The Aesthetics of Modelling: patterns, politics and pleasure in visual representations 
Mikkel Kenni Bruun (University of Cambridge)
Alice Pearson (University of Cambridge)
SOAS Senate House - S209
Saturday 2 June, 9:00-10:30, 11:00-12:30 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

Models are visual representations with vast material effects. This panel considers their consequences by asking what is aesthetically compelling in the practice of modelling, and by situating models in conversation with patterns, politics and pleasure in the anthropology of art and science.

Long Abstract

The practice of modelling shapes realities. From envisioning networks in big data, graphs in economics, diagrams in psychology, biomedical mapping, and global systems analyses in climate change to shipping supply chains, modelling is a practice of crafting visual representations that produces vast material effects. 

This panel will consider what is aesthetically compelling about this process, to decipher what becomes (un)desirable about certain social arrangements through their visual representation. The efficacy of models will be explored by asking questions such as: how do qualities such as friction, disruption, and flow become enticing or unappealing through the aesthetic qualities they acquire in the act of modelling? What notions of beauty are entailed in their colour, shape, and scale? How is meaning articulated in depictions of dimensions, intensity, and magnitude? The panel will approach these issues ethnographically while seeking insights from the artistic, cartographic and topographic technologies that shape the practices of modelling. It will explore experiences of these processes, from the satisfying to the monotonous, and examine how mastery of the craft of modelling establishes expertise in its associated disciplines.

Many such practices draw their authority from claims to objectivity and rational scientific process, often producing visual representations that pertain to be absent of particular political intention, but which are central to policy-making on an array of issues. While this claim differs significantly to that of some artistic endeavours, this panel will also seek to draw insights into the efficacy of modelling by situating the practice in conversation with discussions on the intersection of politics, science and art.

Accepted papers:


Charlie Stiven (Edinburgh College of Art)

Paper short abstract:

A presentation on my work in 3D model making of real & imagined spaces which act as metaphorical representations of aspects of our lives. I aim to take the perception of model making beyond the propositional or recreational and instead propose it as a potent means of contemporary art practice.

Paper long abstract:

The model…

"A representation, generally in miniature, to show the construction of something."

"To simulate..(a process, concept or system)".

"The manifestation of a conceptual representation of a phenomenon".

"Something that represents another thing".

My current studio practice centres on the construction of highly crafted, composite models derived from the form, function & condition of vernacular European 'functional' architecture - industrial units, street kiosks and the like. I see these low tech, small scale transient structures as being representative of a broad range of social, economic & political points of tension existent today, their design, detailing and concentrated craft intended to evoke an intensity of atmospheric which resonates with the pulse of contemporary cultural flux.

The intellectual, emotional, tactile and visual factors inherent in the making of these models matches the depth of consideration given to the broader socio/political circumstances which prompt their construction, thus creating a synergy between idea, materiality & process, and a linkage between the 'micro' resonance of the model and 'macro' aspects of the human condition.

To date, work in this ongoing project have been exhibited in Belgrade, Gdansk, London & Edinburgh, and has formed the basis of conference papers delivered at 'Politics & Performance', Green Park, Athens, and 'Reading Architecture', Stirling University.

My interest in the dynamics & potential of model making has also led to my instigation of 'The Model - Making & Meaning' undergraduate B.A. course at Edinburgh College of Art.


Jo Ray (Sheffield Hallam University)

Paper short abstract:

Through a series of art works responding to sites of enthusiast modelling, this paper explores processes of improvisation and emulation in the fabrication, display, dormancy and adaptation of models, considering the possible critical potential of the model re-activated beyond its original purpose.

Paper long abstract:

Modelling is a practice deeply connected to the formulation and communication of our dreams about the past and the future, generating tangible expressions of possibilities. As notions of the Future, and the arc of progress associated with Modernity arguably no longer hold, what now is the role of such practices? The context of amateur and enthusiast model making offers a distinct insight into personal interpretations, hopes and projections, in that the model is created primarily for the satisfaction of its maker.

What can be learned from a contemporary reading of such under-represented practices? How can a responsive art practice articulate the role of the model (as object) and the processes of modelling as spaces of knowledge production and critical potential?

A series of art works take existing models or sites of modelling as a starting point; from a participatory work in which engineers, academics, and the researchers parents interpret of instructions for an Egg shell made into a 'Working Model of Submarine' (source: Every Woman's Encyclopaedia, 1910) to audio visual works made during a residency at a Model Rail Enthusiasts Club. This paper reflects on insights generated through these works, exploring modes of activation present in the life-cycle of the model; processes of emulation, improvisation, fabrication, display, and re-activation are examined as means of knowledge generation or critique. Svetlana Boym's notion of the 'Off Modern' provides a particular point of orientation for considering the possible critical potential of the model re-activated beyond its original intended use, or audience.


Michael Hieslmair (Tracing Spaces)
Michael Zinganel (Tracing Spaces)

Paper short abstract:

In context of our artistic and research projects on patterns of mobility and migration we develop models as 3 dimensional cartographies understood as "deep maps", partly in a participatory manner. They work as interfaces for triggering conversations on site and for the dissemination of findings.

Paper long abstract:

In contrast to data mining our 3d models are based on qualitative research conducted on site and - in best case - exhibited at the very same site:

Our installation "EXIT St. Pankraz. A motorway service area as a transnational hub of migration routes", developed in the context of an art in public space festival in Austria, was placed directly on the large parking lot. On the macro political level the 40m by 20m large 3d-model represents an abstract cartography of 12 individuals paths who frequented this spot for very different reasons. It consisted of a wooden frame and board construction, travel destination names mounted as oversized letterings to the sides. Juxtaposing the rather abstract bird view network-diagram (following e.g. Beck's London Tube design) on each path a loudspeaker was mounted, displaying on a micro-political level the experience (of political changes) of 12 individuals in short audio-tracks (a.o. German-Turkish ‚guest worker' family, lavatory attendant, local fitter).

The positioning, its significant design, the compelling aesthetics and basic usability attracted a wide spectrum of visitors. Triggered by the installation visitors got more and more talkative. But due to the logic of an art festival we had to leave soon after the opening. When we later were invited for a similar project in Germany, we understood already the setup itself as tool for conversations and research, being able to simultaneously react on new inputs, by adding, cutting and extending paths to our on-site 3d model.



Chuan Hao Chen (University of Pennsylvania)

Paper short abstract:

Following the creative process of a group of designers at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology, this paper demonstrates how various types of models and modeling processes negotiate between disparate stakeholders' desires and the production of an aesthetically compelling exhibit.

Paper long abstract:

A critical part of the designer's repertoire, models exceed visual representation to intervene in the creative process. As design anthropologists observe, modelling is a style of thinking where material engagement pushes back upon the human hand in the pursuit of idealistic dreams. Concurrently, designers work in and for social realities where their aesthetic production have political stakes. How do models help designers negotiate realities of stakeholder demands as they create new worlds? Following the practices of exhibition designers at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, this paper explores the myriad ways in which models interface and construct dreams and reality. The process of creating "The Golden Age of Midas" exhibit in 2016 provides a productive entrée into the unique challenges facing an anthropological museum dedicated to public education and knowledge production. From negotiating politically sensitive loans of archaeological artifacts to prototyping "Blockbuster" shows that draw viewers into a Museum of the 21st century, this paper traces the various contexts in which designers use different models to solve problems and define aesthetic standards. Models emerge as replicas of archaeological sites, mockups of exhibition rooms, and projections of historical fantasies. In these roles, they index and manage competing desires. Budget, time, scholarly validity, and legibility are but a few variables that exhibition designers must consider beyond finding the right color or testing innovative media. In this context, designers use modelling to iteratively test the cultural and aesthetic production of archaeological exhibitions, to see what is beautiful for whom.


Dominik Hoehn (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Based on on-going fieldwork with architectural practitioners in Copenhagen, Denmark, this paper discusses models in architecture. As architecture continues to change, becoming less and less the domain of one discipline or profession, it examines how architects attempt to re-model architecture.

Paper long abstract:

Existing anthropological scholarship on architecture has stressed the role of physical or digital models (e.g. Yaneva 2005) in the design process, enabling processes of scaling that bring about buildings. Such models are only briefly discussed here. Instead, this paper situates models for practising architecture in a discussion on aesthetics. According to what models should architectural projects be conceived, drawn and built?

In the move from speculative architectures to the 'built environment', architecture typically becomes, and means, business, with a variety of professions and specialists sharing in. However, the primacy of economic models with a narrow focus on construction costs can, at worst as some architects lament, lead to a loss of architectural control over designs and reduced architectural quality. How architectural projects are modelled in this process, and by whom, - e.g. as images, texts, physical models or spreadsheets - is considered to have lasting impacts on both how the project is seen in the design and construction phase; and also, once built, how its aesthetic qualities - how it is perceived, experienced and lived in - are judged and met. It is discussed here, based on fieldwork with architects keen to reshape their profession, how giving form to architectural qualities in this business equates to in/forming design rhetoric and practice with models, tools and information that are, or aspire to be, measurable, research-based, or broadly termed scientific.

Thus, this paper situates practices of modelling in a broader discussion on the aesthetics of persuasion.


Alice Pearson (University of Cambridge)

Paper short abstract:

Based on ethnography of undergraduate economics education, this paper will consider the implications of aesthetic aspects of modelling processes for the authority of markets in economics.

Paper long abstract:

Modelling is central to the practice of neoclassical economics. Based on long-term ethnography of undergraduate economics education, this paper explores the aesthetic aspects of this process.

The models of undergraduate degrees are striking for several features, including their similarity. Analyses undertaken of a range of contexts are often based on diagrams with markedly repetitive visual features, with dynamics of the consumer and firm mirroring one another in largely identical images. Axiomatic assumptions regarding the representative agent enable both legibility of dimensions and sensorial qualities including simplicity and smoothness in these images, which contribute to notions of a what is often referred to as a models' "niceness". This paper will explore the proliferation of specific pictures that contribute to certain analyses becoming compelling in diverse contexts.