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The Whiz Kid

Phil Taylor makes stuff that does stuff. Now you can see some of it in the Whitney Biennial.



The guitar propped against the wall was built from scratch. Its creator, Phil Taylor, describes it as a robot guitar--there's an LCD screen in the upper right corner of the body, a knob that functions like a joystick at its base, and tiny hammers on the bridge that hit the strings, with an internal computer that controls the whole thing. Think player piano with different technology. "It works, it totally works," he says. But he refuses to turn it on, claiming it'll be too noisy. "I just can't," he says. "I'll call you when I play it out in public. I'm just not into playing it right now."

Taylor's made a number of cool things that totally work: tweaked 100-watt lightbulbs that dim and brighten in response to a room's noise energy; a "robotic dolly" that transports a camera rigged to a giant video screen around the exterior of a building, displaying real-time footage of its interior; bird perches that light up and "talk" when a bird lands on them.

Since graduating from Princeton's architecture school in 2000 Taylor has worked mostly as a consultant, designing and building technological and mechanical devices for artists and scientists. Occasionally entrepreneurs commission him to build things that might end up as consumer products; he won't--or can't--go into much detail about those. (He will say that he's working on a device that'll aid a group of fish ecologists in their climate-change research.) But he's been happily gravitating toward the art world for several years now; his bird perches, part of a collaboration with San Diego-based artist Natalie Jeremijenko entitled For the Birds, are featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, which opened last week.

With his shaggy short hair, corduroys, and a black, hole-specked sweater worn over two rumpled shirts, the 30-year-old Taylor hardly fits the image of the nerdy engineer. He lives in a warehouse space filled with workbenches and cubbyholes packed with tiny electrical parts, and dominated on one end by a full machine shop. The only signs of domesticity are two friendly dogs, a tiny kitchen nook made cozy by potted plants, and a black leather sofa contributed by Taylor's wife, who's around infrequently these days because she teaches archaeology at the University of Washington. There's a tall steel tank Taylor bought from a scrap yard and retrofitted to vacuum-suck bubbles out of hardening plastic; it can also be used as a pressurizing device, like a giant pressure cooker. "You don't want it to blow up," he says. The electronics bench seems safer: there are small circuit boards in various stages of completion, an Eminem CD, a scribbled-on "Engineer's Computation Pad," and a big white eraser. Taylor says the eraser is key: "I get the ten-packs."

As a teenager Taylor, who grew up in San Antonio, entertained himself by outfitting plastic geese with electronics, then sailing them alongside model boats at his grandparents' lake house in northern Michigan. A few years later he started to design rock-climbing equipment, and when he enrolled at Princeton on scholarship in 1993 he was on track to become a mechanical engineer. But at the end of his second year he got kicked out for failing classes in the two subjects that came most naturally to him: computer programming and electronics. It wasn't that they were hard, he says, it was that he was young and lazy. "It's good," he says, "because I'm glad I'm not a professional engineer. I got weeded out for reasons that could've gotten to me later."

Taylor headed for Utah, where the rock-climbing gear he'd built would be put to good use. He challenged himself with multiday trips on steep terrain; once he spent four days alone on a wall, sleeping nights in a hanging hammock. When not on the rocks he worked as a supervisor in a factory owned by gear manufacturer Black Diamond, where a crew of about 15 workers made ice-climbing equipment under his watch. It was a good time, until a couple of bad falls and some equipment mishaps "got the gears of fear and paranoia turning," he says. Taylor gave up climbing--he says he's terrified by it now--and quit the factory, despite overtures from people in Black Diamond's R & D department, to whom he had shown some of his homemade gear. "They kinda tried to keep me around," he says, "but it didn't work."

At his next job, at community radio station KRCL in Salt Lake City, Taylor worked as a studio engineer and repaired transmitters on snowy mountaintops: the station would helicopter him in, and sometimes he'd get to ski or hike back down. Though he says the work was fun and he learned a lot, he longed to be doing something more creative in a culture more his speed. "I guess there wasn't much community in the community station that I identified with," he says. "Too much linen, ganja, and people wearing purple from head to toe." By the time Princeton agreed to take him back in 1997, he'd made enough money to cover the remainder of his education.

After graduating Taylor founded the Institute for Advanced Architecture with some of his Princeton peers. They conceived it as a think tank, but Taylor says these days it's more like an artists' collective. Its members, most of whom live in LA and New York, aren't as interested in influencing policy or the business of architecture as they are in sharing ideas and collaborating on projects, research, and exhibitions--with the stipulation that no work done under the IAA's auspices gets credited to an individual. Over the last several years the group has exhibited projects in galleries on both coasts and in Columbus, Ohio. It was for a multifaceted project called The American Funeral Home, which appeared at both Oni Gallery in Boston and Basekamp in Philadelphia, that Taylor designed and built the series of modulating-intensity lightbulbs. Through IAA contacts he's also collaborated with other architects. The robotic dolly, for instance, was a contribution to a larger project by the team of Diller and Scofidio, who were commissioned to create a permanent installation for the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco.

Taylor first worked for Jeremijenko as a consultant on a different bird-perch project for the Athens Olympics. It fell through, but she then tapped him to help design something for the group exhibition "Becoming Animal" at MASS MoCA, where For the Birds was first installed last year. Jeremijenko, whose work often looks at the relationship between humans and nature, describes the project as a "public experiment"--art with the conceptual trappings of science, but without all that tedious methodology. She says that over time the perches should be able to facilitate communication between humans and birds; the birds should come to use them as a "technology for controlling people." But if For the Birds simply prompts museumgoers to reflect on the ways that animals cohabit with us and adapt to our urban environments? That'll work, too.

Before the opening of the MASS MoCA show, Taylor asked Jeremijenko that he be credited as an artist. He's requested the same of other artists he's worked with in the last several years, having often seen engineer friends contribute extensively to a project's final look and feel without credit. In the case of For the Birds, Taylor says the perch's concept design is the product of many brainstorming sessions between himself and Jeremijenko, but the look and mechanics are all his.

Cast from silicone molds in hard, transparent rubber, the perches have bell-shaped bases that contain a small microprocessor and speaker, and "necks"--the actual perch--that curve up gently like cat tails. Embedded in the skinniest part of the plastic neck is a piezo-crystal sensor, the kind of thing that Taylor thinks of as "the simplest thing in the world." It's a thin disk that responds to very slight pressure, like that of a sparrow landing. Two things happen once it's triggered: the perch glows blue green, and you hear one of several audio tracks that represent, in varying degrees of conceivability, what birds might like to say to humans. A perch might implore listeners to scatter seeds nearby; it might get a bit preachy about bird flu or didactic about adaptation: "Darwin never said survival of the fittest; he talked about survival of the most adaptable. And here I am. I have done at least as good a job as you in adapting to the strange, new urban reality. We have survived, and I'd like to say that we can survive, thrive, if we work together. Really--I have a dream."

For the Whitney installation, Taylor's made several improvements to the perches, chief among them a vaguely lipstick-shaped removable core that houses the circuit board and locks into the base cavity. In the earlier model he had simply poured liquid rubber right onto the circuits so they became sealed in the hardened plastic like plants and debris under the surface of a frozen pond. The new innards will still be visible through the plastic, but can be removed and repaired if they malfunction.

Until about two weeks before the Whitney Biennial opened, Taylor wasn't included alongside Jeremijenko on the list of participating artists. At first he seemed to take it in stride: "I can't even pretend to be an artist of her stature," he said. But the more he talked about it, the clearer it became that he'd given this oversight some thought: "It's like, if you work on a film and you're a hired gun who's going to do the lights, you get credited. In art it doesn't happen so much because of this bizarre urge to only have singular figures who create art. I see it all the time: this 'master' mind-set. But I'm really not very good at calling a curator and saying, 'Why am I not included?' I'm not going to tell them how to run the show." But then, after a pause, Taylor said, "If it turns out that I'm not getting credit, maybe the perches don't go up."

A few days later, Taylor talked to the Whitney. Now his name's on the list.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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