Jan Svenungsson

"On Purpose", in: The Wind Tunnel Model: Transdisciplinary Encounters, ed. Florian Dombois, Scheidegger & Spiess 2017

I’m on a vast, grass-covered field. A light breeze in my back. I hold the soft handle of a 50-metre towline(1) in my hand and tense it. My friend raises the model airplane towards the wind. I give a signal, turn and start running against the wind. He lets the model go and it quickly rises at a 45-degree angle. I slow down as soon as I feel the right level of tension in the line. When the plane has reached a point straight above my head I hold it there, gauging its behaviour through the line while looking at it and our surroundings. Any birds upwind? Circling? Other starters? Obstacles? Anything going on?

I’m hunting thermal. Rising air.

I decide to make a circle. I pull the plane over my head in front of me and with a small jerk I relieve the tension in the line, at which point the model’s spring-loaded starting hook (onto which the towline’s 15-mm diameter metal ring is hitched) snaps back and sends an impulse to the model’s microcomputer, the ‘timer’, which steers the servos that operate the plane’s control surfaces during start. Servo 1 decreases the incidence value of the horizontal stabilizer slightly from 11.5 to 10.4(2), causing the plane to raise its nose imperceptibly; servo 2 moves the rudder at the back of the fin from its straight tow position of 21.0 to 48.0(3), which causes a sharp right turn; servo 3 changes the incidence of the right half of the wing from 24.0 to 66.0(4), aiding the model’s pivot by making the right half of the wing act as a brake as well as preventing a spiralling motion towards the ground.

The model turns sharply to the right. I hold the line slack. Depending on the atmospheric conditions of the given moment, combined with how I handle the towline (pulling, holding it loose, jerking in different ways) the circle will be tighter or wider. I keep my eyes on the model, constantly analyzing its behaviour: is there steady air? Is it rising or sinking? As the model completes its circle and turns towards me, I stretch the line taut again: the hook moves back to its former position. The servos return the control surfaces to straight tow settings. I may be standing still, simply using the wind’s resistance to bring the model back to a good position, or I may have to move to regain control. I may also want to move in order to reach a better position on the field. Where is the air that I need?

The manoeuvres described will usually be repeated a number of times before I feel confident that I have detected a thermal - that is: a bubble of air slightly warmer than its surroundings, which has begun to rise due to its lower density. This is where I want to launch my free flying glider model. This is where it belongs. Rising. Soaring.

When I have convinced myself I have good air, the launch needs to be preceded by one last circle during which I will ‘pull’ the model round at a lower altitude and on a taut towline. Moments after the plane has started to turn towards me, at about 7 o’clock (not yet in a straight position) at a height above ground of perhaps 20 metres, the hook now in its forward position, I start running as fast as I can - causing the model to accelerate rapidly. The tension in the towline rises immediately and at a load of about 7-8 kg, the timer instructs the servos to move control surfaces to ‘zoom position’, which puts the model in a modified straight tow attitude with maximised speed settings and a slight rightward tendency (servo 1 increases stabilizer incidence to 20.3; servo 2 puts rudder at 29.3 and servo 3 reduces right wing incidence to 23.0). The model, still on the line, is now speeding upwards in a centrifugal movement, thanks to me sprinting as fast as I can. As it reaches the sweet spot right above my head - the tension in the line now reaching 30 kg, its wings bent violently upwards, its speed around 40 m/sec - my body is fully engaged in the action. At exactly the right moment (I hope!), I open my right hand and let go of the line.

The complete drop in tension is registered by a pendulum mechanism in the hook, which immediately opens. The towline’s metal ring falls off. The plane is freed from the line. The timer registers release and sets a quick series of pre-programmed commands in action. Immediately all three servos make radical changes: servo 1 moves the stabilizer to incidence value 00.0, which makes the back of the model drop and pitches the front violently upwards; servo 2 moves the rudder left, to 12.0, which acts to stop the centrifugal motion of the zoom action; servo 3 reduces the right wing incidence to 21.0. Given its speed and the stabilizer’s setting, the model enters the first stage of a looping. However, after a little bit more than a tenth of a second - 00.12 seconds - servo 1 reverses the action of the stabilizer, moving it to incidence 33.4 instead, which in normal flight would cause a dive but which here acts to interrupt the looping action just as the model has reached a vertical position, which sets it racing straight upwards, until at 01.46 seconds - the model still pitched vertically but rapidly losing speed - the stabilizer is moved to 82.0, and an extreme diving manoeuvre occurs. The model now performs a ‘bunt’(5): it at once dips its nose, though more slowly as it has consumed its excess speed. It thus transitions to a horizontal position. When at 02.70 seconds the stabilizer is moved to the optimal gliding value of 24.5, normal glide flight begins and servo 1 will not move again unless or until the flight is aborted. Meanwhile, at 02.80 seconds, servo 2 moves the rudder to its gliding position, 27.0, causing the plane to make gentle curves; and at 02.82, servo 3 moves the right wing to 43.0, where it will stay. If all has gone well, the glider model has been catapulted to begin its flight at an altitude of about 100 metres, from its release at 50 metres. In the first 02.70 seconds after release, the model will have gained 50 metres of height or even more, before transitioning to glide flight in gentle circles at a speed of approximately 4.5 m/sec.

I’m in a hard-to-define space on the roof of an art university. I’m freezing: it’s a winter’s day. The room is lacking half a wall, it can’t be closed and is open to the elements. I’m watching a wind tunnel being demonstrated. In the rooms and halls and corridors below us, artists and teachers and students use electronic cards to access their studios and lecture rooms. All the rooms have windows to the endless corridors. Transparency is key. The environment is safe and efficient. The only exception to this model for a rationalized study space seems to be here on the roof, where this singularity has appeared: a wind tunnel surrounded by real wind often stronger than the artificial wind inside.

Central to the mastery of heavier-than-air human flight was understanding the role and science of airfoils. Each airplane wing cross-section consists of a curved shape designed to give the most favourable ratio of lift to drag in flight. This shape is called ‘airfoil’. In the 1860s, Francis Herbert Wenham had understood, based on his study of bird flight, that “the camber of a wing should not necessarily be uniform, an arc of a circle, but should be thicker at the front and trail off at the rear...” (Goldstone 2015: 52). In 1871 he built the first closed-system wind tunnel to further his studies. Yet it would still be decades before a more general understanding of aerodynamic principles replaced various misconceptions.

After Wilbur and Orville Wright’s disappointing experiences with their first glider at Kitty Hawk in 1901, they decided to build their own closed wind tunnel - likely after having read Wenham’s papers. Thanks to Wilbur’s genius for pragmatic conceptualization and Orville’s outstanding craftsmanship, their 2-metre-long wind tunnel was “the most sophisticated ever built” (Goldstone 2015: 53). They used it to test more than 200 airfoil shapes and configurations and concluded that the much-respected research of Otto Lilienthal, on which they had based their earlier designs, was full of errors. This realization allowed them to move forward and achieve their dream of powered flight two years later: “As famous as we became for our ‘Flyer’ and its system of control, it all would never have happened if we had not developed our own wind tunnel and derived our own correct aerodynamic data” (Orville Wright, quoted in Goldstone 2015: 54).

Entering its glide phase at around 100 metres, ideally my model will continue to gain height in the thermal, leisurely spiralling upwards. If it is not gaining height, at least I hope it will find some neutral air, where it will be able to consume its impressive starting height to make its glide flight endure as long as needed. What really matters is to not end up in sink. If I happen to launch in bad air...the flight might be very short indeed.

There is no such thing as perfectly still air. Air is always moving. When a thermal lifts, there will be sink nearby. Learning to be good at flying my model is all about developing my sensitivity to experiencing and judging the present moment. I have to be acutely mindful of the here and now. I must strive to become an ever more sophisticated reader of the ether. I have to sense the minutest changes in the atmosphere. My goal is to make my model soar. It means a lot to me - but not to any other.

In addition to their astute development of aerodynamic theory, the Wright brothers’ success depended significantly on their overall talent for making. Their pragmatic implementation of existing and development of new technology, through a process of trial and error, made possible the realization of what had until then been possible only in dreams.

In the visual arts at roughly the same time, the opposite tendency began to germinate: to disassociate the necessity of making from the fulfilment of the idea (the dream, the imagination). With his ready-mades, Marcel Duchamp began to use naming as a method, instead of making, in order to realize his work. In a retrospective interview with James Johnson Sweeney in 1946, Duchamp relates his activities of 30 years earlier and puts it this way: “I wanted to get away from the physical aspect of painting (...) I was interested in ideas - not merely in visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind” (Sweeney 1946: 19-21).

I first discovered the joy of making models soar as a youth, before I became obsessed by art and art making and gave everything else up for that promise. Before this, for a few years, I was completely focused on building and flying F1A(6) free flying glider models, constantly taking part in local competitions. It would take more than thirty years before I came by a flying event again. Apart from one momentous decision, the basic framework and rules had not been changed. Yet the introduction of new construction methods and electronic timers had completely revolutionized performance and starting techniques. Before, modest forms of catapult launches had been attempted, which could result in gains of - at the most - a few metres. Wings built of wood (balsa and pine) could withstand a maximum load during launch of 3-4 kg, which severely limited the potential for catapult acceleration(7). Built with carbon-fibre technique - still incorporating some balsa - the wing can withstand more than 30 kg. Spanning more than two metres, it still weighs only 200 g(8). And in the last decade, launch performance has been enhanced to an almost absurd point, thanks to the introduction and implementation of a new type of airfoil design (for free flight models), known as LDA(9).

Boris Groys wrote in 2005:
Art today is defined by an identification between creation and selection. At least since Marcel Duchamp, it has been the case that selecting an artwork is the same as creating an artwork. That, of course, does not mean that all art since then has become readymade art. It does mean, however, that the creative act has become the act of selecting. Since that time, producing an object is no longer sufficient for its producer to be considered an artist. One must also select the object one has made oneself and declare it an artwork. Accordingly, since Duchamp, there is no longer any difference between an object one produces oneself and one produced by someone else - both have to be selected in order to be considered artworks. Today, an author is someone who selects, who authorizes. The author has become a curator. The artist is primarily the curator of him- or herself, because he or she selects him- or herself. And he or she also selects others: other objects, other artists. (Groys 2005: 93-94)

To me, it seems clear that Marcel Duchamp created his ready-mades much more in the spirit of humorous play than as serious attempts to change art discourse - or even to make art at all. For us inhabitants of the information society, Duchamp’s self-curation and constant play on naming and defining have become the most influential model of making art. It can seem as if there is no longer any need to actually make things yourself.

Sometime in the 1980s, the rules for free flight aeromodelling were changed, releasing the competitor from the obligation to build his or her own model. Combined with the widespread adoption of high-tech building methods and electronic programming, this rule change has led most ambitious flyers of today to order their models from a small group of highly specialized flyer-makers in Russia, Ukraine and the Baltic states.

At the same time, in the visual arts, the practice of commissioning the actual production of art works from fabricants (or assistants) near or far has gone from a sometimes necessary evil to a badge of honour for ambitious artists. They are eager to prove their unlimited ability to scale up production in answer to the global market demand they hope for.

For the practitioners of F1A glider model flying, the removal of the obligation to ‘make’ has accentuated the emphasis on conceptualizing (i.e. programming and adjusting) and personal performance (physical as well as intellectual). The need to make sense of the atmosphere, however, remains the same. At the same time a technological arms race has occurred with ever more complex and expensive models, which has caused a dramatic decrease in the number of practitioners. Only experts and fanatics remain. They, on the other hand, feel rewarded by performance hitherto thought impossible in the real world.

In visual art, the adoption of unlimited scalability of production has led to a shift in emphasis at the stage of reception, from judging direct traces of the artist’s hand to admiring his or her ability to conjure up concepts and maintain production control. Whether looking at artists primarily focused on selling large numbers of products, or those presenting themselves as reliable developers of topical concepts, in both cases we can observe how the artist is no longer necessarily seen as a producer of rarefied and personal products - but as a purveyor of branded goods.

The wind tunnel on the roof doesn’t fit easily into any category. It’s too roughly built to function as an actual research instrument, yet it is not presented (not selected) as a symbolic object. It is neither branded, nor neatly tied to a specific theoretical discourse. Its purpose is not clearly stated, and this, I believe, is an important part of its raison d’être. The team responsible for its existence - a group of artists and academics active under the banner of ‘transdisciplinarity’ - have indeed built it all by themselves.

Some time ago, I attended an artist’s talk with Vija Celmins, whose obsessively handmade and Zen-like paintings and prints I have admired for a long time. I was curious to see the person behind the work and did not really know what to expect, yet Celmins surprised me with her attitude. She simply refused to be drawn into any sort of theoretical or philosophical speculation. At one point her interlocutor tried to coach her into saying something about her work’s relationship to the sublime. Celmins: “I don’t think about the sublime, no.” A little later, she was describing what makes her know a work is good: “You look at a work of art and you feel a little ‘boing’, a little surprise - or not”.

When I am out on the green field striving to optimize my model’s performance and my ability to read the atmosphere and fly it, “little surprises” are the last things I want to experience. My aim is the opposite: all my effort is directed towards the (impossible) goal of surprise-less perfection. After performing a successful catapult launch into the right air I experience no little “boing” but instead a sense of relief: “I did my best and what happened, happened just as it should.” This is the essence of sport: forever trying to eliminate mistakes and prepare for perfection.

In the half century that followed after the Wright Brothers’ wind tunnel, ever larger and more powerful constructions were built in order to support the astonishing development of flight and aerodynamics. Yet today, the development of dedicated mathematical theory(10) combined with the availability of vast computational power makes it possible to perform wind experiments virtually. Building wind tunnels may no longer be necessary for science. A practice of trial and error is giving way to speculative computation. More and more research today is migrating towards a fictional realm(11), in an incessant march towards more detailed and refined prognostication and interpolation based on boundless collections of data.

In art, concurrently, anything may be assigned a value, using the mechanisms of naming and selecting. Where do we see something akin to basic research in art today, when on the one hand the principles of the market (entertainment value, saleability, scalability, branding) and on the other the theorization (virtualization) of content-related matters (symbolic usefulness, verbalization, explanation, academization) influence all aspects of art production? When the artist’s making in so many instances is subsumed to somebody’s discursive construction and the Duchampian practices of naming, which allow retroactive adjustments to the work’s construction(12), not to mention the market’s all-encompassing appetite for branding? One response has been trying to merge art practice with forms of science and its claim to usefulness. Perhaps we might even see a shared interest in surprises come to the fore again?

Could the wind tunnel on the roof be seen as an act of resistance, a bold alternative to the de-emphasizing of making (it yourself) in art and science? During a presentation, I hear another visitor’s(13) reaction to it quoted: “Is it art? What else could it be!”

Your reaction to this statement will depend on where you come from and on where you want to go.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” (Beckett 1983: 7)

When we perform sport, we do it with an underlying wish to confirm ourselves to ourselves. We wish to perform to the best of our abilities within a chosen field, but not generally to extend it. Focusing on graspable challenges, for the promise of short-lived joy and honour, is a way to manage, guide and experience one’s existence, but not to question it. Making art, on the other hand, will (or do I need to say ‘should’?) involve looking to see oneself from the outside and ultimately to escape the self’s restrictions. It has been a truism that you make art to know yourself, but in reality you do it to know yourself as an other. “Je est un autre”(14), Arthur Rimbaud wrote in his famous ‘Seer’s letter’ to Paul Demeny(15), and then continued a little later: “J’assiste agrave l’éclosion de ma pensée.”(16)

I’m staring into the sky, focusing on the model which has continued to soar. During a flight in thermal the model might reach considerable height and drift far away downwind. Depending on the circumstances and the planned length of the flight, I will use my naked eyes or watch it through binoculars mounted on a tripod. No flight is similar to another, there is always an element of unpredictability, a risk that the model will fly out of the thermal, or conversely: that it will find thermal on its own when released in less than perfect air. One characteristic of a perfectly adjusted model is that it will hardly circle at all in neutral air, yet will begin tight circles of its own accord once it has detected a thermal. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

Studying my model’s unguided flight I deduce which way it is going, while also keeping an eye on the distance flown in relation to the size of the field. I don’t want to land in a tree, or worse. At a pre-set cut-off time, the timer springs into action and issues its final commands(17). The minute arm holding down the back end of the stabilizer - offset on a tiny wheel which has been executing its precise movements during start and launch - is flipped back by servo 1, so that the stabilizer, attached at its front to the fuselage’s aluminium holder with a rubber band, snaps up to a negative angle of 30 (real) degrees, held there by a thin string. 00.20 seconds later, servo 2 moves the rudder to value 80.0 and at 00.30 seconds, servo 3 puts the right half of the wing at incidence value 70.0. The plane stops flying completely and enters a slow spin to the ground. Light as it is in relation to its size, it will not be damaged on landing, as long as it doesn’t hit a stone or another hard object.

My binoculars feature a built-in compass. If the distance flown is long, I will note the bearing of where the model has come down and enter it into my handheld GPS. Additionally, I may use my small walkie-talkie as a scanner; it’s set to the frequency of the plane’s tiny radio beacon. I start walking briskly to retrieve the model. The distance from start to landing depends on wind and time flown. In still weather, there might be no distance at all; windy, it might be very far(18).

It’s a beautiful day with hardly any clouds. I have watched the model come down safely; it was a successful flight and I can relax for a moment and forget the competition I’m taking part in. I’m walking under the sky, a tiny speck on the surface of the planet. I’m alone. My thoughts are in the here and now: my eyes looking to spot the plane as a disruption in the repetitive vegetation. Right now that’s all there is, and it is good. There is no need to select anything. Just find the model. Here: on Earth, beneath the heavens.

Look, there is something, over by the small bushes! A fleeting glint of something white and red has caught my eye. I walk nearer...where was it now?...yes, there it is. I have found my model.

Now return. Start again. Not fail. Win. Win again. Please.

Jan Svenungsson

Beckett, Samuel, 1983, Worstward Ho. London: John Calder.
Bognolo, Claudio, 2011, ‘F1A 3D Analysis with XFLR5’ in NFFS Symposium Report, published by Free Flight News.
Goldstone, Lawrence, 2015, Birdmen. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Groys, Boris, 2005, ‘Multiple Authorship’ in Vanderlinden, Barbara, and Elena Filipovic (eds.), The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Art, Exhibitions and Biennials in Post-Wall Europe. Cambridge: MIT Press: 93-100.
Sweeney, James Johnson, 1946, ‘Eleven Europeans in America’ in The Museum of Modern Art Bulletin 13: 19-21.