It’s not often that an artist’s work takes you to online physics forums, but this is Madeline Hollander we’re talking about—an artist deeply engaged with science and technology, along with everything else—and a few scientific facts furnish useful background to her latest work. Standing still, the average human body gives off 250 British thermal units (BTUs)1 of heat, or roughly the amount of energy needed to light up a 100-watt bulb. When exercising, humans radiate seven times hotter, around 1,800 BTUs, since we then burn calories and metabolize food more quickly. The extra energy has to go somewhere, and mostly comes out as sweaty heat. An air conditioning unit sized to cool a small room subtracts 8,000 BTUs of heat per hour. Its motor and compressor use energy to change refrigerant from liquid to gas, and somewhat miraculously, the entire system gives off about three times the cooling energy as the compressor uses.
Visual artist and choreographer Madeline Hollander’s New Max (2018) involves four air-conditioning units and four dancers. Humans and machines perform together in four- hour intervals every Saturday from 2–6pm for a six-week period. If we typically think of choreography as sequencing the movement of dancers’ bodies, in New Max choreography is more akin to an operating system: how dancers will move in relation to A/C units, overhead lights, temperature, and the coming and going of visitors. Like cybernetic and systems art of the past, Hollander’s work is concerned with the shared circuits between the living and the technological. It also alludes to system crisis in the age of the Anthropocene, in other words, our warming planet.
New Max is installed in the Artist’s Institute’s sunroom, using an adjacent gallery for exhaust. All of the objects in the work are infrastructural: hanging PVC strips, A/C units, temperature sensors, sandbags, as well as the room’s overhead fluorescent lights. As a system, New Max is an artwork organized around a series of temperature goals; various Fahrenheit readings are reached in cycles that become increasingly higher, hotter.
The starting temperature in the sunroom is 65 degrees Fahrenheit, museum standard for storing works of art. From this point forward, Hollander’s choreography dictates that, through a series of scripted movements whose byproduct is body heat, four human dancers must raise the room’s temperature to 85 degrees. This change takes place over a series of sixteen rounds, each with a new min and max temp. The goal of Round 1 is to get to 70 degrees, at which point the A/C units will turn on and cool the room to a new min of 66 degrees. Thus begins Round 2. So the pattern goes, like this, in 5-degree increments, all the way up to 85 degrees.2 Dancers can track their progress by the room’s lights, which are hooked to a temperature sensor and get brighter as the room heats up or dimmer as the room cools down. Once a max temp is reached, it’s lights out, A/C units on, dancers at rest. When a min is reached, it’s lights on, A/C units off, dancers in motion.
As in all of Hollander’s other work to date, the dancers’ choreography references or “cites” everyday physical activities. The references in New Max are all warming-related: frost-bite prevention techniques, boxing and baseball warmups, tropical storm patterns, boiling points, fusion, core-strength workouts, wind power generation, microwave rays. Hollander translates each reference into a basic expressive form, and then makes an overall sequence that is repeated as many times as needed to complete a round. A pair of boxers duking it out is followed by the whooshing rotation of a windmill is followed by bouncing molecules. The bouncing molecules happen to look a lot like the crossings of Samuel Beckett’s Quad—and in New Max, cultural and biologic signifiers often overlap, with cannily juxtaposed allusions aplenty if your reference bank is large enough.
New Max gives us art as something closer to a system-in-flux than a static object. Here a work works, in the scientific sense of the term, converting caloric energy to heat, compressing freon gas to cool air, and, as its own system, regulating machinic exhaust and bodily motion to regulate temperature. Undoubtedly, there is a lot to see—dancers in motion, humming A/C units, dimming or brightening lights, ventilation ducts, a PVC curtain—but these elements all work in concert to an invisible effect: the average kinetic energy of the random motion of particles within the room, otherwise known as
An essay by A.E. Benenson entitled ▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ accompanies New Max. It is printed on-demand with a direct thermal printer.
1. A British Thermal Unit (BTU) is the standard measurement of thermal energy. Specifically, it is the amount of energy needed, at sea level, to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water exactly 1 degree Fahrenheit.
2. See Project Notes