A Variation on the Powers of Ten

What are the limits of knowledge? Where is there still mystery, and how are researchers moving towards these "unknown" territories? Futurefarmers Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine ask these and other questions as part of a multifaceted research project inspired by Charles and Ray Eames's film, Powers of Ten (1977).

Powers of Ten is a short documentary film that depicts the relative scale of the universe in factors of ten. It illustrates the universe as an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery. One iconic image from the film depicts a couple picnicking on a blanket, serving as a human-scale grounding for the macro- and micro-explorations in the film. Futurefarmers uses this film as a conceptual and aesthetic framework for exploring related ideas - the production of knowledge; how its limits are understood, measured, represented, and transgressed; and the relationship between diverse fields of inquiry. With methods both formal and informal, the research framework includes ten picnics with invited scholars, recasting the picnic blanket as a space where the quotidian and the cosmic comingle, as a simple picnic serves as the setting for folding scientific, theoretical, and philosophical conversation into everyday ritual. These research moments will be documented and made available through the project website and related publication and programming.

A Variation works with museum's who are embedded inside major research institutions.

Unlike exhibitions where the final products of thought, inquiry, and production are presented as static objects, this project foregrounds the process of thought and inquiry as its own production. It engages in forms that are fluid, contingent, and mutable - the picnic, the conversation, the workshop - as a means to extend the metaphor of research and discovery into the arena of public presentation. As more research institutions receive funding from private corporations, much of their research occurs behind closed doors. This project is fueled by an interest in bringing this research out into the public eye and ear and inviting the discourse of academic research into an art context and vice versa.

Like all research, the project is driven in both form and content by questions; importantly, these are not just concrete questions about what we know and how we know it, but fuzzier questions about the use and consequences of that knowledge. Where does the desire to expand our knowledge and understanding come from? To what lengths will we go to "know?" Who is impacted by this quest and where has this knowledge led us? What is the human factor within the search for knowledge? Like the film Powers of Ten, A Variation is a journey through various fields of inquiry, from human psychology and philosophy to ecology, microbiology, astrobiology, environmental science, and zoology, that collects and presents knowledge (in this case, as it is constituted inside a major university) that will provide a contemporary portrait of various perspectives on our changing world.

-Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine, and Elizabeth Thomas/Phyllis Wattis MATRIX Curator


The 1977 Powers of Ten begins with an overhead image of a man and woman picnicking on a blanket one meter across. Slowly the camera zooms out to a view ten meters across, revealing that the man is picnicking in a park with a female companion. The zoom-out continues to a field of view of the size of the observable universe. The camera then zooms back to the picnic, into the man's hand, to views of negative powers of ten until the camera comes to quarks in a proton of a carbon atom- "the edge of our current understanding".

This opening scene is the framework for A Variation on the Powers of Ten which guides a series of picnic discussions hosted in various locations. Ten diverse researchers are chosen in order to shape a compelling spectrum of understanding. Upon a blanket, they are invited to discuss the changing landscape of their field and the tools they use or invent to gather, quantify and measure their research now as compared to 33 years ago (when the original movie was made). This span of knowledge provides a contemporary portrait of the various perspectives on our changing world.

Each picnic is an interview/conversation with a chosen researcher connected to a power of ten. For example to illustrate ten-to-the-negative-five, a microbiologist is invited and ten-to-the-positive-fifth (where one can begin to see the entire city of Chicago, its edges, its density and its location within the greater landscape), an urban theorist is invited. The pincic is filmed and also photographed from above and dressed with food and books chosen by each hosted researcher.

Visit Picnic Section

Amy Franceschini + Michael Swaine

Amy and Michael have been collaborating since 1998 as part of Futurefarmers, a San Francisco - based art and design collective. The artists were introduced to the Eames' Powers of Ten as part of their early education and have fond memories of the film as kindling to reach up to the sky as well as digging into the earth - to see beyond reach. Using the picnic as a frame in A Variation on the Powers of Ten they invite us to travel to the edges of the cosmos without leaving the blanket. What unfolds is an intimate space for contemplation and looking at things at an arms length. As artists and educators, Amy and Michael see these ten picnics forming the basis for a contemporary portrait of various perspectives on our changing world.

Jeff Warrin
Photographer, Collaborator

Through the inherent physical mechanics of the eye a whole world of wonder is beheld; color, pattern, light (fleeting moments of each). When coupled with the lens of a camera, vision is at once limited and extended. This coupled space (eye and lens) - looking at all of the elements in the viewfinder - loosing oneself in the details inside that little square space - like a backstage - he rehearses, choreographs and edits. As a subject of Jeff's it is immediately evident that he is so intently present in the choreography of that space that you can let go of all worry of a fleeting moment of wonder not being captured and focus purely on the energy of a particular situation. Jeff is there, with you, co-creating moments.


A Variation on the Powers of ten was instigated in 2010 by Elizabeth Thomas of the Matrix Program at the UC Berkeley Art Museum through a generous endowment gift from Phyllis C. Wattis; The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; and the continued support of the BAM/PFA Trustees. This project has been made possible by an extensive constellation of supporters:

Berkeley Center for New Media has provided campus support, research, outreach and studio space.

Graham Foundation Exhibition Grant

Center for Cultural Innovation Artistic Innovation Grant

Bild Museet, Umea, Sweden

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

Web Design + Development: Anthony Warnick
Design Intern: Jehn Howard
Transcription: Emma Rogers
Photography Intern: Jin Zhu