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Rick Salafia's 'Instruments' aim to notionally shift our instinct to quantify the world

Based on metaphor as a powerful means of making art, Salafia’s ongoing series of irregularly shaped aluminium rulers attempt to measure the unmeasurable.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Jul 13, 2023

Is there a way to appraise the feelings of an overwhelmed father meeting his newborn for the first time? Or enumerate a toddler’s joy when surprised with their favourite meal? Can you weigh departing souls, calculate the length of patience, or compute despair at the loss of a loved one?

Through the ages, measuring instruments have facilitated us to quantify and understand countless, substantial phenomena—callipers that distinguish the distance between the ends of an object, channelled elements in glass that chart varying temperatures, or reading trajectories of stars to track time with the help of architectural tools. Modern-day scales and specialised technologies have managed to explore and minutely quantify the most perceptible commodities, from the size of an atom to analysing cosmic entities. Yet, we are still vastly shy from accurately metering the intangible that renders the vast spectrum of experiences that make us human. There exists no measuring stick for excitement, unrest, grief or contentment.

  • Instrument #30 by Rick Salafia | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #30 by Rick Salafia Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #23 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #23 Image: © Rick Salafia

Artist Rick Salafia, who is also a professor of Art Education at Kutztown University in the United States, endeavours to evince meaning and physicality to how we subjectively measure the intangible ‘human experience’ with his redolently named series of sculptural art, Instruments. Salafia creatively interprets and imbues standard aluminium rulers with impractical shapes and proportions—some bend at 90 degrees to meet their ends in an irregular loop, while others manifest as a whole of fragmented parts sticking out (intentionally), or twist and spiral in infinity—while individual lines and numbers remain relatively practical, like the typical metric scales we use.

  • Instrument #75 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #75 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #45 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #45 Image: © Rick Salafia

But what do these shaped aluminium rulers truly measure, and how? “I don’t indicate the exact purpose of each instrument—I want to leave some room for the viewer to answer the inevitable question—What is that for?” Salafia questions in response. Each diverse and quirky artwork is metaphorical and conceptual, based on the American artist’s belief that this perceptible exercise of measuring anything and everything discloses an almost 'reductive approach' to understanding our world and our transient existence in it. Perhaps, that is one way to look at it.  

I think of ‘Instruments’ as tools to measure the qualities of human experience—the weight of instinct, the length of patience for others, the ability to imagine, the heaviness of bliss, the feeling of arriving home… – Rick Salafia

In an in-depth conversation with STIR, Salafia elaborates on his ethos of crafting this series of asymmetrical measuring tools, their deliberate departure from tangible practicality, and how these product designs perhaps, encourage a conceptual shift of our instinct to quantify the world.

  • Instrument #15 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #15 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #40 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #40 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: At first glance, your rulers do seem like rulers, yet they disobey standard measuring profiles with an almost alarming cheekiness. Can you tell us what inspired your series, Instruments?

Rick Salafia: I have always been interested in the nearly maniacal obsession that humans have with measuring and quantifying the world in an attempt to understand and control it. How much do we really know about something by knowing how much it weighs, how large or small things are, or how far away or close it is? Apparently, according to us, we can know a lot. But we may be fooling ourselves using this reductive approach to understanding. The tension between science and the humanities represents very dramatic differences in understanding, addressing, and approaching the world.     

One of the works from the <i>Estimations</i> series by Rick Salafia | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
One of the works from the Estimations series by Rick Salafia Image: © Rick Salafia

This project grew out of an earlier series titled Estimations, where I attempted to make rulers without a reference, estimating the length and divisions of a 12-inch ruler in aluminium. Working by eye and by memory, I marked off what I believed to be the correct length and increments at one-sixteenth intervals. Then I engraved and inked each of the marks and cut the aluminium to length. Afterwards, I used a commercially produced ruler to measure each attempt, stamping the length on the back. I made twelve of these that ranged from 11 to just over 13 inches long. Three of the attempts are 3/64ths of an inch shy of twelve inches. 

  • Instrument #123 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #123 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #55 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #55 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: What sense of practicality or functionality is attributed to these objects? What exactly can you calibrate with these scales?

Rick: I think of Instruments as tools to measure the qualities of human experience. The weight of instinct, the length of patience for others, the ability to imagine, the heaviness of bliss, the feeling of arriving home… One of the reasons I alter (or do not include) a standard numeric sequence of 1-12 is that these experiences are mostly unquantifiable. I also don’t indicate the exact purpose of each instrument—I want to leave some room for the viewer to answer the inevitable question—What is that for? Artist and friend John White recently said that these pieces work in a way similar to the systems we invent as children (imagination, magical thinking, lying, etc.) because they attempt to control a world beyond our control.

  • Instrument #70 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #70 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #77 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #77 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: When did this series commence, and how many rulers have you conceived to date? What is your approach to crafting these tools?

Rick: Estimations led me to Instruments (which I began roughly three years ago), attempting to answer the question—What if there were measuring devices for all the things that cannot be measured?

So, I began to iterate on the standard rule's form, increments, labelling, and accuracy. I have made over 200 and have no plans to stop. Making a single ruler (each numbered sequentially) starts with a sketch and then a digital drawing. I print the drawing and scribe it onto a one-quarter-inch thick aluminium plate. I cut each into shapes with a saw, engrave the increments with a burin, ink the engraving and finish with files, and stamp the series’s number on the back.

  • Instrument #70 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Conceptual sketches Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #77 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Digital drawings Image: © Rick Salafia
I am looking for ways of altering the world just enough, by making things that are both familiar (rulers) and strange (not like rulers you have encountered before). – Rick Salafia

Jincy: How much time does it take to make one instrument, and what can you tell us about its chosen mono-materiality of aluminium?

Rick: This work is influenced by conceptual art in the sense that it poses questions about the quotidian that we usually accept as given, and also by minimalism and post-minimalism, as both proposed materiality as a means of exploration. I use aluminium for this work because it is a common material used for commercially produced rulers.  I am trying to control the experience of encountering the work for the viewer so that their first impression is for the works to appear as devices or tools meant to function, as we have been conditioned.  Then I want the viewer to second guess their first impression and think something along the lines of—Wait a minute… these are not what I thought they were! I am looking for ways of altering the world just enough, by making things that are both familiar (rulers) and strange (not like rulers you’ve encountered before). 

  • Instrument #33 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #33 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #97 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #97 Image: © Rick Salafia

Some of these require a great deal of time because of their complexity, while others can be engraved in two or three days. However, a drawing can take longer, because I often make six or more iterations of similar forms. The engraving is risky because a slip of the hand can result in a mistake which means I have to start over.  A few took three attempts to get right such as #42, #45, and #93.  

  • Instrument #42 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #42 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #104 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #104 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: The peculiar profiles of these rulers are obvious sometimes (symbol of infinity, a cloud, a dodecagon, for instance), but in ways that aren’t immediately evident. What informs the instruments’ myriad shapes?

Rick: My method is to break up the standard ruler into parts—the shape, the size, the scale, the increments, texture, markings, spacings, and so on. I then sketch out variations of one of these elements. For example, #18 has variations on the spacing of the increments so that every inch is slightly longer or shorter (except for six) and is marked +/-. Otherwise, everything else is the same as a standard ruler in this one. Many of the designs are meant to appear three-dimensional, in perspective or otherwise an optical illusion, as seen in #30, #33, and #70. Occasionally, I will see something that inspires a design—Instrument #170 comes from an old motel sign I passed one day and #169 is inspired by an exploded diagram of a carburettor I saw in an old automobile manual.  

  • Instrument #62 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #62 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #124 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #124 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: What are some of your favourite pieces from the series, and why?

Rick: I think my most successful pieces in this series combine form distortion, illusion, and a conceptual shift of the instinct to quantify the world. When these come together in the right way, it creates a metaphor that can apply to the viewers’ awareness. 

  • Instrument #107 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #107 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #165 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #165 Image: © Rick Salafia

For instance, Instrument #1 changes the position of the increments so that they appear to be under the influence of gravity. Does gravity affect measurements? Does it affect self-perception? Instrument #34 suggests that every attempt to measure infinity will result in the answer ‘8’ (∞). It is a harmless joke, but I think both simplicity and jokes are more complex than they initially appear. Making something simple is a process of carefully eliminating all the non-essential aspects of a thing and reducing it to its essence—as the playwright Tom Stoppard once said, “Laughter is the sound of comprehension.” 

Rarity is everywhere, even where we think it isn’t. Perhaps in a culture that values individuality so much, we fear that in fact, we are all the same. – Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #67 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #67 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #175 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #175 Image: © Rick Salafia

For Instrument #67, I turned the divisional spacings into waves to get at the idea that because nothing is static, everything is constantly in flux. Finally, Instrument #186 succeeds in depicting the problem of standardisation and accuracy. No matter how exact we attempt to make two things (measuring devices or anything else) the same, the closer we look, and the more impossible this appears. Razor blades are very sharp but if you look at them under high magnification, the edges look like jagged mountain landscapes. And no two will be the same. It is simply a matter of how close one looks.  

  • Instrument #186 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #186 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #176 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #176 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: Who is your target audience for this collection?

Rick: My ideal viewer is someone that thinks that metaphor is a powerful means of making art (perhaps the only means), appreciates a balance and interaction of form and concept, and does not take themselves too seriously. In other words, someone like me (smiles).

Jincy: Within the context of Instruments, could you highlight your design philosophy?

Rick: I like to think in terms of exploring shared human concepts, working with the ideas that we accept as givens. Objects can be embedded with history or meaning, but I am not sure they can be, entirely. 'Form follows function' is ingrained in us. But I think that form follows failure. Memories arise from experience—many studies show that memory is determined by recall and shifts continually. Soft and hard are opposites—depends on what you use as an example—a hard lesson can be very much like soft power. The horizon is horizontal, almost never. Why look at things the only way we have been conditioned to?

  • Instrument #22 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #22 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #99 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #99 Image: © Rick Salafia

Jincy: Powerful. So, tell us what is NEXT in store for you?

Rick: I want to get as close to ‘exact’ as I possibly can before I run out of ideas. Let me explain—when I engrave the increments in the rulers, I am trying to make them as consistent and even as I can. But given what I wrote above, I know that this is ultimately, not possible. Nevertheless, my goal is to make an Instrument that is exactly twelve inches in length, one inch long in width, and where every engraved mark is the same width, perfectly parallel, the same length and exactly one-sixteenth of an inch from the next or previous one. To have the appearance of exactness, to have it appear as if the ruler is machine-made, even though machine-made objects are not consistent… they only promise consistency.

  • Instrument #132 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #132 Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #134 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #134 Image: © Rick Salafia

So much of our investment in the value of objects is determined by our knowledge of whether an object is hand or machine-made. Is a machine-made object that has obvious imperfections more valuable than one that has none? How do those compare to a handmade one that has obvious imperfections? Is a handmade object ‘better’ if it appears to be machine-made (that is, without imperfections)? Is it our fascination with a rarity that is really at the heart of this? If so, why is it that we rarely immerse ourselves in the rarity of a pile of stones, where every single one is different? Rarity is everywhere, even where we think it isn’t. Perhaps in a culture that values individuality so much, we fear that in fact, we are all the same.

  • Instrument #170 (top); Instrument #169 (bottom) | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #170 (top); Instrument #169 (bottom) Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #1 (top); Instrument #11 (bottom) | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #1 (top); Instrument #11 (bottom) Image: © Rick Salafia
  • Instrument #18 (top); Instrument #180 | Instruments by Rick Salafia | STIRworld
    Instrument #18 (top); Instrument #180 Image: © Rick Salafia

The full series of ‘Instruments’ can be viewed and purchased on Rick Salafia's website here.

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