The Cube

Rubik's Cube 1

I can’t remember if this piece ever had a title or a name. I generally just refer to it as the Rubik’s Cube or the Cube. It was made while I was still in college as an independent study project – it’s as close to a thesis piece as I’ll probably ever make.

History of the Piece & Ideas Behind It

I’ve always loved the Rubik’s Cube, especially the feeling of moving the cube around. I’ve never had much interest in the solution to the cube, or solving it quickly – I’m really only interested in the mechanism of the cube. If anything inspired me to actually make the piece, it might be the mention of the “Janor’s Cube” in the Subgenius text Revelation X. There’s a sidebar that describes an all-black Rubik’s Cube (presumably an ordinary cube with the stickers removed), attributing the device to Subgenius Rev. Janor Hypercleats. I toyed around with the idea in early 1998, but it was some rather introspective thought occurring during and around my trip to 1998’s Burning Man really solidified my desire to make my own Rubik’s Cube. Returning to school in the fall, I immediately began working on the project.

In making a Rubik’s Cube with undifferentiated sides, I was attempting to remove the concept of solving or of having a purpose or goal from the Cube. I wanted to create an object that better reflected my own feelings about the Rubik’s Cube, and in a broader sense, about the fundamental nature of the Universe. I view the Universe – or all observable phenomena – to be a purely subjective concept, best defined as the intersecting agreement between all potential subjectivities. The Cube functions as a receiving object, by denuding it of its role as a puzzle, it becomes a more intellectually malleable object, and the physical action of operating the Cube has a more personal meaning.

Process and Creation

After taking apart several cubes of different manufacture, I decided to cast a cube directly from the parts from an “officially licensed” Rubik’s Cube, as they were build much better than any other cube I could find. I went with casting over fabricating a cube from stock metal, as I felt that I could get much better results that way, and because I am fascinated by processes which are “classically alchemical” in style. I think the cube I eventually used as a source for the casting was borrowed from my roommate and never replaced.

I decided to cast all of the exterior parts of the Cube, and retain the six-way-core that’s at the center of every Rubik’s Cube. The core is made of a slightly flexible plastic, which enables the cube to move smoothly and to stay stable when subjected to mild torsion. I also decided to use the original screws if they would fit the newly cast parts. I was going to be casting the pieces in a centrifugal caster, which would enable me to use the original plastic cubies in place of wax parts in the stlye of lost wax casting. I had some experience with casting from model sprue material, so I was familiar with the differences in burning out wax and plastic positives in investment molds.

Originally I had planned on casting the Cube in silver, but a massive manipulation in the silver market by Warren Buffet was making silver significantly more expensive at the time I was planning the Cube. I was used to casting in silver, but the price increase led me to do some research into alternate materials. After doing some reading, I went out to a jewelery supply place in Orange County to look at their stock metals. I found a sack containing about seven pounds of “mystery white bronze” in their back room. The woman running the store didn’t know the provenance of the material – it had been there for years, possibly decades. I was really excited when I heard that. white bronze is made differently now than it used to be. It used to contain a ton of zinc, which puts out a pile of bad for your health fumes when heated. It has a really unusual colour, and has a very low rate of shrinkage – really important if I was going to mate the cast parts with the original core and screws. I got the proper mask and filter to deal with zinc fumes and got ready to cast.

I was working as the lab tech in Irene Mori’s Jewelery classes at El Camino Community College, so I pretty much had the run of the facilities. That helped a lot, as I needed to borrow a full size oxyacetylene rig from the Industrial Arts department to handle the high temperature required to melt the bronze – white bronze melts higher than regular bronze, and much higher than the silver that usually gets used in the El Camino lab. It also allowed me to have some control over the casting schedule, blocking out some periods when I could do multiple successive casts.

Preparing the twenty six cubies (the small cubes that make up the larger cube) and the six caps that make up the faces of the center cubies on the axis of the core was reasonable easy. I decided to cast each part in its own mold to control shrinkage. I knew that the process would suffer from at least 2-3% shrinkage, but I didn’t want any of the pieces to shrink unevenly in proportion to one another, as might happen if multiple pieces in a mold cooled at different rates. So there were to be thirty two castings in all. I prepared the individual parts by mating to the sprue marks left over from the initial casting process. I’m a pretty anal retentive sprue maker –  I’ll spare you the details on sprue design, but I did all the basic stuff to encourage efficient metal flow, reduce the chance of blowout and to prevent uneven shrinkage. Easy work, but somewhat tedious and boring.

Each of the pieces was placed in it’s own mold, which was both vibrated and subjected to vacuum to remove any bubbles on the surface of the piece. I fired the molds for 24 hours minimum, to burn out the plastic. The source plastic from the original Rubik’s Cube is really hard, which is good. Hard plastic gives a pretty clean burnout, but it requires at least 24 hours in the kiln.

The casting was done in an unusual manner (for a jewelry workshop). Due to the high melting point of the bronze, an oxyacetylene torch was needed to melt the metal. I dedicated a single crucible to the project, as I knew that the process was going to permanently screw up one of the school’s crucibles. I did some test casts and found that the metal wouldn’t cast cleanly, and was packed with impurities. I decided to take advantage of this in the final construction, by adding an inordinate amount of flux to the molten metal, while still removing the dross. What this did was embed foreign material in the casting that would blow out or leave a residue when the pieces were quenched, creating the appearance of great corrosion in the object. I was pleased and went ahead with the castings. 31 of the castings were successful, but one of the end caps didn’t come out well and had to be re-cast from another source cube.

There was almost no perceptible shrinkage in the final component, allowing for easy re-assembly into a functional cube. The end caps over the six core axis are all friction fit in place, but they can easily be removed. After assembly, the cube worked perfectly fine, and it is still functional today.

Patination & Final Surface

The cube’s patina & current surface appearance was accomplished in an elaborate, ritualistic process. I constructed a birch plywood box with a removable top, and then coated much, but not all of the box with beeswax to keep moisture in. Using a drill press, holes were drilled in the top, which were then filled with molten metal which would then burn its way through to complete the hole.

After the box was prepared, I prepared a mixture of metal salts, acids earth and urine (mine) in the box, which was then buried in the backyard of a very generous friend for about a year. When the cube was removed from the box, it had aged considerably, and the combination of the patina and the corroded surface texture gave it the appearance that I was hoping for. Even after the long burial and exposure to the elements, the cube is still perfectly functional, if a bit more delicate.

Final Disposition

I’m still not satisfied with the cube as a project. I’ve been toying with the idea of launching it into the ocean using a siege engine of some kind, most likely a trebuchet or catapult. I rather like the idea of someone, hundreds of years from now, finding this object and having to puzzle out its origins.


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