On its own, the installation "Entropic Order" works beautifully. A pointed brass pendulum slowly forms intricate lattice patterns in a 12-by-16-foot pan containing 3,000 pounds of sparkling black sand. Driven by a motor and a programmed microcontroller board, the piece will dutifully carve a perfect, starry Islamic pattern. Until someone enters the gallery.
Then, "Entropic Order" goes haywire, and hastens the etching process. The speed causes the heavy pendulum to swing, deforming the lattice pattern into a messy version of the original.
But that's the way it's supposed to be; the piece is rigged with two motion sensors to watch for visitors. The more movement it detects, the more frantic it becomes, says Denver artist and University of Denver instructor Laleh Mehran.
"Entropic Order" investigates the way ideologies come apart in the real world; pure ideas may work well on paper, but fray when lives become involved. And there's no way around it, says Mehran, who created the work with help from fellow artist Chris Coleman. You can't hide from the sensors, and you can't help but to investigate the work by walking around it, exploring the shadows in the sand. You affect the work as you discover it.
"And even if you are not intentionally trying to participate in that dialogue," she says, "your presence alone does."
How we understand a space, or what we expect from a place — whether it's public or private, temporary or permanent, etc. — lies at the heart of Ways of Knowing, a two-gallery exhibition of which "Entropic Order" is a part. Using the Galleries of Contemporary Art's dual spaces, four artists have set up works that comment on "the ways in which we define and experience place."
Mehran and Rori Knudtson make up Ways of Knowing Part 1 at GOCA 121, which opened Oct. 7. At GOCA 1420, opening this week, photography by James Griffioen shares space with sculpture, photos and "ephemera" from past projects by Yumi Janairo Roth, who teaches art at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Mehran's work proves that in exploration comes aberration. Meanwhile, Roth's art forces discordance to question how we know a place or paradigm. She's created projects around shipping palettes adorned with luxurious details like inlaid mother of pearl and intricate carvings, and a roll of chain-link fence coated with sterling silver. We are familiar with all of these materials, and what they mean separately. But when joined together, the industrial with the precious, they make us uncomfortable.
"One sort of overarching interest I have is degrees of familiarity," Roth says.
For Ways of Knowing, Roth contributed items from two projects. One is Disco Barriers, a collection of piñata traffic cones, cement barrier slipcovers (made from satin and outfitted with bows) and wooden police barriers decked out with mirrors, à la disco balls. These "modifications of temporary objects in the public sphere," as Roth calls them, are meant to question and "recontextualize" our views on authority, control, glamour and fantasy.
In 2004, Roth enforced these ideas by setting up a traffic obstacle course in an open parking lot, complete with another set of piñata traffic cones, each filled with 30 pounds of butterscotch candy. The ultimate point was to juxtapose what we know about traffic cones (to avoid them) with what we know about piñatas (to hit them).
After rounding up a group of children at a safe distance, Roth barreled through the course, smashing the cones and spraying candy over the lot. "It was great fun," Roth recalls. "The promise of that amount of candy will get kids to listen to you."
For Meta Mapa, her other project, Roth and two of her students asked people in the Czech Republic town of Pilsen (where Roth was working as an artist in residence) to draw maps on her and her students' hands, instructing them toward a certain landmark. Roth then photographed the hand maps and went out again sometime later, asking different residents to interpret them.
Meta Mapa explored "ways in which we assume maps to be a certain kind of knowledge," Roth says. Since Roth and her students spoke no Czech, and few of the residents spoke English, everyone had to look to the map — which was "both familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously" — as a truly functional thing. When they did, she says, the directions worked.
Back at "Entropic Order," Mehran smooths the black sand — actually ground coal slag — once a week and resets the machine. Over the next seven days, it will continue to run, and leave a trail showing finely worked patterns giving way to more erratic lines made when viewers entered the room.
When asked about the title, Mehran explains that it's a paradoxical name, since she's interested in the definition of "entropic" as "a degree of disorder or randomness in a system." She says it's often a quantifiable amount, though in terms of measuring the randomness or error in people and ideologies, it's hardly that simple.
"It's about having the understanding that as much as you try, or you are sincere about these amazing ideals, it's just not going to happen that way."