Wendy Jacob

Wendy Jacob discusses her current exhibition at the Radcliffe Institute

View of “Calm. Smoke rises vertically,” 2016. Photo: Kevin Grady.

For more than two decades, Wendy Jacob has been steadily building a practice that manages to intertwine ideas of care, architecture, and transgression. From her days as a cofounder of Haha, the collective that contributed Flood, 1992–95, a hydroponic garden, to Mary Jane Jacob’s Culture in Action project in Chicago, to her collaboration with animal scientist Temple Grandin in the early ’90s on an armchair that would gently squeeze users, Jacob has continually looked beyond conventional structures. For her current exhibition at the Radcliffe Institute’s Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Jacob has unearthed models of architectural landmarks both real—such as the United States Capitol building—and fictional—the Tower of Babel—that were made as learning aids for the blind in the ’30s and ’40s. The show is on view through January 14, 2017.

WHEN I WAS INVITED to do a show at the Radcliffe Institute, I was thinking, What can I do at Radcliffe that I can’t do somewhere else? A number of years earlier, I had toured the Perkins School for the Blind, in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts. The basement of the main building looked like an eighteenth-century cabinet of curiosities. There was a shark on the wall, a taxidermied bear, and then there were these models of buildings including the Parthenon, Tower of Babel, and a Catholic church. To have the Parthenon next to a shark was both unexpected and marvelous. When I learned that Radcliffe was Helen Keller’s alma mater, I thought back to my visit to Perkins, because Keller had been a student there too. I thought, This is my chance to do something with that collection.

I discovered that the models had been commissioned in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA, of course, mobilized thousands of workers to build bridges and roads, but they also hired craftsmen to create models of buildings for the blind. Through touch, blind students could apprehend the scale and proportion of a skyscraper, for example—they could “see” it with their fingertips. The same project also produced plywood cutouts of trees: oak, maple, ash, and poplar. Without sight, it’s hard to understand proportion and scale, especially of something as big as a tree or building.

Perkins wasn’t the only school that had these models. The Ohio State School for the Blind had a pretty good collection too. So I went to Columbus and found all these amazing models—again in a basement. This time the basement happened to also be an old bowling alley. A bowling alley for the blind actually makes a lot of sense—think of the sound of the ball rolling down the lane and hitting the pins.

In the exhibition, I have ten WPA-era models. They range from the Parthenon and the US Capitol to more prosaic buildings, such as a Cape Cod cottage. They’re not architectural models. Architectural models are made to sell a concept to a client—and they’re not necessarily made to be handled. The WPA models, on the other hand, are a little bit clunky. More like dollhouses, more durable. There is a document that details the techniques and materials that they used in making models. I also built a model of the gallery at Radcliffe myself, loosely following these guidelines.

The show includes sound as well. There are giant transducers attached to the studs inside the gallery walls. They carry sound miked from outdoors that you can hear if you put your ear to the wall, so you have to touch the actual building to hear anything. The human auditory range is between 20 Hz and 20 KHz, and as you go down in frequency there’s a shift from hearing to feeling. With the lower-frequency sounds, like thunder, or a truck going by, you can feel it as well as hear it. But here you really have to lean against the wall to feel it. Most of the time it’s pretty quiet, but if you’re lucky enough to be in the gallery during a rainstorm, that would be really nice. In addition, I am playing a streaming NOAA weather broadcast through another set of transducers.

The title for the show, “Calm. Smoke rises vertically,” is taken from the Beaufort scale, which has a really poetic way of describing the wind. It’s an empirical measure, meaning that it describes what you perceive, or what you see: observable effects of the wind. The lowest step on the Beaufort scale is described as the conditions where smoke rises vertically.

The show is made up of layers of information. For example, the card for the show is printed with an image and text, and then overprinted, or embossed, with braille. You can feel the bumps when you pick up the card. I like how one notation is right on top of the other. And in a similar way, through sound, there’s a verbal description of the weather on top of the audible effects of the weather. Everything is superimposed.