17 January 2006

ganson/kinetic sculptures/other thoughts

last thursday, i met with arthur ganson to discuss my work and his work and things in general. it was pretty awesome.

i'd be lying if i said that arthur ganson's work hadn't influenced my own work. i remember the first time i went to the MIT museum (about four years ago) and saw ganson's permanent exhibit there. i was awed and excited. something about the pieces captured my imagination and opened a world to me that i never knew was possible. that was the engineering i always dreamed about. there was mechanical logic out in the open. there was the (to use ganson's words) sensuality of machines. something there was mystical and playful. and i loved it.

my undergrad mechE senior thesis (the icarus machine: a kinetic sculpture that demonstrates the principle of gyroscopic precession) was inspired by ganson (and also elizabeth streb and robert m. pirsig's book zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance). other than my inspirations, my thesis was fueled by the fact that i took an entire class that focused mainly on gyroscopic motion and was still clueless when it came to intuition about how they actually worked. i thought that by working through the design process, that i might come to a more clear understanding of what was going on.

over half a year since i finished my thesis, and i don't know that my intuition about gyroscopes is really superb, but it's definitely better than it was. but i think most importantly the process of working on my thesis has shaped the course of where i am and where i'm going in my life.

which somehow (at least in my head this makes logical sense) leads to my meeting with arthur ganson. i had lots of questions for him, but somehow the answers to the pre-thought questions weren't that important (although, he did patiently answer everything i asked). for me, what was more meaningful and rich was the conversation that went on between and through the questions. so i'll try to go over the questions and answers and fill in in between what i remember but didn't quite write down, as well as add a bit of my own post-meeting thinking. [the beginning questions in quotes are what i asked him]

-- "why 'gestural engineering' as a name for your exhibit at the museum?"
the museum folk are the ones who came up with this name. gesture is tied clearly to what ganson is doing. as he explained to me, "gesture is our emotional response to motion." i very much agree with that statement... or what it implies. maybe it should be more clearly stated that the gesture of a motion produces an emotional response. for me, the mention of gesture brings my thoughts to milan kundera's book immortality. in this book, kundera opens with a gesture that an old woman makes as she gets out of a public swimming pool. kundera discusses how this gesture belongs to a twenty year old girl and how gestures are not unique -- there are few gestures and many people. this thought fits with my view of the engineering design process, i.e. there are a set number of things to get done... motions to make... and many ways to do it.

-- "what is your design process?"
in general, the process is started by thinking about the type of motion that the final machine will make, then thinking about the possible mechanisms that can produce that motion. sometimes (as with the artichoke petal), the object works as a catalyst to start the design process. and yet other times, the idea is more nebulous, e.g. the fragile machine ... "its presence is its gesture." the mechanics of the machine is directly connected with how something will work and with the materials that will be used. this makes sense to me. to get a desired presence, a desired gesture, it's important to understand materials and the different uses of them. every material has its plusses and its drawbacks. for example, some materials allow for ease of construction, but offer little ability to scale to large size (lego is one case of this). so when the gesture is decided upon, it also follows that a certain set of materials will soon be decided upon. delicate gestures require delicate materials, etc.

-- "what resources do you use for mechanism design?"
mostly, he just sits, ponders, dreams, and draws. the more you work on this, the more your intuition about what might be a good solution grows. in the case of the large scale chair that disassembles and comes back together, arthur consulted an old book of mechanisms that he had and found a great solution (the beaver tail cam). i don't know that i could describe that solution here... it was something i didn't understand until moving the actual mechanism and figuring out what it was doing.

-- "what inspires you? what's your goal?"
he's inspired by anything around him and by nature (which... i guess is something around him). his goal is to explore different worlds. the machine is a game. the goal is to always keep playing. i agree with this. by making a problem into play, you eliminate the ingrained worries of is this right or wrong. instead, you focus on trial and debugging until you get what you want... or at least the closest you can get within your time constraints.

-- "what do you use for the base of your sculptures?"
a lot of times the base is incorporated. a good material is MDF (medium density fiberboard). he likes it for its lack of grain and its ability to accept stain. on top of the dye, he adds a wax coat to protect the wood. after researching MDF on the internet and just as a note, MDF should be worked with in high ventilation and with a face mask because it's bonded with urea formaldehyde which is not good to inhale from the dust.

-- "any advice for me?"
work through the difficult parts. don't give up.

-- "where do you find your materials? are they new or reused?"
he used to use stuff from junkyards, but now everything's from scratch, because it allows for more precise mechanism design. this makes sense. sometimes, it's hard to match gears to found gears or to fit found machinery together. lately, the only time found objects are used are as the focus of a sculpture.

-- "why do you think your stuff resonates with people?"
"i'm lucky." everybody's a sucker for motion, toys, puppets, and inventions. everyone's reason for liking it is personal. he says his pieces are relics of a play process. there's nothing there to get. he's not trying to sell anything. arthur told me a story of an exhibit where everyone was praising him afterwards and someone came up and said "i don't get it. i don't like it." and he was happy that they did so. i'm definitely of the opinion that dissent is good. sometimes dissent leads to more thorough questioning and a more rich dialog than agreeing and glossing over your thoughts.

-- "how did you get here?"
accidentally. he was a pre-med major. he used to be obsessed with programming for a year or so. and he always loved building things. he feels lucky that he's able to make a living doing what he loves. i couldn't agree more with the feeling of accident. i usually feel like i have no clue how i ended up what i'm doing now, but i'm so thrilled to be here that i don't question it.

-- "how would you get people to follow in your steps?"
"i wouldn't want people to follow in my steps." he says that people should figure out what the natural steps are for themselves. keep checking in on what feels important and interesting to you. go with what feels right.

-- "what's hard and what's easy?"
"it's easy to keep dreaming; hard to stop." everything feels like a prototype. there's always something more you wish you could tweak on it, so it's hard to know when to finish. also, it's hard to come up with a solution to a problem that someone else needs a solution for. i can definitely identify with this.

all in all, i really enjoyed meeting with arthur ganson. he's a pretty cool guy. in some ways, i feel that we have very similar outlooks on things. for me, it's really nice to see someone who's doing what they love (and something similar to what i would maybe like to do some day) and making a living doing it. it's definitely an inspiration for me to have him around and for him to be so willing to patiently answer my questions.


  1. "kundera discusses how this gesture belongs to a twenty year old girl and how gestures are not unique -- there are few gestures and many people." :D yah! and contexts and intentionalities

  2. yes! i think this is a continuing theme in things i think about.