flash crash

installation view
dirt, radio controlled cars, construction materials, performance
dimensions: variable
2001

In this slide artist Nick De Pirro can be seen standing in front of the earthwork sculpture used in flash crash. The dirt for the piece was loaded into the gallery space and prepared using straw and glue. The conical shape of the piece was created by building an adobe structure, which peaked at a height of about 12 ft. A final coating of thin mud was applied to create a smooth surface, which was then allowed to crack as it dried.

Flash crash was a collaborative installation and performance involving a large conical dirt pit installed in a small gallery space. The pit was isolated by white walls on three sides, with the fourth side closed in with a with a four foot wall over which the entirety of the dirt construction could be viewed. The dirt cone itself was constructed from adobe mud bricks coated with a smooth surface of mud, which was allowed to crack as it dried naturally. This earthwork, which was a sculpture in its own right, was also a stage for a performance using 1/10-scale radio controlled cars. The earthwork was created in order to become a racetrack. During the opening reception, viewers were invited to purchase refreshments served by a hired hot dog vendor who was working in the space, and then squeeze into an adjoining room containing the dirt track. Some people were able to get a close-up view near the edge of the dirt arena, and others stood on wooden risers at the back of the crowd. My collaborator at the time, Ian Williams, and I, wearing dirty coveralls, walked into the space and climbed a ladder into a wooden loft directly above the crowd. A man in a tuxedo shirt and bow tie, who we referred to as Mr. Agnew the Chief Steward, followed us, carrying a pair of very fast electric racecars covered in gold leaf, much like a waiter carrying plates of gourmet food. The cars were switched on, and after their motors were revved above the heads of the onlookers, they were tossed onto the dirt. The cars were driven around the track at full speed to the thrill of the crowd.

Flash crash takes its name from a small image we discovered in a cartoon illustrated physics book. The tiny drawing, depicts an electron emitting a photon of light energy as it orbits a proton in a simplified atomic model. With the loss of this energy, the electron cannot maintain its position and descends toward the proton along a path that traces out the golden arc. The model cars race around the track as electrons, or as gold ions accelerated in a supercollider. Electrons, when studied using a cloud chamber, leave behind the traces of their paths as they orbit the atom's nucleus. As the cars release energy in the form of a race, they succumb to gravitational forces and descend to the bottom of the track, leaving traces of their paths in the dusty road surface. The racetrack sculpture becomes the cloud chamber that allows the comprehension of its own conceptual physics.

The atmosphere of the performance of flash crash is that of a race spectacle despite the underlying conceptual structures responsible for its form. The crowd assumes the postures of race fans, and all but abandons their initial art viewer schemas. They are now there to see dirt kick up from spinning tires, to enjoy hot dogs and bratwurst, and to see crashes and collisions. The races have no winner, they are revolutions on the track with no system to keep score or to determine success or failure. When the battery that powers each car is depleted, the race is over until new cars are placed on the track. As the performance continues the race becomes a stunt show. Cars ride higher on the dirt wall and eventually begin to ride across the white gallery walls, leaving streaks of rubber behind. This same stunt show spectacle can be found at skateboarding ramps and in a unique motor stunt form known as the wall of death. This stunt show is never a race, it is a circus like performance, a display of fearlessness, speed and virtuosity. Gravity is overcome by the energy of motion, held in balance by the stuntman.