On a 15th-century piece of paper in black ink, Albrecht Dürer describes a snake. Drawn by hand with enormous precision, it is not evident at first that this is a snake. It looks nothing like a snake. The Snake he refers to isn’t the drawing instrument “die Schlange” he has illustrated on the page but the 3-dimensional serpentine curve absent from the diagram that the instrument produces. (Fig. 03) Although the diagram does not represent the serpentine curve, it does prescribe the kinematic arrangement of the five ‘rods’ and four ‘dials’ of “die Schlange,” which would, hypothetically, be the earliest parametric drawing instrument intended to construct a 3-dimensional spline. Over the past several months, I have been reconstructing robotic armatures modeled after Dürer’s lesser-known 15th-century drawing instrument, “die Schlange,” to better understand the device through its performance. The recursive act of reconstructing this elusive Snake has led me to realize that new interpretations of drawing instruments have the instructive potential to challenge architectural protocols, and open the conversation toward the literal, perceptive, and simulacrum ideas of technology.

Although we are equipped with unimaginable processing power compared to those studying architecture and geometry centuries ago, we continue to be defined by the same protocols. One example can be seen in the devices constructed by Albrecht Dürer (Fig. 02). Though Dürer is best known as a German Renaissance artist, he was also an early contributor to the development of visual perspective and mathematical scholarship through his many drawing instruments. His interests in human proportions and movement led to three lesser-known but significant drawing machines in his late career, “die Schneck” (the Snail), “die Spinne” (the Spider), and “die Schlange” (the Snake). Unlike his more famous perspectival devices in which the eye of the observer plays a fundamental role, there is a fundamental shift in these three drawing instruments from image production to parametric agents that generate geometric figures. However, due to lack of evidence, the applied use of “die Schlange” remains uncertain, even though this is perhaps the earliest example of a drawing instrument intended to construct three-dimensional splines (or, as Dürer referred to it, “the serpentine line”). 

Despite the fact that Albrecht Dürer’s work is well documented, the only record of this particular drawing instrument lives on in his book, Underweysung der Messung. Since no evidence suggests that this instrument was ever physically constructed, we can only speculate on its intended use. Some have hypothesized that the tool’s purpose was a sculptural jig, most notably the restoration of Laocoon and His Sons (Fig. 05), which was coincidentally unearthed around the same time, while others speculate on the tool’s association with witchcraft. Regardless of the drawing instrument’s applied use, it is clear that “die Schlange” would have been used to construct what was then referred to as ‘superior geometry,’ a line that could not be constructed with a ruler and compass. In Underweysung der Messung, we only find a diagram of the “die Schlange,” illustrating the “dials” and “rods” and this list of instructions, translated by Bernard Cache:

  1. The instrument should be made with few or many dials and rods, according to the intended applications.
  2. The rods shall be arranged in a manner that they can be advanced by degrees and can be shortened or extended.
  3. The rods can be pulled apart or pushed together, also by degree, so that they become shorter or longer.

My fascination with “die Schlange” started last semester during my SMarchS Methods and Theory course with Professor Mark Goulthorpe and a lecture titled, Instruments of Thought by Bernard Cache (Fig. 04). After studying the failures of my first prototype and with guidance from Axel Kilian, the second prototype is underway.05 Standing nine feet tall and built from mostly aluminum tripod parts and servo motors, it may not be initially obvious what inspired its construction. However, in the instrument’s performance, the Snake reveals itself as each arm swings, carving an envelope of motion (Fig. 06). The implied volume that the instrument occupies may be reminiscent of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s “motion models” used to record the virtual volumes of human action and labor to optimize workflow in the 1920s. Similar to the Gilbreth’s chronocyclegraph, I have been recording motion capture data of the instrument’s kinematic performance with Talis Reks in MIT.nano’s Immersion Lab to study its movement through plotted points and simulated digital models.

However, I am not reconstructing drawing instruments as a historian but as a designer (Fig.07 and 08). The motion data extracted from the Immersion Lab goes beyond the serial reproduction of drawings or the projective reenactment of the original machine. It is a litmus test for evaluating its performance which directly informs the kinematic arrangement of each sequential prototype. In other words, it is perhaps through the execution of the instrument’s mechanical reconstruction that we can grasp its visual potential and practical uses. To better understand these new logics of assembly, I have been speaking with other authors of contemporary drawing instruments from around the globe. Smuggled in this exchange from one discipline to another is the realization that we are equally invested in mechanical reproduction. Therefore, to expand upon the twin lineages of post-mechanical drawing instruments and computation today, we must reconsider the archive as a site of intervention.

Although we are increasingly reliant on contemporary tools such as 3D-scanning for visual and practical uses, drawing instruments demonstrate their instructive potential to automate form. In other words, we may consider the illuminating role that early forms of drawing automation could play as a conceptual system to perform the counterintuitive logic of producing images and drawings. In the semester ahead, I will continue to develop the robotic armature modeled after Duerer’s original diagram to construct a series of relational things: 1.) object, 2.) drawings, and 3.) machine (prototype, Fig.06) to open the conversation beyond the role of performance toward the literal, perceptive, and simulacrum ideas of technology.

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The Snake