Payne's Technology Seminar


M.Arch. Ii student and AN contributor Johathan Louie blogs on Jason Payne's Technology Seminar 


Technology Seminar
The Economy of Atmosphere led by Assistant Professor Jason Payne

There may be no other architectural object simultaneously so powerful in effect yet so dismissed by our discourse than the disco ball. In terms of effective “bang for the buck” - an increasingly vital criterion by which to judge design value in these difficult economic times - nothing else compares. Think about it: a sphere as small as a basketball covered in cheap mirrored glass tiles hung from a ceiling can throw off an amount of optical effects sufficient to drive a dance floor into a frenzy. Not to mention its more diffusive power to turn the course of popular taste from folksy trips through dropout hippy fantasy (or its darker flip-side, the heavy slog through a metallic wasteland) toward something clearly brighter and more productive. Whether you liked it or not, you have to admit that disco’s sweet light eclipsed all else for a few short years and, more importantly, has helped spawn a variety of new genres and sub-genres to this day. And at the center of it all, the disco ball.
Objects and Their Associations
Is it possible for an object with such distinct and established identity to blur its own associations toward novel readings? That is one question this project would ask. With this project we take up the problem of the floating signifier, or the capacity for certain objects to carry different significations for various viewers. This is not a new problem for architecture or the arts, of course, but it is one that we feel has renewed potential for a discourse increasingly engaged in the pursuit of spectacle. What does it mean for a thing to be looked at? Should it always produce the same effect, or might it be more interesting (valuable, provocative, etc.) if a thing could produce a plurality of interpretations? We think the latter but first things first. In order to create a multivalent object one must first master the play of established associations and objects and what better exercise than to dislodge associations so singular and obstinate as those of the disco ball? Stated more simply, wouldn’t it be interesting to create a disco ball that somehow did not convey the imagery, ethics, and emotion of disco?
The Ambivalence of Some Objects
As we know, some objects are not as well-defined as others in relation to established cultural perception. Mars and its moon Phobos, for example, are two objects useful to compare relative to their attendant associations. Each of the two heavenly bodies is morphologically as exact as the other, and yet we “know” far more about Mars than we do Phobos. It is true that we have looked at Mars more closely than we have Phobos, but this increased attention is not all there is to it. If we are honest we will admit that Mars has certain qualities we understand to be more certain, and more univalent, than those of Phobos. Its color, red, for example, seems more singular than the more ambiguous gray of Phobos. Its shape, too, the sphere, we think we know as well, whereas the less-perfect quasi-sphere of Phobos seems difficult, resistant.
The creation of an object that floats across signification might begin with the replacement of entrenched signifiers (red, sphere) with more obscure qualities that lend themselves to difficult, perhaps multiple readings. This project, then, aims to disrupt the disco ball’s cultural familiarity without damaging its performative capacity to push optical effects through space. In the same way we have just enough information to know Phobos is a planetoid but not enough to know what kind it is, our object will be just enough disco ball to be seen as such but not nearly enough to conjure the expected soundtrack.