On Sunday night, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, a small group of believers gathered to witness the creation (and subsequent destruction) of the universe. After two cycles of the cosmos returning to nothingness (which took approximately 45 minutes) the crowd chatted and dispersed. Some visitors gently walked on the remaining (though temporary) universe, the silver “stars” hard underfoot.
Drafting Universes is a performance piece created by artist Sara Schnadt. The performance was the inaugural show of Adjunct Positions, an artist space housed inside a residential garage, in collaboration with Craftswomen House Temporary Residence, a project which organizes feminist, site-specific installations in domestic settings.
In our cultural imagination, the garage (and before it the garden shed, the attic, or the basement) is the home of inventors and eccentrics, tinkering away on something obsessively and repetitively, often at the expense of family obligations. Though the home laboratory is the location of the amateur, it is also the incubator of potential innovation (think Jobs and Wozniak circa 1976). Like the artist who is considered a feckless dreamer until she writes a bestseller, the inventor may go from crazy to brilliant in one ecstatic moment of discovery.
Schnadt’s performance explores this space where repetitive action and unsophisticated equipment may lead to revelation. Here, the earnest explorer is a woman with a broom, a measuring cup, some shiny pieces of metal, and a knack for installing mirrors. She creates her universes through a tedious and simple process: standing on a black floor surrounded on three sides by mirrors, she picks up a cup of metal nuts, walks to a spot on the floor and tosses the nuts into the air. She repeats this activity until the universe feels complete—about 10 to 15 times—at which point she puts down the measuring cup and gently perfects areas with her hands. Once completed, Schnadt documents the universe from a number of different angles, then sweeps it clean and starts over.
As a spectator, it is a pleasure to watch the artist in action: Schnadt’s sense of timing, control, and composure all reveal her early training in dance, and the mirrored walls heighten the sense of choreography as the artist sweeps in sync with her own personal team of cosmic cleaners. Within the limiting boundaries that the artist has created for herself there is still chance and freedom as the nuts fall differently each time. Transforming from dancer to painter, Schnadt carefully examines the end product and makes slight adjustments of density and composition to the swirling galaxies at her feet. The resulting installations are visually simple but compelling.
In this installation, science is handled crudely, aiming not to increase our knowledge about the actual rate of expansion of the universe or the number of stars in the Milky Way, but to give us a chance to contemplate the limits of our knowledge, the process of discovery, and the pleasure of looking at the night sky. The stars (when one can actually see them, a rarity in Los Angeles) are a reminder of our own smallness. To take on the creation of the universe in a garage is a gesture towards our self-importance but also an activity in perspective. To then sweep that universe away is a nod to our impermanence…and a reminder that one is definitely not supposed to sit around making universes all day long.
Schnadt’s piece is both gently laughing at our grandiose ambitions and quite seriously considering the potential for something moving and marvelous to take place in a studio, a laboratory, or wherever focused and curious individuals chose to get lost in their work.