You’re a kinetic artist, and build Rube Goldberg machines. What does that mean?
I make chain reaction machines that perform a simple task via a convoluted sequence of events: string pulls hammer, hitting ball, breaking vase, etc. They’re often known as Rube Goldberg machines, named after the famous cartoonist who used to draw such absurd contraptions 100 years ago.
Joseph Herscher and The Page Turner, February 2012, Photo: Fletcher Lawrence © 2012 Joseph Herscher
Your work is quite aesthetic. You’re obviously not just thinking about what the machine does, but how it looks while it’s doing it. Where do you begin with designing the experience?
I get most of my ideas my observing the world around me and taking the time to play with it. Walking in the supermarket I once knocked a bottle of ketchup off the shelf and it rolled down the aisle in a really cool way. I then proceeded to play with all the bottles of ketchup in the aisle until I found “the best roll” which I eventually used in a machine.
Trial and error presumably plays a pretty large role in your work. What was your biggest error? Does the process of experimentation ever get dangerous?
My current project is taking me a year to complete and will be five minutes long. Most of my ideas come from playing with objects and discovering interesting things I can do with them. Then there is a LOT of trial and error to get it to work every time. Sometimes I will spend two weeks on something that only lasts four seconds. I don’t move on until I see it work fifty times in a row. My biggest error was in using acetone one time, which looks just like water but reaches boiling point much faster. I forgot that it is also highly flammable. The first two attempts worked like a treat, but on the third it caught fire and most of The Page Turner caught alight, spraying melted sponge everywhere, which was really hard to get off. And it almost burned the house down.
Although the machines themselves have a limited apparent use, paradoxically the materials that make up their various component parts are consistently exploited for a variety of functions beyond their conventional purpose. Has it become impossible not to think about how you might MacGyver random objects to work with aspects of a machine?
I like to use familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. My goal is for people to think twice about the endless possibilities in the everyday tasks and objects that surround them.
How do you decide what materials to use? Do you scout around and purchase specific items, or do you collect and tinker?
I spend about a third of my workday “foraging” for specific objects that fit specific needs. Luckily my street has eight discount stores, so if I need to find a plastic cup I go into every one until I find the perfect cup! I have to buy five sizes of everything to ensure I have different options to play with, and thus a lot of the stuff I buy I don’t end up using. I have a huge closet jam-packed with all sorts of materials and categorized by type; for instance I have a container labeled “Miniature Kitchen Utensils,” another for “Long Plastic Things” and another for ‘Things that Roll.”
Herscher and the Book Holder, September 1999, Courtesy of Joseph Herscher
Do you live with any of the machines – or with any clever hacks – in your everyday life? I’m imagining that mornings at your place might be kind of like the breakfast sequence in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
I’ve made a lot of inventions to improve my life. I had strings to turn the light off from bed. Reading The Lord Of the Rings at the age of ten was rather heavy for my young arms so I made a machine to hold the book above my head.
When I was twelve I made a machine that made any drink carbonated; you pushed your drink into a hole in a box and the machine dispensed equal amounts of citric acid and baking powder, which made a bubbling reaction.
Speaking of pop culture representations of Rube Goldberg machines, they still manage to get quite a bit of play. In addition to your recent guest spot on Sesame Street, OK Go did a music video involving a very elaborate machine and the IFC network show Portlandia did a sketch involving a child who builds them. What do you make of the popular staying power of the Rube Goldberg machine?
At first I wondered if Rube Goldberg machines were just a fad, but if you look more closely humans have always been fascinated with these sorts of machines. People have been drawing absurd devices long before Rube Goldberg was around.
Your piece, La Macchina Botanica, was at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Where do you see your work fitting into the art discourse? Fischli and Weiss seem like pretty natural referents…
I love the work of Fischli and Weiss; the way those normally inanimate objects became characters in their surrealist landscape. I use similar whimsical interactions, but I try to contextualize it in more of a narrative with a beginning and an end, and incorporate people and animals. I want people to imagine having machines like these in their own homes, so they see the potential for play inherent in everyday life.
What do you have coming up?
I am working on The Dresser, a machine that helps me get dressed by ironing my clothes, shining my shoes, putting on my hat, etc. It is my largest and longest machine to date; a 30-foot traveling show that can pack up easily and be performed anywhere in the world. The first performance will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 9th at the end of my time as Knight Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art.
When I was in college, one of my classmates petitioned to declare an independent major in Men’s Studies. True story: he went so far as to stand up in front of a faculty review panel, plead his case, (something as base as: “if I can major in Women’s Studies, I should be able to pursue Men’s Studies”), and was promptly laughed out of the classroom. One might assume that given the context, (Vassar, c.2001), it was some sort of performance piece or screwball stunt; but I can claim with near certainty that this request to study the work of Men was delivered with the naive seriousness that only a 19-year old can muster.
I have to admit that I’ve always been grateful for my classmate’s momentary mental lapse, because it was out of this campus drama that I recognized my academic career as a veritable homage to Men’s Studies. Since that time, days rarely pass that do not serve-up some small reminder of the maleness of the universe, from a feature on Janet Yellen or Denise Scott Brown, to an all staff meeting where the divide between upper-level administration and lower-level cultural worker is clearly demarcated by gender.
Recently, I was thrilled to learn about ruf·fle, an exhibition organized by Portland’s League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD), that opened earlier this month at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory. Even in a town like Portland, where inclusive design firms seem to outnumber coffee shops, women are underrepresented in the field—statistically in number and in rank, but perhaps more importantly, women are less visible as a driving force behind the innovation that Portland is celebrated for. In her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” cultural critic/historian Rebecca Solnit employs the phrase archipelago of arrogance to describe an inflated self-confidence—a distinctly masculine phenomena—that is so aggressively assured, it keeps women bound in self-doubt, inhibiting them from speaking up and, in turn, from being heard. In an essay written for GOOD, Alissa Walker seemingly responds to Solnit by encouraging women in design to use social media as a way to assert one’s voice in the field. She writes, “in this age, women can’t wait for someone else to organize the event or to curate the museum show… Creating a rich narrative, illustrated with videos, photos, blog posts, essays, is something I don’t see nearly enough from women in the field. Their numbers may be small, but it’s the responsibility of that 10% to tell at least 50% of the story.”
Founded by industrial designer Kari Merkl, LAWD was established as vehicle to promote visibility by cultivating connections between women in design, providing a space for discussion and critique, and supporting a network for professional and creative opportunities. Merkl has since moved to Chicago and LAWD has been temporarily relinquished to Sara Huston, a consummate maker and interdisciplinary creative, who conceived and organized ruf·fle in collaboration with the eleven LAWD members featured in the exhibition. The word ruffle forms the pith of the project and, explored as both noun and verb, becomes the meeting place where twelve very disparate design practices meet. Defined as disorder, disruption, and perturbation, but also as ornament and frill, the term provides ample fodder for design work that is not outwardly gendered, (no “shrink it and pink it” tactics employed here), but undeniably, is laced with a feminine sensibility that illustrates how women are actively engaging and innovating the field of design today.
I spoke with Sara Huston in her studio that she shares with her partner John Paananen. Together, Huston and Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary design studio, the last attempt at greatness.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What is it about Portland that draws designers?
Sara Huston: Portland is a great incubator, but unfortunately, it’s not the best business atmosphere if you’re looking to sell work. At least that’s what we’ve found. A majority of the things we make are sold outside of Portland. We have a creative and supportive community here, although maybe a little less critical than we’d like. Coming from the Midwest/East Coast and the rigor of Cranbrook, we’ve found that there is a lack of critical feedback, and competition in the city. So far, we have been able to sustain our practice here, but it’s been difficult. I try to seek out specific people in Portland to help fulfill the need for critical feedback and conversation, people that push me to create better work.
SMP: Was it from this desire to cultivate a critical community of sorts that produced League of Awesome Women Designers, (LAWD)?
SH: Kari Merkl, a designer who lived and worked in Portland for almost a decade and recently relocated to Chicago, started LAWD. She started the group in an effort to be less isolated as a one-woman design studio, meet more women in the design community and foster a network of like-minded designers. She has subsequently continued this idea in Chicago as well. Right now, the Portland group is at a tipping point, leaders are stepping down and the group is shifting, into what? I am not sure. This shift and the ruf·fle exhibition sparked a branding exercise to explore the identity of the group and to discuss what we are really about and how we want to operate going forward. We soon realized that there is no one unifying voice or identity other than the fact that we’re all women located along the art-design spectrum participating in monthly meetings that are run casually by whom ever wants to take the lead. The women in the group come from a diverse set of backgrounds and professions, and I feel that is a huge strength of the group. I have found that every woman participates in LAWD for different reasons, some are interested in connecting to find job opportunities, for networking, and others, including myself, are interested in critical feedback and discourse.
SMP: What do you mean by critical discourse?
SH: In-depth discussions about how and why we create things that involve going deeper than the surface. Some topics I enjoy are process, technique, material culture, design/art philosophy and theory, identity, emerging technology, the integration/rejection of technology, social justice, and the battle of sustaining an independent practice in the US. The group in the past has taken on conversations about what it means to be a designer/artist professional today in the midst of disciplines merging, and more of an emphasis being put on having a socially or environmentally focused practice… When I stop to think about it, gender issues rarely come up, if ever. In smaller settings outside the meetings it seems like women are more open to discuss these deeper topics and gender topics like the representation of women in the field, pay structures, and other traditional “gender politics.” It might be that the larger group setting and the casual nature of LAWD discourages conversation from going deeper more often.
A lot of us work and collaborate with men, and with disciplinary and professional boundaries dissolving, many LAWD members feel that defining oneself as a woman designer needs to give way to just designer; adding the word “woman” amplifies the differentiating factor if it’s continuously referenced. But, at the same time, we still feel underrepresented in the field at large. There is a group called ForWARD in the city that was formed by a few women architects that meet monthly as well —they’re less casual than LAWD—but clearly, there’s a need for these formations and discussions.
SMP: You, and I’m guessing many of the women in LAWD, are not your traditional designers. What was your entry into the field?
SH: After receiving my BFA in sculpture, I applied to graduate school in a variety of different disciplines. I applied at the University of Cincinnati for architecture, Yale for sculpture, RISD for furniture, and Cranbrook for 3D design. I was admitted to all but RISD. The minute I walked onto campus at Cranbrook it was obvious, I belonged there and the reminder of the day’s visit only confirmed that initial feeling. Cranbrook is known for its rigorous studies, interdisciplinary environment and the pushing and blurring of boundaries. A majority of the work I experimented with at Cranbrook was meant to challenge the language and intersection of art and design through mediums and visual languages that fascinated me. I was interested in challenging what one thinks they know, what they expect, and where they think disciplinary boundaries lie. I wanted to provoke people to think about objects in a new way.
At one point while studying at Cranbrook our artist in resident, Scott Klinker, pegged me as an artist with a furniture/storage fetish. At that point, it was a perfect way to explain who I was and why I was using the language of furniture in a visually expressive way. There really was no logic of it other than a fascination, a fetish. My love for boxes, jars, tins, etc., probably has a bit to do with being obsessed with organization and an interest in the placement of objects in a space. Organization allows my overly busy mind to find peace. A lot of my work in grad school was also inspired and driven by these obsessions and fascinations with certain objects. I feel like I explored these areas more as an artist than a designer, but it crosses over so much and it is hard to say that I do not also look at objects from the standpoint of a designer.
SH: I’ve just always been inexplicably drawn to objects, whether decorative or functional, and I think this is what drew me into design when I was studying art. I became interested in the perception of the object, the usage, and the misusage of the object, which is also a focus in design. I was never taught to separate the two disciplines or felt a need to separate them. They share so much and I was interested in, and still am interested in existing in that shared space, the space between. As the distinctions of a discipline blurs new potential and meaning emerge. It is who I am and how I identify myself, and always will be …. even if it is hard to answer the question, “what do you do?”
SMP: But you’re definitely working at a certain scale relative to the human body that speaks more to furniture than the handheld crafted object.
SH: So far anyway. I expect there to be a movement towards smaller containers and larger livable structures in the future, it’s been on my mind a lot. I don’t limit myself because I don’t think I can work in a smaller/larger scale, my work just has yet to go there… When I initially relocated to Portland, my work shifted from sculptural pieces and into collaborating with John [Paananen] and working on projects together that were more design oriented—the sofa, rockers, and lamps. It was a natural progression considering we met at Cranbrook, we were interested in the same design/art conversations and were now in a relationship and living together. Over the past year, we realized that we don’t work well when we start projects together, but instead we worked best when independently pursuing work and then collaborating once a project is started. This realization birthed a whole new series of work in our studio, [the last attempt at greatness]; for example, John is working on a series of 12 structures that are meant to be quick physically built sketches which will culminate and inspire the creation of a larger project. I’m currently working on an audio piece that will be included in the White Box exhibition, ruf•fle. It’s about disciplinary boundaries thresholds and categorization. I am ruffling my own sensibilities in terms of process and medium with this piece and John has been a great sounding board and source of critical discourse for the project, pushing me to do even better work.
SH: The audio piece is terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. It’s a door that I’m opening for myself and there’s been a lot of hesitation. I don’t practice as an audio artist specifically, but I see myself as an artist who can use any media to express what I’m trying to do, much in the way that designers are not limited by a singular material, but use what ever is needed to accomplish the job. Ultimately, what this piece has done is create a bridge into the new media/digital realm that I’ve been dreaming about. I am used to working as a visual artist and once the visual component is taken away, my senses are heightened, and new ways of working develop. New ways of forming audio and experiencing audio start to develop and I have found myself creating a new relationship to a medium that I had not paid much attention to in the past. It has been very liberating and inspiring to work with audio. It’s been a huge challenge, and that’s what I was hoping the show ruf•fle would do.
SMP: What is the content of the audio?
SH: The audio states in my own voice: “I am a designer. I am not a designer. I am an artist. I am not an artist,” and the phrases are overlapped so you can distinguish individual words, but there’s a lack of clarity and definition of what I am saying I am or am not. The need for classification and definition is called for in academia and when trying to find a place for myself professionally. I run across this when in social situations or meeting someone new when I am asked, “what do you do?” When you exist in the in-between space, this liminal state, what you do can be difficult to communicate. There’s Art and Design and I am always in the middle.
SMP: How do you relate to craft?
SH: To me, and in my work art and design rest on top of craft. I was taught in school to always focus on making something with an attention to detail and with the rigor of a crafts person no matter what medium I was working with, and how much experience I had with it. This was referred to, by my instructors, as ‘considering the crafting of the object’, and their standards were very high. I use the same principles to this day in all my work and when creating the audio and floor object for the ruf•fle show.
SMP: I’m guessing you’re still pushed into one camp or the other, despite all best efforts.
SH: I’m often referred to as a furniture designer, at least 50% of the time. Part of my thinking going into the ruf•fle show was in reaction to that. I was looking to provoke those who view me as a furniture designer, among other things. I see myself as a provocateur of thought and visual language. The motivation for the work is to disrupt people who come into the gallery looking for clarity, definition, comprehension or an established meaning behind the work they are viewing or assumed discipline of the person who made the work. I am not interested in providing clarity, definition or something the viewer can comprehend, but instead I am interested in creating a situation that challenges their expectations, induces reflection and opens them up to new ways of thinking. If they walk out frustrated, or confused then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Those moments can evolve into acceptance and a higher level of realization—they don’t always—it’s a tipping point. I see my work as being the pusher.
SMP: Is this your way forging a new language, or at least initiating conversation, and does this conceptually feed into the way you’ve framed ruf•fle ?
SH: Yes. The exhibition statement and title is a collective look into interpreting one word—ruffle—to motivate and inspire 12-women to create work. Some women are considering it as a literal ruffle of fabric, others as a disturbance of a surface, or as in “ruffling one’s feathers.” I chose a disturbance or ‘ruffling of ones feathers’. The ability for that word to be interpreted outside of the feminine is huge, and that’s part of the reason why we chose it. It inherently seems very feminine, but the interpretations that are coming out elude gender-specific connotations.
SMP: It’s interesting that you chose an indirect way to address gender by using a term where the feminine connotations are pervasive but can go easily unacknowledged. Seems telling…
SH: There’s definitely diversity in how the women see issues of women in design. There was one conversation when we were looking at the identity of the group, the question was raised of whether or not the group needed to go on being women only. There are a variety of viewpoints, generations, and professional fields involved in the group. It would be interesting for all the women in the group to sit down and have a focused conversation on issues that surround women in design. The younger women in the group are definitely tending towards wanting to emphasize the gender issues and even going so far as to bring up inviting men into the group.
SMP: Oh, wow. Do you have to fall back on the old argument: every group and industry is run by men for men, can’t we just have this?
SH: The group was started with that in mind and I think it is important. Exhibitions like ruf•fle and the group LAWD are opportunities to express: we’re here, we’re doing stuff, and it can’t be ignored; but, being a group composed solely of women somehow allows women-focused issues to fall by the wayside during meetings… I’m interested to hear women designing in Portland discuss whether they consider their work as distinctly feminine, or if it’s gender neutral. When I stop to consider my own practice, I try to strip personal narrative or my identity away from the work. I do not see my work as specifically feminine and when I create, I do not put an emphasis on being a woman who creates. I give my students articles about gender issues in design and put an emphasis on knowing that the conversation is happening and has not ended, which I think is very important and part of ones education.
Is it important to thinking about gendered design when making or does that reflection come after the fact? Is it something we do intuitively? Is the entire conversation merely reflective? Just exploring that idea and how it relates to action is compelling in itself.
Sara Huston is a Portland-based artist, designer, maker, and educator. She and her partner John Paananen make up the collaborative interdisciplinary studio the last attempt at greatness, which explores subjects of progress, expectation, liminal space, categorization, perception, value, and the intersection and language in art and design. Huston and Paananen’s work is aimed at provoking discourse and contemplation in the viewer or user in an attempt to disrupt conventional ways of thinking, induce reflection, and challenge the boundaries of what is known.
ruf•le is on view at the University of Oregon’s White Box Visual Laboratory, (Portland), through August 24, 2013. The exhibition includes: Natalie Barela, Albertha Bradley, Noelle Bullock, Lydia Cambron, Flo & Goose, Alison Gradischer, Sara Huston, Kate MacKinnon, Kari Merkl, Diane Pfeiffer, Jennifer Wall, and JJ Wright. Organized by Sara Huston, Lydia Cambron, and Flo Truong, with assistance from Ashley Gibson, Manager, White Box.
Introductory photo is courtesy of Vassar College archives.
All other photos are courtesy of White Box, (c) Sara Huston, 2013
Claudine Isé will be giving a talk this Saturday at the Humboldt Park library as part of Philip von Zweck’s Much Much More lecture series. I’ve been to one of these thus far and loved it — something about going to a library on a Saturday afternoon to hear an artist/writer talk about his or her work outside the context of an exhibition, or even an art institution. Isé has contributed to Bad at Sports extensively in the past, often behind the scenes. Like many, I have benefitted tremendously from her insight about this blog in the past, and continue to admire her critical writing. To that end, I’m especially looking forward to hearing her present her own work, off the page and in person. This event was also included on Bassett’s What’s the T this week.
@ Humboldt Park branch, Chicago Public Library
1605 N. Troy Street
August 3, from 3PM – 4PM
Barbie and La Nouvelle Vague (part 3)
I’m on the porch rifling through Barbie posters and notes on what she would prefer when running away to a deserted island. I know Barbie would want to be with Ken. The way “Marianne,” played by Anna Karina in “Pierrot le fou” (“Pete the madman”), ran away with “Ferdinand,” played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, to live in the French Riviera. The couple ran away for two different reasons, and their fears kept them together. At the end of the film, I like to reinvent different outcomes. Perhaps they should have stayed in town.
This argument applies to play with Barbie as well. I take her outside of the box, adjust her arms and legs, and am free to imagine Barbie in a variety of ways. She is Ken’s girlfriend getting ready for date night when I put black high heels on her. She is Midge’s friend getting ready for brunch when I put strappy sandals on her. She is Skipper’s sister getting ready for a yogurt run when I put sparkly flats on her. I assign Barbie various identities, and each time the fictional truths may be compared to real-world cultural representations.
My adjustments to Barbie’s identity are necessary. For many she seems such a frivolous thing. Questions about her importance reinforce the idea that Barbie encourages the creative interpretation of identity. I cannot escape her. I have spent so much time alone with her. Some have not understood, but many have been supportive—my man included. (I say “man” because after a certain age “boyfriend” just doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the weight of an adult relationship.) Things changed along the way. I changed when I got close to the essence of Barbie. I got close to myself. I learned to trust myself. I learned about the superficial sting.
I also know that Barbie is “plastic” and “anatomically incorrect”—like some “real” women that I know. But, she’s gotten a “bad rap.” I know that I “just can’t change” the opinion of some. That sometimes it just “is what it is.” That Barbie is made for “art’s sake” and that some “art” is inspired by Barbie. That Barbie “inspired” the long list of female characters of La Nouvelle Vague. Consider Artist Nickolay Lamm’s “comparison of bodies.” Lamm suggests that the “average” woman’s body is “no match.” In fact, Lamm found “unrealistic measurements of 36-18-33, compared to the typical 19-year old girl’s 32-31-33” (Revealed: What Barbie would look like as a Real Woman). This explains why Barbie can’t stand-up on her own.
I’ll admit, I “agree.” She sends the “wrong message” to “impressionable” girls. Barbie is not for the “weak.” I learned this my “first year” in Chicago. We went to some “pop-up” art gallery on a Friday night and there was Barbie—“decapitated,” lying in the “middle” of the room, on the “floor.” I asked the artist “why” he’d done this. He calmly, “sipped” red wine out of a mason jar, said “I used to do this to my older sister’s Barbie when I was a kid.” He then joked about Barbie’s “power” to revert him to “childhood.” This has always stayed with me. Barbie brings out the angry adolescent in every adult.
Who is not disappointed, enchanted, or tempted by Barbie? Most days, in the world of Barbie, the view from the porch provides a narrow balconyscape which hosts the angular silhouettes of red-tipped bricks. Sometimes we have company and they join us on the porch. In these moments the table is cluttered with wine glasses, water crackers, cheese platters, Barbie, Midge, and Skipper. On an eventful evening, Barbie is a kaleidoscope twirling from hand to hand. Soon we are scampering. There aren’t enough hours. There is never enough time, just the way time ran out for “Ferdinand.”
Soon, I feel the twin twinkle of goodbye kisses. It’s just me at the door. At the heart of La Nouvelle Vague is a breathless, powerful glance because it is difficult to turn away from the beautiful tragedy. It is difficult to answer and dispute the fullness that Barbie deserves. I only rarely come close to completing the lanky jigsaw puzzle. I cannot really see the end. The journey is mine, this Barbie pink path that leads to the unknown, the pink purgatory.
Jamie Kazay teaches in the English Department at Columbia College. A California native, she holds a BA in English from California State University, Northridge and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Columbia College. She co-curates the Revolving Door Reading Series and is currently reading of a lot of Camus, Derrida, and Dorothy Allison. Her collection, Small Hollering, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2011.
genius brilliant strange that it can only be art, let’s agree to call it a serious WTF? You can find their youtube channel here.