The “architectural performance” Superpowers of Ten was performed in front of five sold-out audiences last weekend, packing the Tank, the newly renovated exhibition space on the first floor of the Chicago Athletic Association on Michigan Avenue. The performance was a narrated rendition of Powers of Ten and the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, Charles and Ray Eameses’ nine-minute-long film from 1977 that explored the distance from deep space to an atom found in the palm of a hand through linear jumps in space measured by increasing and decreasing powers of ten. The performance reframes this film to contain a more political message, using more than 50 homemade props and costumes to explore messages and societal details that lay outside the film’s apolitcal frame.
The performance, which originally debuted at the 2013 Lisbon Architecture Triennale, was created by the Office for Political Innovation, a Madrid-and-New York-based practice, directed by Andrés Jaque, that explores architecture’s roles in the making of societies.
Superpowers of Ten, like the original film, has an offscreen (or rather offstage) narrator and no dialogue. It’s split into three acts, the first serving as a straight translation of the original film while the two following speak to the unseen political and sociological issues tucked deep inside the Eames brothers’ film—the stories lost in the straightforward explanation of our solar system and its parts.
The performance touches on original narrator Philip Morrison’s ties to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, dissects the reasoning behind the several thousand of pounds of space trash that orbit the earth, analyzes the histories of mass production systems such as meat distribution, highlights the gender discrimination seen within the development of color photography, and finally discusses how architectural practices are attached to each of these movements.
Although most of the time I was quite confused (it might have helped to see the 1977 film before attending the performance and not after), each prop piece—notably a human-size papier-mache hand, a manual sausage machine that turned a prop pig into sausage, and a one-piece AstroTurf suit—was more imaginative than the last, with cheers erupting from the audience as each was carefully rolled onstage. A bizarre interpretation of the biennial, the performance was a refreshing take on architecture seen from a sociological perspective, through the lens of performance rather than through the scale models and static images of architecture.