Unfolding Humanity Exterior

Unfolding Humanity

The Unfolding Humanity project proceeds with the notion that shapes are symbolic of the sacred properties of the universe, and that experiencing this through art is a way to excite persons of all ages toward better appreciation of the Humanities. By “sacred,” we mean not what points toward a specific religious experience, or a particular religion, but that the characteristically human questions about purpose and meaning, about what makes life worth living, are questions pertaining to the indefinable and infinite, or the mystery that underlies all things. Such mystery is deeper than a mere problem to be solved: such mystery will never be solved; such discloses its beauty. As the physicist Max Planck declared, “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And it is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.” The Humanities remind us of this mystery through the mutual reliance of art, language, mathematics and design. We human beings do not know who we are, and that is who we are.

Description of Artwork

The heart of this project is to design, build, and showcase a massive interactive unfolding metal sculpture, standing 10’ tall and unfolding to 40’ wide, covered with twelve hinged and LED-illuminated pentagonal acrylic faces. Hinges connect some of the faces to give participants the ability to interactively unfold it flat, using a series of torsion springs, cables and winches. It is engineered to handle any real-world interaction or environment. The exterior faces are dark green acrylic etched with characters illuminated by programmed and trailing LEDs invoking the iconic Matrix animation, whereas interior faces of reflective acrylic mirrors create a kaleidoscopic image of people.

Edge of the Unknown

The design of this Unfolding Humanity artwork aims to shed light on two unsolved problems. The first is motivated by work of the artist Albrecht Dürer, who asks: can every polyhedron be cut along some of its edges so that it unfolds flat without overlap? Every attempt to settle this 500-year-old problem has resulted in a positive answer, but geometers are still divided over whether this is always possible. Our artwork offers an example of such a positive answer, by allowing participants to unfold an (elegant and simple) dodecahedron in a way that satisfies the unsolved problem, bringing them to the edge of knowledge.

The second problem tackles the cosmological dilemma of the shape of our universe. In ancient times, our planet was thought to be flat, but today, we know the shape of the Earth, having traversed it and observed it from space. But what about our universe and its geometry — perfectly flat or bent and curved? Revolutionary data from cosmic microwave background radiation sensing satellites reveal that a universe with the same shape as the dodecahedron can explain recent measurements. This artwork, when closed, becomes an illuminated mirrored dodecahedral room designed to allude to this space. It gives participants an opportunity to enter a small finite universe modeled on this geometry in order to witness the complex beauty of a universe where light folds back upon itself.

This duality of the artwork, of a LED-based technological and geometric framework on the outside, with reflections of humanity pondering vastness of space and time on the inside, opens the door to ask deeper questions of the unknown. In particular, Unfolding Humanity asks ways in which technology plays a role in illuminating and controlling our lives, and the quest to be truly human and free. The framing of the artwork based on unsolved problems in mathematics and physics gives greater weight to its voice.


Philosophy of the Sacred

Most importantly, however, we believe this artwork create a structure that provides an experience of the question, what does it mean to be human, and what does it mean to be located in this corner of the universe? Shapes and the patterns they symbolize hold the key to unlocking these questions.

Plato in the Timaeus gives a narrative of creation and correlates the four elements of nature with the Platonic solids: Fire (tetrahedron), Air (octahedron), Earth (cube), and Water (icosahedron). The last Platonic solid, the dodecahedron, refers to Heaven, symbolic of the mystery that undergirds the universe—the five sides of the pentagon on the face representing the microcosmic “quintessence” (fifth being)—as well as the macro-cosmos (from the Greek kosmos, “order”) itself, the harmony of the natural world. Unfolding Humanity adopts the dodecahedron as the symbolic structure of the universe based not only on Plato’s insight, but on the evidence provided by cosmic radiation. Indeed, Buckminster Fuller, the architect and philosopher, used this shape for his geodesic domes in an effort to make architecture more compatible with social accountability and efficiency.

The mirrors that line the inside of the structure are performative, generating the energy of the experience, and remind us that the mirror, silver coating on glass, was invented during the Renaissance. After glass from Syria made its way to Venice, a reflective tin was added, and soon human beings had a more accurate instrument whereby to understand the meaning of “self.” Unfolding Humanity aspires to reveal to every person who encounters it the simultaneous truth that there is only a self when in relationship; that dialogue is essential to identifying one’s perceptions; that the patterns external to our bodies are also internal, the macrocosm in the microcosm; and that the questions asked by the earliest humans are still unfolding before us.

Radically Engineered

Our structure is carefully engineered and tested by a recently graduated USD mechanical engineering, physics, and mathematics major, with CAD and machining support by two additional USD engineering students. These three, under the supervision of an USD Engineering professor, will assure that the structure is designed to handle the stresses of any real world interaction or environment.

Cables feed from each of the 5 furthest pentagons, through pulleys on the metal framework, to instantly locking brake winches which are specifically designed for lifting. This holds the structure in place in any configuration between fully open and fully closed. The winches are chosen at a gear ratio that allows the faces to be folded at a safe speed. All cables on the structure will be illuminated by spotlights shining along their length, and all winches will be similarly illuminated.

Damping and angle-limiting hinges are used to add further control to the folding motion. The hinge system is designed so that the bottom pentagons unfold first before opening the attached top pentagons, mimicking the unfolding of flowers in nature. This minimizes pressure on the bottom most hinges and reduces the weight hazard.


Returning Lighting Artists

The people responsible for programming the mesmerizing animations of last year’s highly regarded multimedia installation The Journey Project are teaming together again to make the illumination of this sculpture a captivating experience which helps express the philosophy of the piece.

The metal dodecahedral skeleton will be continually lit on both inside and outside by programmed LED strands which respond interactively to the level of openness of the panels.

LED lights will form an interior layer for each pentagonal face. The exterior faces will be dark when the dodecahedron is folded open, coming to life as each face is closed to the metal skeleton. When a face closes onto the frame, the falling character animation from the Matrix will come alive, indicating that a further step in the enclosure of a human participant has taken place.

The acrylic mirror faces on the interior of the structure will remain unlit, to allow the light from the frame to create intricate patterns in the many reflections.

Who's Buying It

We've raised >$27k of our $35k budget. Thank you to SDCAP & USD’s support via its Fletcher Jones Endowment!

USD Logo
USD Logo
AAEP Span Logo

Visit and donate on our crowdfunding page, with rewards including:

  • T-shirts, postcards, and photographs
  • Awesome swag to be developed by J. Good

We plan to organize two large fundraiser events for this program. A partial reason is to raise support, but another (more important) reason is to inform the public (from the academic to the artistic side) of our vision. These fundraisers will bring together two communities, whose goals intersect at our project: bring deep thought in beauty, at the intersection of art and mathematics.