Exploring Systemic with the Urbanauts

This post was written in collaboration wtih Jasmin Bode.

In plain sight or behind closed doors, in basements, or beneath manhole covers, lurk the myriad systems that support city life—drains, running water, sewage treatment, and fire-suppression, to name just a few. The Urbanauts, current de Young Artist Fellows Sean Orlando and Rebar, have tasked themselves with the exploration of this infrastructure and its relationship to the everyday experience of the contemporary city. Their investigations began last October and now—during the second phase of their fellowship—they present Systemic, an installation on view in the de Young’s Kimball Education Gallery that will evolve throughout the month of June. We recently spoke with the Urbanauts about their project.

Urbanauts mapping urban exploration

Photo by Adrian Arias

How did you convert your fascination with urban exploration into the concept for the current Urbanauts project?

Sean Orlando (SO): We wanted to share some of the sense of wonder and excitement that we've felt when walking through the woods in search of ruins or wading through a water drainage tunnel 50 feet below the surface. We are compelled by the hidden, the mysterious, and the unknown.

Matthew Passmore (MP), project lead for Rebar: It is revelatory to experience the scale and material of what is required to support our urban ecosystem. There are enormous and powerful forces at work under the city. There may be dragons.

Describe Urbanauts and how it is developing Systemic.

MP: Urbanauts is, fundamentally, a project about exploration—an exploration of hidden infrastructure as well as an exploration of the creative process. We began the project by mapping and cataloging unseen infrastructure, examining the structures that lurk behind closed doors and underground.

Urbanauts mapping urban exploration

Photo by Adrian Arias

Now, with Systemic, we are exploring the expressive and aesthetic capabilities of an essentially functional infrastructural system—the system of pipes and fittings that are designed to solve problems or efficiently transport resources through a building or an environment. These pipes are about as Bauhaus as you can get—form not only follows function, function actually guides the form. So what happens when we decouple form from function? What is the range of expression we can create with these pipes? What aesthetic moments and social spaces can be realized when we free ourselves from the restraints of functionality?

Creating Systemic

Photo courtesty FAMSF

What led you to investigating infrastructure and the role it plays in our daily lives?

SO: I have always had a genuine interest in how things work—what makes things tick. I used to dismantle all kinds of household appliances when I was a kid in order to understand what made them work. It drove my mother crazy. When I was at UC Berkeley, I started to notice giant pipes and valves sticking out of the ground or protruding out of the side of a building in the strangest places. I had never noticed them before, but now everywhere I looked, I started to notice these mysterious industrial (and sometimes quite beautiful) artifacts integrated into and camouflaged within our built environment.

Pipes as they appear in the outside world

Photo by Adrian Arias

MP: I have a long-standing interest in the relationship between urban forms and materials and the experiences they engender. This is what the Situationists called "psychogeography," or the effect of the built environment on the emotional state of those experiencing the city. What does it mean that the structures that move our resources through the city are largely out of view? How does this void in our experience of the city inform our patterns of resource consumption and guide our behavior in general?

How will you integrate the concepts you are proposing in Systemic into the final phase of the Urbanauts project?

MP: Only time will tell. We intentionally crafted the entire Urbanauts project as an experimental and emergent creative exercise. Stay tuned!

Systemic grows and evolves as it is installed in the Kimball Education gallery

Photo courtesy FAMSF

The Urbanauts will be in residence in the de Young’s Kimball Education Gallery through June 30, Wednesdays-Sundays, 1—5 p.m. plus Friday Nights until 8:45 p.m, where visitors can view the growing structure in the artist studio or create an infrastructure-inspired sculpture of their own. Celebrate the completion of phase two at the artist reception on June 28, 6—8:45 p.m.

Working with their collaborating organization, Black Rock Arts Foundation, Urbanauts will reconfigure the Systemic installation as temporary site-specific public artworks around the city. Continue exploring this project on the Urbanauts website.