced (teeth, tongue, lips, throat, gums, breath, etc.). Note voiced and unvoiced consonants. Increase the conscious mechanisms coordinated in the production of what you say. Attempt to feel the choreographed postures of body and air where the condensation of forces occurs in the production of sounds and in the everyday making of speech. Merely in speaking together, our words have real force. Bely scrupulously set out to understand the physical, material, and symbolic systems shaping and circulating forces in the production of sounds. In fact, Bely believed that merely pronouncing letters and words in sounds during everyday speech reproduced the harmonic forces and overtones inherent in the cosmic calculus and act of creation of the universe itself. Cosmic waves. Micro waves. Ocean waves. Sound waves. Shock waves. From clay to human to brick “breathed into” in the Judaic sense of creation. From dust to stardust to the word stardust. Bely believed that everything that moves in the universe forces the materials around them to compress and contract in a constant disturbance and contingency of waves. And, that the waves present at the Big Bang formed ruptures and rhythms as a disequilibrious continuum of spacetime—can be analyzed as sounds. And, that those sounds are identical to the sounds humans make when speaking out. Thus a precise and intentional scrutiny of the words one uses conjures the very act of creation itself. Poetry, rather than becoming an art form that defaults to descriptions and representations of the actual forces creating the universe, forces the universe into a crafted autopoesis (in the sense used by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela) of a constant act of becoming, a constant act of creation. Bely scrupulously set out to understand the physical, material, and symbolic systems shaping and circulating forces in the production of sounds. In this way, he worked closely with Rudolph Steiner in designing the Goetheanum, a concrete acoustic chamber located in Dornach, Switzerland, an architectural oral cavity, an instrument that amplifies sound waves so as to resonate the power of speaking out. An architect, a poet, a translator, Bely thought of poetry as something ritual as something political as something historic as something divine. If you place your hand in front of your mouth and speak out, you will feel the bubbling microclimates of heat energy that your words produce. Slightly wacko, slightly mystic Bely says in his notation of the pronunciation of the German letters, Warmth is Matter accumulating, pressing from the periphery toward the firm matters of the edges the repelling fragile light the murky quartz of the center (the living flesh).


what the foot notes: the fol­low­ing peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ed in some way to co-pro­duce this urban score:

Gabriel Wil­son Sal­vatier­ra, Roland Barthes (Empire of Signs: Chop­sticks”), Jor­dan Christo­pher Berta, Eric Ellingsen, Avi­tal Ronell (in ref­er­ence to Stu­pid­i­ty), Inger Chris­ten­son (IT), Dominique Laporte (His­to­ry of Shit, trans. Nadia Ben­abid and Rodolphe el-Khoury), Emi­ly Zan­der Chang, Jacque­line Megan Haynes, Jere­mias Hollinger (artist who sings in vents, mir­ror­ing sounds in vents), Sim van der Ryn (Eco­log­i­cal Design), Pixar (Cars), Andrea Denise Gon­za­lez, Gertrude Stein (Ten­der But­tons), Daniel Spo­er­ri & Robert Fil­liou (an anecodot­ed topog­ra­phy of chance), Ben Markus (The Age of Wire and String), Cameron David Neuhoff, Yen Hua Debra Chan, Cor­nel West, Euan Williams, Alfred North White­head (Modes of Thought), Georges Perec (e’), Myer Siemi­aty­c­ki (“Con­test­ing Sacred Urban Space: The Case of the Eruv,” JIMI/RIMI Vol­ume 6), Oliv­er Sacks (The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat), Theast­er Gates (Rad­i­cal Hos­pi­tal­i­ty), Megan Gran Lund, Eri­ca C Alon­zo, Bertolt Brecht (attempt), Uvedale Price (An Essay on the Pic­turesque), Ken­neth Hoching Chow, Dong Uk Kim, Yang Chen, Doreen Massey (for space), Mal­go­rza­ta Patryc­ja Pawlows­ka, Rudolf Arn­heim (Visu­al Think­ing), Stanis­laus Fung (Land­scape Design and the Expe­ri­ence of Motion; Move­ment and Still­ness in Ming Writ­ings on Gar­dens”), Dr. Roger Sper­ry (Nobel Con­ver­sa­tions), Daniel Botkin (Dis­cor­dant Har­monies), Charles Wright (“Black Zodi­ac”), Anto­nio Gram­sci (Prison Note­books), Wal­lace Stevens (“Snow Man”), Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger (Being and Time), Adri­an Snod­grass (Think­ing Through the Gap: The Space of Japan­ese Archi­tec­ture), Gus van Sant (Do Easy), Georges Perec (Species of Spaces) & Ola­fur Elias­son (Take Your Time), Lynn Peemoeller, Mark Wigley (White Walls), Keller East­er­ling (Endur­ing Inno­cence), Ruth Webb (Ekphra­sis, Imag­i­na­tion and Per­sua­sion in Ancient Rhetor­i­cal The­o­ry and Prac­tice), Sam Fuller (direc­tor’s com­men­tary in Tigrero: A Film That Was Nev­er Made), James Jere­mi­ah Slade, Veron­i­ca Velez Guz­man, Aaron Samuel Gold­stein, Chris Mark­er (The Sixth Sense of the Pen­ta­gon), Louis Sul­li­van (manip­u­lat­ed detail from A Sys­tem of Archi­tec­tur­al Orna­ment), George Oppen (“Of Being Numer­ous”), Fran­cis­co Varela (from the video What we see and what we do is not sep­a­rate), Samuel Beck­ett (How it is), Fil­ip­po Tom­ma­so Marinet­ti (The Futur­ist Cook­book), Nils Axen, Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll (A For­ay into the World of Humans and Ani­mals), Andrei Bely (Glos­so­lalia), Andrea Denise Gon­za­lez, Siob­han Meghan Lee, Mil­e­va Mar­ić, (The Love Let­ters), Lynn Peemoeller, Relicque Lucia Lott, Bruno Latour and Michel Ser­res (Con­ver­sa­tions on Sci­ence, Cul­ture, and Time), The Rab­bi Philip Rabi­nowitz Memo­r­i­al Eruv (http://​www​.kesh​er​.org/​e​r​u​v​.html)

video links


By Jonathan D. Solomon

Many of us enjoy the house of mir­rors,
and there is a cer­tain charm in the crooked streets of Boston.”

I took a walk through a city with a book. The city was Boston, and the book was Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City—that lit­tle blue text-as-city, that col­lec­tion of draw­ings of lines and cir­cles and stars and arrows and ques­tions and con­clu­sions about form and per­cep­tion and cities-as-texts. I had flown to Boston that after­noon and land­ed late, after the rush hour, after a rain, when the roads from Logan Air­port to Cam­bridge were emp­ty and the inter­changes, to my Mid­west­ern scales, so quaint and pre­cious. The bar in my hotel had closed, as bars in Mass­a­chu­setts do, so I walked out with the book in my hand, with the book in my head, across the Har­vard Bridge and into Back Bay per­pen­dic­u­lar­ly, and ori­ent­ing axi­al­ly (eschew­ing alleys) to Cop­ley Square, where there is a sign for the Mass Pike that reads New York ↓”; lines and cir­cles and hatch­es and stip­pling, a bro­ken bot­tle spread­ing ten­drils across a man­hole cov­er, on a cor­ner with a stone curb, where a weak and absent bound­ary once met a point of con­fu­sion, ref­er­enc­ing a bot­tom­less tow­er on my way to an out­side path, I began to expe­ri­ence shape ambiguity…

In fact I had anoth­er text in my head, Eric Ellingsen’s por­traits of X’s emp­ty,” a poem at the edge of the bound­ary of the path to the node where Kevin Lynch meets David Lynch, where Sit­u­a­tion­ist meets Mod­er­nol­o­gist, a text-as-city-obser­va­tion, an ear-in-the-grass dérive, a knot in a good way.”

Through­out the fall of 2015, while Ellingsen was Mitchell Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go, while he was com­plet­ing por­traits of X’s emp­ty,” he drank beer while wear­ing box­ing gloves; he built a dream machine; he lead a series walks in which par­tic­i­pants nav­i­gat­ed the city look­ing oblique­ly through mir­rors, con­cen­trat­ing on their blind spots, or hold­ing bub­bles of space at the extremes of their periph­er­al vision; he plant­ed gar­lic in gar­dens in the spaces between the city grid and express­way on-ramps; and, from his desk in the north­west cor­ner of the Sul­li­van Gal­leries, on the 7th floor of the Car­son, Pirie, & Scott Build­ing, at the 0 point of Chicago’s coor­di­nate grid, he plot­ted the city’s (de)centering.

Kevin Lynch as seen in the field, from the tun­nel entrance: the dis­tinc­tive ele­ments cohere only in our head. Coher­ence is in our heads; coher­ence is in, coher­ence, says Ellingsen:

in the pan­cake gradients.”

Lynch reminds us, The image of a giv­en real­i­ty may vary sig­nif­i­cant­ly between dif­fer­ent observers,” almost as if this were a prob­lem. Ellingsen rel­ish­es in the sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of per­cep­tion, and of lan­guage. To Ellingsen, cities are acts of trans­la­tion. Mov­ing in a city is an act of trans­la­tion. Mov­ing through a city, with lines of poet­ry in dif­fer­ent lan­guages, ask­ing peo­ple to trans­late them, is a form of map­ping. Maps are a form of poet­ry. Poet­ry is in act of urbanism.

Lynch had the right idea. We learn about the city by look­ing at it and draw­ing it, by talk­ing with peo­ple in it, by lis­ten­ing to those peo­ple; by learn­ing about the city, we become cit­i­zens, city mak­ers. How­ev­er, leg­i­bil­i­ty is bor­ing. Worse, in the city writ­ten leg­i­bly in form, no one got lost, no one had to ask direc­tions, no one thought they had to talk or lis­ten. In the spir­it of The Image of the City, Ellingsen’s por­traits of X’s emp­ty” reminds us that there is no writ­ing the city, no read­ing the city, with­out get­ting lost in trans­la­tions; col­lid­ed with what ever air err ears” to image the city, image in the city; imag­ine the city.


Eric Ellingsen is an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Land­scape Archi­tec­ture at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis. He start­ed Species of Space (SOS) in 2009. From 2009 – 2014, he was co-direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Spa­tial Exper­i­ments, a school start­ed by Ola­fur Elias­son and part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Arts, Berlin. He is cur­rent­ly work­ing with deans from the Art Acad­e­my and Uni­ver­si­ty of Ice­land to cre­ate alter­na­tive, hybrid, cross-dis­ci­pli­nary mod­els for MFA/​engineering pro­grams. Since 2015, he has also been work­ing with cura­tors at ART­box and a con­sor­tium of inter­na­tion­al agents, as well as the munic­i­pal­i­ty and may­or of Thes­sa­loni­ki, Greece, on a Per­ceiv­ing Acad­e­my. Ellingsen’s work focus­es on ped­a­gogy and land­scape archi­tec­ture as art forms. Through the design and chore­og­ra­phy of encoun­ters, pub­lic art instal­la­tions, walks, and per­for­mances, he seeks to con­struct alter­na­tive ways of per­ceiv­ing and using pub­lic spaces that empow­er com­mu­ni­ties and cit­i­zens as agents in the design and self-deter­mi­na­tion of their own spaces and lives. Ellingsen’s Urban Scores have been exhib­it­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly and pub­lished in dis­tin­guished writ­ing plat­forms such as Con­junc­tions, The Recluse, The Chica­go Review, PANK (edit­ed by Rox­anne Gay), and West­ern Human­i­ties Review (edit­ed by Craig Dworkin). Email: eric@​speciesofspace.​com

Jonathan D. Solomon is co-edi­tor of Forty-Five and Direc­tor of Archi­tec­ture, Inte­ri­or Archi­tec­ture, and Designed Objects at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. His writ­ings have appeared in a wide range of pub­li­ca­tions about archi­tec­ture and urban­ism, such as Log, The Avery Review, Foot­print (Delft), and Urban Chi­na (Bei­jing), and his draw­ings and ana­lyt­i­cal and coun­ter­fac­tu­al urban nar­ra­tives are fea­tured in Cities With­out Ground (ORO, 2012) and 13 Projects for the Sheri­dan Express­way (PAPress, 2004). Solomon curat­ed Work­shop­ping: an Amer­i­can Mod­el of Archi­tec­tur­al Prac­tice” in the US Pavil­ion at the 2010 Venice Archi­tec­ture Bien­nale and Out­side Design” at the Sul­li­van Gal­leries at the School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go. His inter­ests include extra-dis­ci­pli­nary, post-growth, and non-anthro­po­nor­ma­tive design futures. Solomon holds a BA in Urban Stud­ies from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and a MArch from Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. He has been a guest crit­ic at schools of archi­tec­ture world­wide and has been invit­ed to lec­ture and exhib­it in Asia, Europe, North and South Amer­i­ca and Aus­tralia. Solomon has taught design at the Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hong Kong, the City Col­lege of New York, and – as a Ban­ham Fel­low – at the Uni­ver­si­ty at Buf­fa­lo. He is a licensed archi­tect in the State of Illi­nois, and a Mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Archi­tects (AIA). Email: jdsolomon@​forty-​five.​com