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The Creators Series: Adam Barlev


I would describe my art as architectural origami, origami large enough to use as building material.

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1 . Tell us a little bit about you and Symmetry Group.

My name is Adam Barlev, I’m a PHD student in the SFU Chemistry department. The other Symmetry Group members are Peter Booth, a welder, Joseph Lunderville, a game programmer, and Tom Boothby, mathematician and programmer for the quantum computer company D-wave. My primary role in the group is as designer, but I use programming as a tool to design my art.

I was raised in the SF bay area, where burningman has had a profound influence on the culture. Even years before I had a chance to actually go, I was able to see many of the art installations that were destined for burningman at warehouse fundraiser parties. I knew from a young age that I wanted to have my art out there some day too.

My first piece in my current style was in 2011. That was the year I met Peter Booth, who was also making geometric art out of metal. We started working together and formed the Symmetry Group. We based much of our activity out of the Vancouver Hackspace. The Hackspace is where we met Joseph Lundervile, and I met Tom Boothby at SFU.

2 . How would you describe your art? What inspired you to create?

I would describe my art as architectural origami, origami large enough to use as building material. Obviously, origami is one of my biggest inspirations. At a young age, I received a copy of the book “Multidimensional Transformations,” by Tomoko Fuse. Origami is fundamentally a transformational art form. Origami takes a piece of paper and transforms it, without adding to it or taking anything away. There’s a certain purity to that.

That being said, the Symmetry Group art style is not pure origami. Our primary material is corrugated polypropylene sheet, an incredibly strong, light and cheap building material. A lasercutter is used to score creases on it, which then become living hinges. The precision and speed of a CNC lasercutter allows us to manufacture thousands of identical modules which we assemble into geometric shapes. The shape which we’re most strongly associated with is the dodecahedron, but we’ve made all the platonic solids using this method at one point or another. Our design incorporates mounting points for lights which are then controlled by open source boards like the Arduino rather than professional lighting boards.

3 . What are some of your favourite art projects that involved code? Why?

At burningman 2010, there was an installation called Syzygryd designed by Nicole Aptekar. The base was a fountain of cubes spraying out of one point in the ground. Each edge of the cubes was lit with LEDs. The cubes transitioned into three metal tubes that went overhead in three directions, each tube having several flamethrowers on it. The piece also had a sound element, music pulsing in time with the cubes and the jets of flame. Where each tube met the ground there was a touchscreen tablet interface, allowing participants to sequence the lights, flames or sounds. Mind you this was 2010, the iPad had just been released, and here was an interactive art installation with 3 touchscreen tablets as the interface. To call it impressive is an understatement.

4 . How did code help materialize your idea for these art projects?

When I realized we could build any shape made by connecting dodecahedrons face to face, I thought I would go to the library and find a book listing all the possibilities. I’ve looked very hard but there is no such book. If anything, we are writing that book, one installation at a time. I tried figuring out what combinations and orientations would work in my head, but I kept making mistakes. I started teaching myself Mathematica because it had built in functions for the polyhedrons we made, and I started using it to explore the space of objects made out of dodecahedrons. I ended up getting very deep into this, discovering huge patterns which I would never be able to build, but which had unexpected symmetry properties. For example, dodecahedrons, which have no right angles in them whatsoever, when arranged face to face in a certain pattern form the outline of a cube. Much of the code was written in the language of matrix transformations.

The other obvious place where we used code was to control LED lights. Most off the shelf ways to control LEDs assume they’ll be arranged in a rectangular grid. Our arrangements were anything but, with LED’s at corners of dodecahedrons. Joseph and Tom wrote programs which made patterns on the lights that took into account how the LEDs were actually positioned in 3D space and the order in which the lights were connected together. This was not a trivial task, and once again used matrix transformations of points in 3D space.

5 . What is your advice to other artists who want to get into creating these kinds of art installations?

Making art can be amazingly satisfying. Theres an immediate positive feedback when you look at something you’ve created and it looks great. But there are plenty of unglamorous moments. Making something look really cool means tons of hard work, and the people who see the finished product may not realize that. On the side of coding, there were quite a few setbacks along the way, dozens of times I started over from scratch because I encountered a problem I couldn’t solve that was preventing me from making a certain shape. All of these failures led to my ultimate success.

6 . Where have you showcased your art? Where can we see your art?

Currently the Symmetry Group has a piece in the Light exhibition at Science World, a window display at Puff on Commercial Drive, and in the community dance space Refuge in Portland Oregon. Our pieces have previously been to the electronic music festivals like Basscoast, Luminosity and Shamhala at the Grove stage, and obviously at Burningman.

written by: Lighthouse Labs