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Filmed on Monday September 14, 02009

Arthur Ganson

Machines and the Breath of Time

Arthur Ganson uses simple, plain materials to build witty mechanical art. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1955, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of New Hampshire (1978), Ganson has been creating mechanical sculpture for over thirty years. Ganson's creations are kinetic: that is, they move, either by a motor or with the help of a viewer, who pushes a bar or turns a crank to bring the piece to life.

Ganson has been an artist-in-residence at MIT (where the Lemelson-MIT Award Program named him an Inventor of the Week, and where his show "Gestural Engineering" is ongoing) and has shown his work at art and science museums around the world in over 20 solo exhibitions and countless shared exhibitions.

Arthur Ganson uses humble materials to create kinetic sculptures of humor, drama, and emotion.  His work has been shown around the world, and has been an ongoing inspiration for the 10,000 Year Clock project at Long Now.  His machinated gestures play with time spans that range from the epochal to the momentary.

One of the touchstone pieces for the Clock project is the Machine with Concrete.  The input of the piece is a 200 revolution per minute motor, and after series of gear reductions it's output gear is cast in concrete.  Due to the multiplicative nature of the gear train it will take upwards of two trillion years to break the final gear.  Ganson will be discussing the theme of time in his work, and will be bringing a piece to show live at the event.

Dancing chairs

"You follow the feeling of the piece," Ganson explained, "and then wrestle it into physicality."  As long as the idea is nonphysical, it is permanent; it becomes temporary as a physical device; and then it becomes permanent again in the mind of the viewer.

As Ganson spoke, a tiny chair walked meditatively around and around on a rock on the right side of the stage, projected live onto a video screen.  (Thinking Chair.)  No part in any of his kinetic art pieces is superfluous, he pointed out; everything functions.  The piece should be crystal clear and also completely ambiguous.  That's what allows each viewer to create their own story.

He showed a video of "Machine with Concrete."  On the left an electric motor drives a worm gear at 212 revolutions a minute.  A sequence of twelve 50-to-1 gear reductions slows the rotation so far that the last gear, on the right, is set in concrete.  It would take over two trillion years for that gear to rotate.  "Intense activity on one end, quiet stillness on the other," Ganson said.  "It's a duality I feel in my own being."

The next video, "Cory's Yellow Chair," showed a chair exploding into six pieces, which hover at a distance, then gently reassemble, and instantly explode again.  Ganson said he wanted the chair pieces to explode at infinite speed, rest in stillness at the extreme, then reassemble gradually.  The piece is stab at the question of "when is now?"  Now is when the chair coalesces, but it doesn't last.

Some of Ganson's machines inspire people to sit and watch them for hours.  "Machine With Oil" does nothing but drench itself with lubrication all day long.  In "Margot's Other Cat" a soaring chair is set in random motion by an unsuspecting cat.  The cat's motion is utterly determined; the chair has its own life.

During the Q&A, Alexander Rose asked the full-house audience how many of them of were makers of things.  Ninety percent raised their hands in joy.

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