Photos: Derek Mead
I sat in the corner of the hot tub that was closest to the end of the world. Somebody was talking about a recent party, laughing over the mechanical bubble-hum of the spa. Behind me, there was a gasping hiss, like someone was letting the air out of the planet's tires. I turned to watch a podlike machine, which was dangling from the 30 foot ceiling, add another story to a desolate skyscraper in a city made of salt. Most of the other ones had already collapsed.
I was in the Boiler, a cavernous art space inside an old industrial building on a Brooklyn block not long for gentrification. The machine was the work of Jonathan Schipper, the man who was 3D-printing the apocalypse.
For three months straight, that's what will happen in this room. A homemade 3D printer follows a program coded by Schipper's brother, and tirelessly prints out rectangular buildings in the salt. They're beyond simple; half-foot squiggles of sci-fi rustic architecture. As they inevitably collapse, their demise hastened by the moisture from the tub, they look like every ruined skyscraper you've ever seen. An abandoned future city on the moon, or a scorched earthside holocaust of the pure nuked-out variety.
Schipper was in that hot tub with me, donning a cowboy hat, a beer, and a never-ending grin. He'd invited some friends, and we'd crammed into the whirlpool with awkward glee. This was Wednesday afternoon, after all, and we were in a jacuzzi and not the dying metropolis.
"It turned out to be a city," Schipper said, talking about the semi-accidental creation his program had printed. "Conceptually, what was important was that these would be something that people made. Imagining a vista where time was different, and you could see things we made come up and come down. Imagine if you could see a frame every year instead of what we experience time as."
I felt like I was luxuriating on a hillside manse in Malibu, looking callously down from afar on the crumbling world below after everything'd all gone to hell, and I said so.
The comment generated mostly polite agreement and some nods; not everyone was in the mood to talk about the end times. But I had to start somewhere.
See, Schipper didn't necessarily set out to make an ominous scene of civilizational collapse, thought that's clearly what he's done. The original goal was to use the 3D printer to emulate the collection and decay of everyday stuff; objects you'd find in the nether-regions of a suburban backyard, or maybe a landfill. Bike tires, frames, furniture; things that were precious to someone once, but are now rejoining the great Ikea in the sky. And Schipper built the hot tub into the corner as if it really were a backyard.
That's still pretty apocalyptic, just on a more personal level. Schipper describes his massive, enigmatic apocalpytica as "an artificial continuously changing environment based on trash, salt, human will and hot water bathing."
It's all contained in one massive studio space, in a high-ceiling'd boiler room from which the gallery apes its name. Twelve tons of salt are piled on the floor, with the highest mounds in the middle, as if some godlike cyborg just dumped a giant bag out in the middle of the room at once.
In a manifesto publihsed online, Schipper explains how the piece works. "There will be a mechanism that will be suspended by four cables," he writes. "By varying the length of the four cables the mechanism will be able to move to most locations within the room. The mechanism will have the ability to extrude crude representations of average objects from salt.
Back in the hot tub, the conversation was finally getting dark. What do you think about when you think about the end of the world? The question went, as the autopilot architect hummed in the background.
"It sounds awesome," Jonathan said. "The planet should have a break."
"On a certain level you're lucky to see the end of the world, because you're one of the few who get to witness it," said one of his friends.
"I'd get a facial tattoo," said another, and laughed.
"I'd have a purple mohawk and buttless chaps like the dude on the Road Warrior."
"So you're kind of pro-end-of-the-world," I said.
"Definitely," Schipper said without hesitating. His friend concurred.
"I love mother nature. I'm sick of how horribly overboard we are in not caring, not taking responsibility. I definitely want to see systems crumble. I know where I'm going to go."
Zombies came up, as they always do, and so did climate change and Mad Max. Schipper's friend said he'd retreat to an island to wait out the end days, and another chided him: "When it's under thirty feet of water?" She laughed.
I thought about that Malibu analogy while I looked out at the hovering steely creator. The machine was building the city and letting it fall apart and it didn't care a bit, and neither did we. Why would we? It was an extravagant afternoon, but eventually melancholy.
"In a way, it's a reproduction of an experience I remember having growing up in California," Schipper said. "You know you're constantly looking at your neighbor's crap and it's always—whether it's trash or beautiful, or whatever—in certain light and in certain time, you can see it for something else. This kind of slow changing of the environment, of the world, by people."
"When you imagine the end of the world, is this what you see?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think so," Schipper laughed. "Something like this."