Periodical 15

All art is a copy of something.

Hello from the art room.

My older kiddo and I watched a short documentary about artist and engineer Peter Vogel this morning. I learned about him from flipping through an old issue of OMNI from the early 80s which reviewed a gallery showing of his Cybernetic Objects — wonderful hand-made machines that react to sound and movement in their environments and produce music of their own.

Computational art wasn’t nearly as commonplace in the 80s as it is now; Vogel put his unique engineering and cybernetic science background to work designing circuits and sensors in three dimensions. And these machines, even as they were silent and switched off, still worked as inert sculptures or even drawings. They are simply beautiful.

Here are a couple of examples:

Needless to say, we were inspired. In particular, there’s a machine that Vogel shows roughly 17 minutes in to the documentary that stuck in my mind, probably because of its (deceptive) simplicity. Here it is:

This ~24” square frames 13 “lines” that hover above the surface and spin on tiny supporting posts in reaction to Vogel’s clapping.

I turned to my daughter and said, “let’s make that!” She replied, “but HOW?!” My answer? “I don’t know yet. We’ll probably have to make it our own.”

Just a few minutes later, we had assembled some foam board, colored cardstock, rubber cement, x-acto blades, a straightedge, and some pins. This is what we made:

About halfway through our project, I noted to my daughter that what we were making was kind of a “drawing toy.” Instead of the toy making a drawing, it is a drawing that you can re-make every time you interact with it. The colored lines spin very easily on their pin axes.

But then I wanted something a bit more robust. So, a bit later in the day, while my daughter was out selling Girl Scout cookies, my son and I gathered up some materials, drilled some holes, cut some wood, and assembled another version of the “drawing toy.”

Right now, it feels like a proof of concept; I’d like to optimize its mechanics a bit and paint it. But what fun it was to take a moment of inspiration and run with it!

At bedtime, I told my daughter how much I enjoy making art with her. She said, “me too, Daddy.” And then she asked an interesting question: Is it art if it wasn’t your idea? I was glad to answer “yes,” and explain to her why — that all art is a copy of something — though I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask her a question beforehand, like, “If I drew a picture of you, would it be art?” My explanation was that all art is a response to something. Sometimes an artist will see a beautiful landscape and try to express that beauty with paint on canvas or by taking a photograph. It’s a copy, in a way, that becomes something else because it goes through the mind, heart, and hands of the artist. What it’s really a copy of — bearing in mind the limits of the word copy — is how the artist feels about what they saw. I remind her how different what we made was from Vogel’s piece, and that because we were limited in what we could do, it had to become something else.

I feel so lucky to be able to explore these things with my children. If either pursues art, I’ll be fascinated to see where they go. But in the meantime, I just hope they’re learning that making things is empowering to the body, mind, and spirit.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 2, 2024,   In Log

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