Arduino, Processing
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Delineation & Decay – Laleh Mehran’s Entropic System

The recent resurgence of plotters is undeniably tied to a yearning for tangible media – and one can’t deny that the occasional minute stylus misfire or an idiosyncratic paper grain add a much-needed patina to digital drawings. Considerably expanding on these material concerns is Entropic System, a drawing machine that inscribes ornate geometric patterns into a bed of ‘black beauty’ sand. Made by the Denver-based media artist Laleh Mehran, the apparatus showed as part of the recent “Presence: Reflections on the Middle East” at MSU Denver’s Center for Visual Art. Beyond being designed to delineate crisp geometry, the device also has instability built-in to it – it creates a feedback loop wherein observers approaching to inspect the patterns impact its operation.

Evolving out of the earlier Entropic Order (2011), the newer work deploys an ornate stylus for performative inscription. There, a lathed top-like form was inspired by the minaret at the Masjid al-Ḥarām (aka the Great Mosque of Mecca); here, the kernel of the instrument’s form is more abstract. “The new pendulum design was inspired by basic geometric shapes and the complex curvature of ceilings found in many mosques,” write Mehran over email. “I’m interested in the idea of how two shapes – hexagons and pentagons – can create a different and stronger form with intuitively curved surfaces.” Another connection to the earlier piece is interactivity: a motion sensor detects when viewers approach and when they do the machine speeds up, causing the scripted demarcation to be interrupted (and marred) when the stylus begins to swing. Once it re-stabilizes it continues to inch along – taking thirty hours to trace out its path. Entropic System diverges from its predecessor by broadcasting a video feed of an overhead view of the stylus-in-motion.

As defined by its materiality as its mechanics, the device draws on black beauty sand a.k.a. coal slag (a popular industrial abrasive). “The fine grit is quite beautiful with glimmers of what looks like diamond dust. That it is a byproduct of a fossil fuel, both a creator of civilizations and a destroyer of lives, also drives the conversation.”

↑ Tool path: microcontroller, carefully calibrated Y-axis, and debug view of the draw path all contribute to Entropic System’s scripted precision

Entropic System’s stepper motor is controlled by Arduino, a Processing simulation of the draw path was invaluable for tuning the drawing – necessary considering the durational nature of its output – and Chris Coleman aided with related technical design and fabrication. “The overt presence of the machine speaks to systems that do not have or allow for the ability to question the core of their programming – they follow orders blindly,” says Mehran. “Most if not all frameworks operate this way, promising perfection, and repeatability while time, entropy, and human intervention disrupt and degrade the outputs.” Her statement for the work encapsulate it as symbolizing the politicization of ideologies. ‘Which ones and to what ends?,’ we ask. “Political systems, economic systems, belief systems … many ideas for organization start with good intention but over time complexity is added, complexity that inevitably benefits some over others.”

Laleh Mehran