Interview with Arthur Ganson – The Man Behind the Machines

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Arthur Ganson is referred to as a kinetic sculptor, but I think his machines are more like spiritual beings.  He largely makes what’s known as Rube Goldberg machines, overly complex machines that execute simple tasks. For example, he has a giant machine with a bunch of tiny gears, and its whole goal is to make an artichoke petal walk.  I met with Arthur Ganson following his lecture at the Long Now Foundation here in San Francisco.  We had coffee and talked for a few hours about love, machines, forgiveness and naivete.  One of the greatest joys for me is to be able to point to the work of an artist that has transformed me, and hope that the joy will transfer over to you.

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The Rumpus: I was thinking about something Hegel wrote about truth and the way truth impresses itself upon our consciousness and that it can’t happen unless it’s through an emotive or sensory experience.  I think that in your art there’s a deeply emotive place, and yet it walks a fine line, because some of your machines will have this tiny literal narrative but then it’s really just suggestive of this larger bigger mystery.  How do you walk that line and prevent your work from just becoming just a visual pun?

Arthur Ganson: Well, I feel very rooted in wanting to make work that exists purely in the physical realm but I see the physical object as a kind of a conduit, and this whole question of truth and what’s true. I can’t prevent anything and I don’t want to try to, so to whatever degree someone were to look at anything and have the sense that it was for them a visual pun and if that’s where it resided then that’s the truth of it.  And I feel very comfortable with any and all interpretations because I know that they are all personal.  I think when we talk about the truth I feel that whatever that truth is it has to be personal.  And there’s no right or wrongness to it.  There can’t be a right or wrongness to it, because the object itself is both clear and ambiguous.  I think that’s an interesting place, a catalyst, enough information to go from but not so much that it could define it.  I think it really depends on any person’s capacity to dream.  Because really it’s about dreaming.

Rumpus: Someone this morning asked me what I was doing.  I told them I was going to interview you and they had never heard of you so I showed them a video of your work, Machine with Wishbone and they said “well I don’t get it, it’s just a toy”, and I had such a strange reaction; it never occurred to me that someone could see your work and not experience wonder.  I guess it is just the place in which you come from, how much wonder you have in you, where you are standing.  It was sad to me to think that someone in their private space is not accessing that wonder.

Ganson: Yes, yes how much wonder you have in you.  I had a very sobering and a very important experience once.   I had an opening at the Berkshire museum, and during the opening there were all these people coming up to me; they were really excited telling me how much they loved the work, my little kid ego was like wow that’s so cool ….and then this guy came up to me and said, “Is that your stuff up there?  I don’t get it at all.  It doesn’t mean anything to me”, and he kind of walked away and I thought, you know, thank you, because that moment really cemented the truth of the fact that the meaning is brought to the piece and as much as I want to feel that there’s something more there, it’s totally in the viewer.

Rumpus: My friend’s reaction to watching that just change my whole orientation to what people are like in their quiet space, that not everyone is activated by the same things.  I know that sounds obvious, but it really struck me this morning.

Ganson: I know from my own experience that there are pieces of art and other aspects of the world where I can be completely amazed and transformed by something or not, and there’s a lot of work that I know is transformative for others that I’m not getting.

Rumpus: When I saw the wishbone, I saw it pulling the machine, and then someone else told me, it’s obviously not pulling it.

Ganson: No, it is pulling the machine.  It’s not obvious.

Rumpus: Oh really!  My god!

Ganson: The machine is making the wishbone walk like this, it’s rocking the wishbone back and forth and twisting it left and right, but the machine itself is just on two wheels and there’s enough weight on the wishbone that that action means that the wishbone is pulling the machine behind it.  You can tell your friend she’s wrong.

Rumpus: I love being right.

Ganson: This is interesting for me because I’m always amazed the level at which people think it’s pushing the wishbone.

Rumpus: I felt so stupid because my very smart friend insisted it was pushing it.  There was no way that wasn’t possible.

Ganson: This is to Anisse’s friend:  The wishbone is pulling the machine!  She was right!

Rumpus: Besides these machines that investigate larger ideas and feelings, there are simpler machines, like Machine with Chinese Fan; that is a very simple gesture.

Ganson: Yes, that piece isn’t asking any big questions.  It’s about the wonderment of every moment.  Yesterday I was at the Long Now Foundation in Fort Mason, and I looked out at the end of the pier, at this bank of fog out there, and thought, wow that’s beautiful.

Rumpus: When you started making these machines was there ever a point where you didn’t think it would be something you’d spend your whole life doing?

Ganson: I never knew.  I’ve never had the feeling like ‘oh I want to do this for the rest of my life’.  I’ve never really known.  I feel like I’ve always been doing the most natural next step.  I’ve never had a sense that I want my career to go in a certain direction, because I don’t know.

Rumpus: Has it been a surprise to you?

Ganson: Yeah.  When I look back on it I’m kind of amazed, when I got up on the stage there last night (referring to a lecture at the Long Now Foundation) part of me was thinking this is so weird.  It really came from a place of solitude and of really wanting to make things just by myself but it’s joyful to share it.

Rumpus: Anonymity has its own kind of glory.  There’s just something so nice about being obscure in the world and it has its kind of freedom.  No one expects anything of you because no one knows who you are.  Then you have this fame and I would think that it would be two different worlds meeting – you’re alone most of the time, and then you have this other kind of public experience bringing it out into the world.


Anisse Gross is a writer, editor, artist and question asker living in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in The New Yorker, The Believer, Lucky Peach, Buzzfeed, Brooklyn Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She openly welcomes correspondence, friendship, surprises and paid work. More from this author →