Wendy Jacob, assistant professor of visual arts in the Department of Architecture, discussed her work collaborating with HaHa, a four-person group based in Chicago, and with Temple Grandin, an autistic woman and animal scientist, at a February 12 arts colloquium.
In Boston and at MIT, Professor Jacob is best known for Squeeze Chair, created in collaboration with Dr. Grandin. Squeeze Chair looks like an overstuffed armchair with two fat wings to embrace the sitter at shoulder height. The work was exhibited at MIT's List Visual Arts Center in early 1998.
"Our work is rooted in architecture and domestic space. We work with the dialogue between the inhabitants of a space and their architectural background," Professor Jacob said.
Describing that dialogue as a "courtship," she showed slides of works by HaHa in which sleek white gallery walls or internal pillars, for example, were made to live and breathe, altering visitors' responses to the space.
The breathing walls, she explained, are created by attaching a sheet-like airbag to the gallery wall and covering that with a sleek white rubber membrane. The airbag is designed to inflate and deflate on a four- or five-minute cycle; it is powered by an unseen motor whose sound, Professor Jacob said, enhances the effect produced by the gently breathing walls.
Another version of HaHa's breathing wall piece is one in which rosettes, an architectural detail that resembles something out of a mammography manual, are placed at eye level and electrically warmed. "That's a sexy piece. People put their hands on it and get embarrassed," Professor Jacob said.
In a scene more sad than sexy, piles of navy blue blankets were placed on gallery floors like so many sleeping homeless people. For this piece, Ms. Jacobs had her own breathing patterns recorded in a sleep lab and then replicated. The blanket piles rise and fall, sigh and snort. By isolating the human breath this way, HaHa teases out our awareness -- or denial -- of lives in the city.
Professor Jacob described other HaHa projects, including a three-story coin drop installed in a museum in Cologne, Germany; a pink foam elbow rest combined with 96 five-minute audio tapes of people describing their work day in San Francisco; a decorative (but not dangerous) use of explosives in a Chicago armory; a documentary video of elderly residents in a hotel in Santa Barbara, CA, and an enormous blimp, covered in cheap pink lipstick, designed to "kiss" the pristine interior walls of a new French mall.
Professor Jacob's work with Temple Grandin began with a visit to Dr. Grandin's original squeeze chair, which resembled a piece of farm machinery despite its cozy intent. The two women collaborate now in developing furniture that squeezes or 'hugs' the sitter.
Dr. Grandin, said Professor Jacob, works as an activist on behalf of animals, using the same "squeeze" technique that eases some symptoms of her own autism. Today some animals en route to slaughterhouses are herded along curved pathways -- "squeeze chutes" -- designed by Dr. Grandin.
The two women are now working to develop a "squeeze chaise." Their hugely cozy prototype, known as "Red," is covered in red velvet mohair.
"We're now in the process of making the chair more widely acessible. The art market is expensive and rarified. Parents of autistic children are interested," Ms. Jacob said.
Professor Jacob has exhibited internationally at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Whitney Biennial and the Galerie Emmanuel Perotin in Paris.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 28, 2001.