I finally got around to checking out the new MoMA this weekend, though I only made it about halfway through before closing time and blisters forced me out. Among the pieces I remember finding especially intriguing was Horses Running Endlessly by Gabriel Orozco. The piece is a quadruple-sized chessboard that uses four colors (black, white, and two intermediate shades of brown) for both squares and the knight pieces scattered about the board.
What fascinated me about it was the way the piece presents differently to someone who plays a lot of chess. Imagine looking at a painting with text in English (or some other language you speak)—you automatically exctract meaning from it. A literate person pretty much can’t help but see the text as a series of words they know. If it’s a language you don’t know, you still see a “text”, but maybe only interpret it as a series of unintelligible sounds. If it’s a non-Roman alphabet (Arabic, say) you may see only shapes—maybe still seeing them as language, though maybe not.
Well, I don’t play chess that often anymore, but I used to play a fair amount, and I suspect anyone else of whom that’s true can identify with what I found myself doing while looking at Horses Running Endlessly. I found I wasn’t seeing a static piece, but one in shifting motion—or anyway, charged up with palpable potential energy—as I started automatically churning through the paths each knight could travel, noting those that ended in a capture or left a piece open to capture. Orozco’s exploiting this automatic move-inference mechanism to create (for the chess players in the audience, at least) a piece that’s dynamic, almost in motion.
Maybe a simliar trick could be deployed for other similar habits of mind. In Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, there’s a binary-code virus that only affects programmers. What about a design that wouldn’t even necessarlily strike a casual observer as representing ones and zeroes (could just be a pattern of circular and straight shapes) but would jump out as a message to someone who spent a lot of time working in binary? Rebus-style messages for math geeks? A series of statements in predicate logic where the impact of the piece comes from the viewer’s epiphanic recognition of a missing step or an invalid inference that has some broader significance in the total context of the work?
Addendum: Speaking of math geek rebuses, if you do want to pick up a math nerd, try telling them:
You’re (2.718) (3.141)