Outpost Office produces GPS-guided drawings for the 2020 Ragdale Ring

I, Drawing Robot

Outpost Office produces GPS-guided drawings for the 2020 Ragdale Ring

When Columbus, Ohio–based Outpost Office submitted its design for this year’s Ragdale Ring Competition, it was mid-March and the country was headed toward lockdown. The proposal, which comprised little more than colorful lines on the ground, turned out to be perfectly suited for the challenges both its designers and Ragdale would face in creating a performance space in COVID-19 times.

In their projects, Outpost Office founders Ashley Bigham and Erik Herrmann often misuse technologies and materials to produce new aesthetic and spatial effects. For Drawing Fields, the pair repurposed a GPS-guided, paint-emitting robot to etch out intricate line-based patterns across Ragdale’s Lake Forest, Illinois, campus. This decidedly 2D approach to stage setting was more effective than the design let on: When installed this past summer, the lawn-spanning “drawings” circumscribed zones of leisure that kept visitors at a comfortable remove from one another and the focus on the performers.

Founded in 2013, the Ragdale Ring Competition commemorates an erstwhile open-air theater that stood on the estate of the arts-and-crafts architect Howard Van Doren Shaw. The estate is now home to the Ragdale Foundation, an artist residency program which, in typical years, holds numerous concerts, readings, and performances on a temporary summer stage. These latter-day iterations of Ragdale Ring have been designed by an eclectic group of young architects including The Bittertang Farm, Design with Company, and SPORTS. But with the normal residencies postponed and events only held under strict attendance and safety policies, the 2020 stage could not be used in the same way it has for the past seven years.

Just how it would be used was intentionally left open-ended by the designers. “Our practice focuses on gathering. We are really interested in ways that people respond to places or context that don’t tell them how to behave,” Herrmann told AN. “We like to work with gestures that are abstract, things that are exaggerated in scale, things that aren’t quite right.”

Over the summer season, Outpost Office produced three sets of massive drawings that accompanied contemporary dance, live music, and artist discussions. Each “stage” corresponded to the truncated event schedule and was made available to a small group of visitors at a time. To compensate for this limited access, Outpost documented Drawing Fields through video and drone footage, making the work’s representation an integral part of its execution. The resulting media, which was executed with the help of architectural videographers Spirit of Space, not only captures the tortoise-like robot in action but also gives a sense of how the stage was used at various times during the season.

“The use of the drone was something that was increased by COVID but knowing we would be using it for most of the footage enforced the fact that it looks like an orthographic drawing, instead of a perspective,” added Bigham. “And the most people it will reach will be through these videos, looking top down.”

While the use of a robot provided the ability to precisely program the patterns to be drawn, the non-flat canvas (i.e., the lawn), inconsistent GPS, and the uneven application of the paint meant the resulting drawings were not always completely predictable. The result is a parable for greater concerns surrounding the act of making architecture.

“When you zoom in it almost looks like a hand drawing,” Herrmann said. “We are not as interested in the hand quality though, or a nostalgia for drawings, but we’re interested in how this project becomes a representation of one of architecture’s central issue, the reconciliation between instructions and the artifact that is created.”

Drawings Fields was decidedly ephemeral, with rain and time taking care of the de-installation process. With no trace left behind, the grounds are already set for the 2021 competition, which is currently open through January 21, 2021.