At RISD: 2x4s, tape, and 'Co-Habitation'

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By MARION DAVIS  |  February 9, 2011


In photographs, it looks like a giant spider web. But up close, it's shiny and transparent under the golden light. It's big enough for a person to climb into and crawl through — or you can poke your head in from a hole underneath or on the sides.

As you touch it, it crackles like a thick plastic bag. In a few spots, the material will stick to your clothes.

At that point, if you hadn't figured it out, you'll know. You're inside a sculpture made almost entirely of packing tape: more than 70 rolls, woven together into a web held up by a frame of 2x4s.

It's called "Co-Habitation," and it was created by five Rhode Island School of Design students in response to a challenge from the gallery coordinators in the school's Bayard Ewing Building.

Typically, the BEB gallery hosts displays by renowned professional architects. But right now it's Wintersession, an in-between term at RISD when students are encouraged to experiment, collaborate, and venture beyond their own fields.

In that spirit, the students who run the gallery decided to launch a competition for an original, cross-disciplinary project that would fill the whole space and explore the concept of habitation: How do we experience a place? How do we interact with it? How do we leave our mark?

Luna Chen, a sophomore in the architecture program, came up with the spider web-like concept, and classmates Giles Holt and Sonny Lee, first-year graduate student Carlos Arnoldo Gamez, and industrial design sophomore Fernando Diaz-Smith developed it with her.

Their written proposal is both metaphysical and humorously practical: "The materiality of inhabitation usually remains ethereal, historic, or forgotten after a space is no longer inhabited," they wrote. "If recorded, the complex actions and interactions of habitation would weave a dense net through the spaces we live in. Our project imagines a world in which our actions leave a physical yet ethereal presence behind them."

Then they explained the logistics: they'd build around the columns in the gallery; they'd need 16 2x4s to frame it, and (well, they underestimated) 30 rolls of clear tape. They had rough sketches of the structure, but they knew much of it would evolve spontaneously.

The frame went up in a few hours, along with some basic structural elements — tape wrapped tightly to make strong ropes that intersect the piece. Then, over the course of about a week-and-a-half, they came in at night and wove their web, creating two tunnels in the middle where they layered so much tape that the surface is thick and sturdy enough to hold a person.

"It's not a very strong material, but when you start getting more and more of it, it distributes the weight very well," says Holt. Not that he's actually dared to climb in all the way — though Chen, who's petite, goes through with ease.

On opening night, gallery coordinator Nathalie Jolivert, a senior, was among the first of many guests to venture inside. She had her doubts, but she's even smaller than Chen. And when she tried it, she says, "it was fun — it was actually very cool."

For the not-so-tiny, of course, there are other ways to explore: gaps just big enough to squeeze in and poke your head in, feel what it's like to be enmeshed in the web, hear the crackling.

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  Topics: This Just In , Museums, Rhode Island School of Design, Giles Holt,  More more >
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 See all articles by: MARION DAVIS