Yolanda Sonnabend – Remaking COLLOQUY – Progress Update #4

The biggest challenge to remaking Pask’s Colloquy of Mobiles is the fabrication of the so-called “female mobiles.” Three large translucent forms, nearly 5 feet high, are extraordinary and other-worldly. They rotate and glow and react to other mobiles and to the humans moving among them with light and sound.

Equally remarkable is the rich career of their designer, Yolanda Sonnabend, who worked at the Royal Ballet in London for over 30 years. Her stage designs for the director and choreographer of the Royal Ballet involved “his more abstract” works. How fitting that she would work with Gordon Pask on the visual design of the Colloquy—for choreography it surely is. Sonnabend once said, “Design is visualization of emotions.” Her female mobiles exude emotion, for they are voluptuous, outragious, fantastical. The male mobiles designed by Pask are complementary and equally fantastical. I wish we could overhear the conversations between Pask (world-class scientist, artist) and Sonnabend (world-class stage designer, painter).

Jasia Reichardt, who curated the ground-breaking Cybernetic Serendipity Exhibition in London at the ICA where Colloquy of Mobiles was exhibited in 1968, explained to me recently that Sonnabend always had contact with scientists. In addition to collaborating with Pask, Sonnabend knew Donald Michie, Seymour Papert, C.H. Waddington, and John Kendrew. In complement to Pask’s singular contributions to cybernetics, these individuals comprise a who’s-who of AI, education, biology, and chemistry (Kendrew shared the Nobel Prize).

In their design collaboration on Colloquy 50 years ago, Sonnabend and Pask explicitly explored gender stereotypes in appearances and behaviors. The male mobiles interact to compete and sometimes cooperate for the females’ attention. A male’s attention is represented by a bright light that may serendipitously hit the mirror inside a female and be reflected back to the same male—at which point they halt their random rotations and focus on each other. Get it? It is impossible not to see that the entire work exudes satirical commentary on the clichés of roles and behaviors. Yet Pask himself consistently interacted with all others as equals, no matter their occupation or gender. He was known for saying, “You guys—meaning gentleman guys and lady guys…”, foreshadowing today’s natural gender fluidity by half a century.

Progress on replicating the full-scale Colloquy is moving quickly toward our goal of completion in May. TJ McLeish (see photos), our master fabricator responsible for the replication of Colloquy, created digital models from images of the original designs by Pask and Sonnabend. The other photos show a small part of the intricate fabrication process required to replicate the female mobiles, superbly executed by Building Brown Workshop in Chicago.

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(See the next project update here.)