A creature resembling a dog staggers across the floor on shaky legs, rasping out the sound of a tiny asthmatic Godzilla. Next to him, a bedraggled rooster dances frenziedly on one leg, then slumps. Both have experienced their share of abuse over the years, but the ASPCA won’t be visiting any time soon. For these animals are actually automatons, created from scrap metal, discarded gears, and electronic ephemera by the self-taught inventor Brett Doar—one of many in the city who, with scavenged parts and scrappy know-how, are assembling robots and strange machines that do absolutely nothing useful. Except, that is, exist as art.
“There’s been a real upsurge in the last few years in homebrew science, engineering, and experimentation,” says Douglas Repetto, director of research at Columbia’s computer-music center. “There seems to be some kind of cultural shift going on.” Repetto knows robots: He runs the local chapter of a worldwide organization called dorkbot (“People doing strange things with electricity”) and curates the annual ArtBots exhibition. He thinks the new interest has something to do with the accessibility of do-it-yourself guidance (Web-based hacks, for example, that will make your Roomba vacuum go insane) and also with several well-advertised robotic success stories, notably the Mars Rovers.
But the artists aren’t designing works that bear any resemblance to those slick and cute creations from Japan like ASIMO or Pleo the dinosaur, or to those battle-bots that murder each other for entertainment. Rather, with exposed, handmade mechanisms and quiet movement, these “robjets d’art” (pardon the term) suggest a return to the Age of Enlightenment, when the principles of science and engineering, not yet taken for granted, could inspire a certain wonder. Still, the machines don’t concern themselves much with precision; improvised and sometimes troubled, they often seem to take on qualities of their human makers.
“Life happens where the flaws are,” says Doar as he crouches in the Jonathan Shorr gallery and tries to repair the leg of his rooster. The bird looks diseased, but it’s to Doar’s credit that his rough, cobbled-together devices evoke a bemused pity. He demonstrates a small human figure of wire and junky doodads; tethered to the ceiling by an electrical lifeline, it frantically skitters around like an astronaut with an oxygen leak. Elsewhere, there’s a suicidal windmill that saws itself in half (it’s heartbreaking). His “Autogamelan,” a delicate machine that includes cardboard pulleys and dental floss, feebly moves small hammers to bang out music on Pyrex cookware and a door chime; the tune’s nonsensical and sour, yet you admire the thing for trying, as if with practice it might improve.
Doar, who has dabbled in architecture, linguistics, and screenwriting (he recently sold a script about weirdos living near a secret government installation), started inventing things one winter in Boston as a student, making “jumbles of crap with paper clips.” Eventually he added moving elements, packaging the results as gifts for a former girlfriend. With a broad, friendly face and black-rimmed glasses that bring to mind an Eisenhower-era comedian, Doar always seems on the edge of laughter, but he’s only half joking when he explains how his works have given their acquired parts better lives. “The motors and gears,” he says, “have been enslaved in copy machines and printers. Maybe I’m emancipating them.”
One of those motors has gained considerable status. “Gyrovalkyrie,” a bicycle wheel that spins horizontally with propellers and a spoke-plucking wire, operates on the 30th floor of a midtown office, above the desk of infamous lawyer Ed Hayes (the model for Tom Wolfe’s D.A. in The Bonfire of the Vanities). After stumbling across Doar at a recent ArtBots show in Dublin, Hayes commissioned the piece, and now often turns it on to relax keyed-up clients. Its effect seems to confirm the joy that Doar imagines he’s instilled. “When I have a show,” he says, “and everything’s whirring and clicking, you get this feeling that they’re really
happy . . . for me, there’s something almost spiritual about it.”
Across town, in the densely cluttered Park Slope studio of wizard Mark Esper, there’s a more literal ghost in the machine. Esper, his bald head glowing in the dim light, flicks some switches on a box of jumbled wires to turn on “Second Orrery,” his kinetic sculpture inspired by 18th-century clockwork models of the solar system. Inside a six-foot-wide doughnut-shaped cage, a tiny locomotive, painted in gold leaf, begins to climb a spiraling track, triggering a white tornado to form and eerily rise. Though created with water vapor and inducted air currents, the twisting cloud appears spectral.
“It’s slightly shamanistic,” Esper says of the science he incorporates into his machines. A former cabinetmaker and a longtime technical consultant to renowned artist Dennis Oppenheim, Esper, 59, explains that he wants to tap into the experience that religion has cornered, the public’s “feeling of awe about their condition in the world.” He says he tries, in some way, to startle. While he demonstrates the tornado, a nearby translucent orb, as big as a beach ball, suddenly pops up on a stream of air and stays suspended via the Bernoulli effect, spinning and flashing a blue light. Unfazed, Esper apologizes for forgetting to turn the gizmo off and strolls over to settle it down, as if calming a jealous child.
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.”
Mark Esper’s work is on display at Dam, Stuhltrager Gallery, 38 Marcy Avenue, Brooklyn, through February 18.