Hot to Bot

Artists assemble wonderous machines with scavenged parts and scrappy know-how

Like Doar's work, Esper's machines play with ideas of consciousness and emotion. Two robots, for example, argue about art: One makes sketches on paper as the other erases them. In "Gathered Voices," 24 pendulums arranged in a circle swing across electromagnets, activating circuits for speakers that play recorded poetry—representing, Esper says, the way the mind remembers people we've known. Another device, "A Circle of Friends Discuss James Clerk Maxwell," stands just inside the entrance to Esper's apartment and looks as if it might have been swiped off a Star Trek set; activated by reflected infrared light that glows from below, neodymium magnets attached to silver nails swing from a fishing line, falling in and out of distinct patterns. The movement is mesmerizing and meditative, like an enacted prayer.

As inventors with plenty of ideas, Doar and Esper naturally envision bigger devices. For Esper that means high voltage; he imagines the rising electric field of a Jacob's Ladder (the famous sparking device of the Frankenstein films) lighting a number of suspended fluorescent tubes—an effect, he says, that would represent the flow of energy through all living forms. "One of the most beautiful things about the world," Esper says, "is that everything's based on electromagnetism, even our thoughts about God." Doar has an idea for a giant apparatus that struggles to type out a line from an Adrienne Rich poem and another for a subway car fitted with a transparent floor, in which a pinball rolls with the car's motion across open circuits, setting off LEDs. Doar also wants to make a 30-foot version of the disconsolate windmill, which would take (depending on its determination) 15 years to kill itself. "There's something really fascinating," Doar says, "about a work of art that's mortal, that has a lifespan."

Ghosts in the machine: (l to r) Mark Esper and Brett Doar
photo: Mark Hartman
Ghosts in the machine: (l to r) Mark Esper and Brett Doar

Mark Esper's work is on display at Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery, 38 Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, through February 18.

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