Permanent Collection at MIT Museum
It's in the integration of the innocent, naive child and the thinking adult that the machines happen. It’s in that space.
– Arthur Ganson
Arthur Ganson has groupies. It is the first time that I set off to do a profile interview where friends, naturally RISD grads, asked if they could sit in and they did. Why?
Ganson has long been the hero of a cult following of technologists and artists. With more permanent work than any other artist or innovator inside the hallowed halls of the MIT Museum, Machine with Paper and Machine with Grease are quiet, complex kinetic sculptures that mesmerize the viewer and pull on both the mind and the emotion. Ganson’s playful, wry humor was captured in Randall Okita’s award winning film “Machine with Wishbone.” But Ganson is both humble and realistic in his success.
“I've been very fortunate. I would not say that it was just my determination because, honestly, I'm a white male in this society and I have many more opportunities just being a white male than a lot of other people given sex or skin color, really. That’s a part of the equation in this society. I've had opportunities I'm sure that other people wouldn't have had,” Ganson said in a back office at the MIT Museum.
This summer Ganson and his wife, photographer Chehalis Hegner, are leaving Cambridge after more than two decades and moving to a family owned 500-acre tree farm and land and water preserve located about an hour northwest of Chicago. Halo Hill Farm will become their home base and studios in two converted barns and a space for collaborative ventures with other artists and inventors, and possibly home to a micro-artist residency program in the near future.
In an age of intricate and invasive 24-hour connection, Ganson also speaks about the need for quiet and it’s effect. “I need a lot of focused time because it's a slow process. My sculptures come about from deep introspection and I think that there's an infinite possibility of creativity with everyone if they can find that truth … and maybe it's becoming increasingly difficult when so much of the world is defined for us.”
I sat down with Ganson to discuss the power of focus on his creativity and what drives him to create art, rather than the next commercial technology product.
How would you describe your work?
They're all solutions to problems that I pose in my mind or they're the result of imaginations that I have. All of the sculptures begin with some feeling or question about an emotion that I want to express, and expressing the emotion is, first and foremost, in the realization of the piece.
How do you begin the process?
There are so many avenues and pathways to the pieces. Some of the pieces I thought about for years and I have sketched them. I rarely do sketches that are representational, especially if I'm working with wire because it's hard to predict exactly what it will look like. I'll create a very gestural drawing that gives me a sense of general volume and space and how I want it to feel in space. If the piece involves solving real mechanical problems, then the drawings in that case will be sketches showing the pathways of energy and clearance and kind of a three dimensional spatial understanding of what needs to be within what.
Do you ever use words in these sketches?
How would you describe your work?
The sketches themselves are gestural in a sense. I would say that it's kinetic sculpture in the broadest sense because the impetus to create them, as I said, comes from a feeling and for me the whole domain is sculpture.
I started making these pieces when I was in the sculpture program at UNH in Durham New Hampshire. It was a very traditional art upbringing. And then I found my way to making machines kind of accidentally, and I realized over time that this way of making sculpture solved all the problems and it brought in all of the aspects of my being that I wanted to incorporate. It was the most natural thing for me.
Do you see that other engineers at MIT are trying to solve practical problems and you're trying to solve emotional problems?
That's a good distinction. Essentially, we're all doing the same thing. Engineering is engineering. The reason for the machine existing in the first place is just different. There is a tremendous overlap with the world of commercial engineering because, in this case, the machines, in order to speak, have to move. They have to work. If they stop working, it's usually because of an engineering flaw.
Do you intentionally avoid commercial use?
No. Aside from the toy, I've never done anything that's a commercial engineering application except I have a lot of ideas for products that I want to begin to get to and these are purely commercial - they're inventions.
The VCs are going to line up.
I have lots of different ideas in all different realms because for me the ideas are coming all the time and sometimes they're coming in the sculptural, artistic, emotional expression realm. Every moment is an opportunity to invent something new and for me it's happening all the time. It's open ended. In the past, I haven't put the energy towards commercial products, but once I move to Illinois and set the studio up again, a good portion of my time is going to go toward these inventions.
What is kinetic sculpture?
Kinetic sculpture for me involves sculpture which has to do with change over time. I was really drawn, not to the object itself, but to the object in a state of becoming. I think that's just the best way that I can describe it. I was never so interested in just the object. I was never interested in the surface. I didn't really care about the surface. I just instinctively wanted to see the object in transition and that there was something between this moment and the next moment.
I love your TED talk with the clip of you as a young boy drawing the car traveling across the pages. My son makes those flipbooks. Do you still use a flipbook today?
I haven't drawn any flipbooks in many, many years. That was something I did really when I was starting, but it's always possible. It's always possible I could get back into it. Actually I have some ideas having to do with flipbooks because flipbooks are really amazing. And they're so simple. And for me, the flipbook was the first way that I really began to explore motion. I could do something. I could make decisions about timing, about space, and then see it manifest.
Is there a metaphorical quality to your work?
There is for me in my own mind and heart – whatever metaphorical ideas I have are the foundational, directional ideas that form the impetus for how the piece gets developed. It needs to work for me first and generally if it works for me, it will work for someone else – but that’s never a guarantee. I believe fully that any meaning that comes when somebody observes a piece, that meaning can only come from their direct observation and how their perception of the piece interfaces with their own life experience and what it triggers in them.
What about Machine with Paper?
It certainly expresses this feeling that I have about wanting to create a sense of the ethereal. That was the impulse and it's set up very specifically so that there's a mechanism at the base. There's a field of scraps of paper and then there's a space in between which is this very simple region of vertical lines. It could be heaven and earth. I'm not going to say that it is. It's not important that anybody know that. I feel that with the observation of these pieces, the only important thing is that somebody be present and observe them and make whatever they want of them.
I had a really interesting experience when I had an opening at a museum in western Massachusetts and we had the opening reception outside. It was a really nice day and all these people were coming up to me and saying how much they really liked the show. This guy came up to me and he said, 'is that your work up there?' I said, 'yeah.' He said, 'it just makes no sense to me at all. It doesn’t mean anything to me.' I said, 'thank you' because that's also true - because there's nothing inherent in the machines.
It sounds like you want your work to be a gift to the people.
I've never used that but I feel that is a really nice way of describing it, actually, because it comes from a very close place in me. Yes.
Is quiet essential to create? And do you need a lot of quiet time for your work?
I think that's a big generalization but it is true for me. Generally for me to do my work I need a lot of focused time because it’s a slow process. My sculptures come about from deep introspection and I think that there's an infinite possibility of creativity with everyone if they can find that truth – whatever the truths are for themselves – but it's really difficult and maybe it's becoming increasingly difficult when so much of the world is defined for us.
This is something that I think about all the time because I would not say that I'm free completely in my mind. All the time, I struggle to see those ideas that I have that are in the place of 'this is a should,’ ’this is the way something is,’ ‘this is how this is done.' All the time I'm trying to free myself of all of my previous thoughts.
When I watch my twelve year old doing homework, checking the web while texts come in, I think, 'wow, I didn’t have those pressures. I had these long moments of creation.’ Can you say anything to the younger generation about the importance of quiet?
That's a really hard question to answer because the situation is so different now. I would like to say that there's a gold mine of personal possibility if one can quiet their surroundings and really go with an understanding what's true and essential for you.
I think it could be difficult to find that in this world of mass media and texting all the time and attention being completely fragmented. The thing is that kids growing up in this environment have a completely different foundation and I don't know enough about their world to say what is good or bad.
It's fascinating how you combine the linear with the abstract. It's rare to see. Why is it so rare?
Maybe we're not given the environment, but can you define what you mean by linear?
Linear is being logical and orderly but the abstract is the indefinable. You have a parallel at play in your work. Do you see that?
Yes. Absolutely. I think that when each of us comes into this life as kids, we completely have the possibility of linear and abstract possibilities. I think the playful, more creative aspects tend to become muted for a lot of people as we grow up. The childlike nature is a challenge to be an adult and to be a child at the same time, but I have to be a child at the same time as being an adult. It is in the integration of the innocent, naive child and the thinking adult that the machines happen. It's in that space.
I've noticed that if art work contains enough information that is grounded and clear – and we could use the words 'linear' and ‘unambiguous’ – if there's enough of that with enough aspects that are open ended and ambiguous, in that edge, I think that is a situation that offers the most hope that anybody can come and take something from the art work because if it's grounded enough, then that's where you need to begin.
It's a way of accessing the piece but if it's open ended, then you create your own meaning. If something is completely abstract with no grounding, I know that kind of work doesn't really pull me in and, on the flip side, work that's completely linear is not so inspiring. So, it's that edge between clarity and ambiguity, which is really important.
Why did you create Friday After Thanksgiving?
The Friday After Thanksgiving event was going on for a number of years before me. It was a program of the MIT Museum but one year they came to me and asked me if I had some ideas, and I suggested we do a chain reaction in the hallways of the museum. There were probably four or five people in groups that showed up with stuff they had built that first year as Rube Goldberg inventions.
We never thought that it would go beyond that one year but we had a really great time, so we did it again the year after and it was really crowded. We outgrew that and went to a larger room downstairs and then we eventually outgrew that and went to the small gym and we outgrew that.
Do you long for a time when academic institutes and corporations created creative spaces for long-term discovery between artists and scientists? Is something lost today?
Yes. There's a book called Experiments in Art and Technology and actually it documents many different corporations that did set up programs where they would have an engineer and an artist coming together to work on something. That’s a little different than a corporation giving their engineers and scientists a place to just dream. I am approaching a point, thankfully, where I will have a space like that which will be my new studio in Illinois. It will be a quiet space to be able to work on many different things.
What can we expect from you next?
There are a lot of different things that I'm working on. I'm very excited about further development of the piece that I made many years ago called Cory's Yellow Chair.
That was your son's chair?
Yes. It's a little chair that's continually exploding and imploding. The piece that's here at the MIT Museum was the first one and I've made two others now. One of them was made for a museum in Wolfsburg, Germany as a permanent installation. That required a completely different engineering solution to create that motion. And since that piece, I've constantly been thinking about it.
I'm very excited about it because there's a lot of very specific engineering in it that I've thought about for many, many years having to do with designing a system which has parts moving and stopping quickly and moving again, but in a very harmonious way where energy and momentum are very carefully considered and held and the system becomes very fluid and very elegant. This next evolution of the piece will be fairly small. It's not going to look at all like the piece that's here except that there will be a yellow chair exploding and imploding.
You sound excited.
Yes. There's a whole world out there of technology that I'm just on the edge of. The possibilities we have now with CNC machining, laser cutting, and 3D printing – that's a whole world that I've not used and it's a world that I'm very interested in - not just because of what it can do but because of how it can serve as a really useful tool for me.
The possibility of building and working in new ways is completely open ended. One part of what I will do is explore all these new technologies because I'm really curious about it and there's a lot of power there. There's another part of me where I'm just going to keep bending wire and welding steel and the farm that we're moving to is windy almost all the time. I will have space around me and wind is going to play a role. Insects are going to play a role. Every time I'm out on the farm, the place is just full of insects. The house is always full of insects. The last time I was there, the kitchen was just full of ladybugs and I started to dream about extremely fragile little machines that ladybugs would live in and the weight of the ladybug would activate the components. The possibilities are endless.
What motivates you to keep working?
I have kept working because it's what I had to do. I think people ultimately do what they have to do. When I came out of college, I did anything that I could to have the time and space to do work and it started very simply. My studio was nothing more than a desk in my living room when I was living alone or a room in a group house when I was living in North Cambridge, and it was kind of a hassle but it was all I could afford and I did everything possible to just keep making the work. I did that because I needed to make the work.
That was more important than anything else, and gradually, somehow miraculously, making the work has been able to provide me with enough sustenance to keep going. But it's been a very gradual transition and I've been very fortunate. I would not say that it was just my determination because, honestly, I'm a white male in this society and I have many more opportunities just being a white male than a lot of other people given sex or skin color, really. That’s a part of the equation in this society. I've had opportunities I'm sure that other people wouldn't have had.
We're glad you had those opportunities. We'll miss you in Illinois.
Come and visit.