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.

Ganson: Yeah, but the level to which people know about me is so miniscule, that it’s just in this very, very tiny slice of people who happen to know about kinetic art, or art in general….so I think that sometimes I feel a little uncomfortable when I’m in a situation where I feel like people who are familiar with my work have built up whatever inner thoughts that they have, and sometimes its hard for them to realize that we’re both equal and there’s nothing here.  That basically I’m exactly the same but I’ve just been doing it a little longer, but I have all the same questions, the same fears.  I like to kind of dispell any myths and I think that that is possible.  I don’t know what it would be like for people who are really known I think that would be awful.  I feel so fortunate that the work that I do isn’t me, is represented by something else, because I think that would be the most horrible thing.

Rumpus: I was thinking when I was looking at your work that so many of the machines have a smaller object that is in some way surrendering or at the mercy of a larger force.  Is that something that you think about – scale of experience in the world?

Ganson: I think that on one level I am thinking about that.   I’m not actively consciously trying to make that particular statement but actually in some ways I think I am.  Actually what you just said is a very interesting observation about the relationship between the object in the machine and our place in the world, because as much as we think we are in control we aren’t.  It doesn’t matter how much control we imagine, but I think that’s a wonderful way of saying it, of looking at the work.  It feels really true to me.

Rumpus: Well, often this idea of being small and being having such a short life in this larger story is represented as a struggle or conflict but in your work there is a kind of beauty in the surrender.  The object no longer has any kind of resistance, the chair is spinning or coming back together.

Ganson: That’s a very interesting observation…it is about surrender.  Yes, this feels very true to me.  Consciously I’m aware that sometimes if the piece involves an object, then object is like the puppet and the machine is the puppeteer.

Rumpus: But the way that a chair is suggestive of a person has that timeless feel of surrender.

Ganson: I’ve always talked about the chair as our knowledge of the chair with our bodies but also I think that’s also a good point – a chair is part of the negative space of us, it’s the perfect negative space of us.

Rumpus: Because you see a person when you see a chair.  I’m reading a book from the depression era called Let us now praise famous men.  James Agee and Walker Evans went out and they were supposed to write about and photograph these tenement farmers just like a social report but instead they made this beautiful book that’s a great work of art, and  in the introduction the writer James Agee says,  “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.”  – I think what he’s trying to say is that there is this other thing he wants to do but all he knows how to do is write.  If feel that way all the time – you’re trying to approximate this bigger experience or statement but you only have a paintbrush or language or whatever tool it is you have as an artist.

Ganson: Well, I’m not sure if I said this but when I started to make the machines I started working with my hands because I was so inhibited and introverted, so in a way it did come from a place where I could speak – it was a safe way of speaking.  Sometimes I feel the limitation, well it’s both a limitation and also opens possibility, but really language is really no different because whenever we are creating anything that is about our experience it’s such a narrow slice of our experience of life how can it ever be touched by language?  I can see how in some ways using words that we can maybe approximate many aspects of our human experience more closely but maybe there are other aspects that we can’t, so maybe in some ways the physical manifestation or the musical or dance or maybe every form allows one aspect of us to be expressed more deeply.  I do feel a deep motivation sometimes – I love playing music and there’s a part of me that wishes that I was more  comfortable in that realm, because I feel that playing music is even closer could even be the most rich experience because the thing about making the machines is the machine it’s not dependent on me.  When I am making it I am in the moment, but really if I’m going over to the bandsaw cutting metal it’s a contemplative act it’s kind of after the fact.   But to play music and to be in that actual in your body in the moment of the creative act to me feels like the richest and maybe the most terrifying or exciting on the edge experience.

Rumpus: The great thing about music too, is that it’s the ultimate being in the now because it evaporates instantly, it’s always completely going, so it’s hovering inside of you, versus the machine which remains.  Is that sort of your motivation for adding sound to your newer work?

Ganson: Machine with Chair was the only piece I ever made that was conceived with music.  It wasn’t an afterthought and it always felt incomplete when it was exhibited because there was no music.  It’s the only one where the music was part of the original vision of it.

Rumpus: Do you ever look at your work and think this would be great with music or most of the time do you prefer silence?

Ganson: Most of the time I prefer the silence.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about humor – so many pieces are funny – do you think of yourself as a funny person, or are these humorous things you find in the world?

Ganson: I tend to be a serious or maybe too somber person, but I think there is a lot of humor in my work.  I think this is one way that I’ve been able to access that part of me – sometimes the pieces are more serious, but I definitely like the violin piece, when it was made and there was no music around, and I was dealing just with the quality of touch, but then when I put the video together I had this impulse to make it a parody.

Rumpus: So, when you’re done making the machines, or even during the process, is  there a sense that they kind of have a life of their own, that your relationship to them changes?  Because it seems like after they’re going out on a walk or shopping, a world of their own.

Ganson: Yeah, they do kind of have a life of their own, and sometimes it’s hard to leave them.  They feel like little kids going off to camp.

Rumpus: So aside from the addition of sound, the idea of quietude, the idea of silence is so prevalent in your work – when you work do you spend a substantial amount of your time in a silent space?

Ganson: A complete mixture, depending on my energy.  Sometimes I like it to be silent and other times I just play really intense african music or jazz or folk music, so a total mixture.

Rumpus: You were mentioning that you go on walks – is that a routine thing, or just if you feel like it?

Ganson: A few years ago it was much more of a routine; I would take a walk every day.  But  lately I’ve been out of that routine and started a different routine which is doing yoga.

Rumpus: Where do you draw most of your inspiration from?

Ganson: I think it’s everything, the experience of being in the world.  Every aspect of life is interesting in a different way, pure nature, other art, just conversations, people.

Rumpus: So you’re an open filter.

Ganson: Yes.

Rumpus: In terms of talking about your work, going out and putting language and story behind it – do you ever feel like that’s a hard part of it because you don’t want to attach meaning for the viewer?

Ganson: Yes.  Absolutely and I say at the beginning of every talk “forget everything I say.”  It’s very dangerous and it’s hard for me because when I talk about the work I have to say something.  If I just stood up there and didn’t say anything that would be weird.  It’s dangerous, because I can almost be co-opted by my own words about it.

Rumpus: I know you say that you don’t want to ascribe meaning to your own work for others, but what is your hope for what your work might do for someone?

Ganson: If there’s any hope in what it could do or be, would be a catalyst for someone to be inspired about their own sense of wonderment and creativity, to foster that.  To see my work as an example of what’s possible, but it to really trigger everyone’s own personal journey.   In any form really, because my own work has been informed by everything.

Rumpus: Do a lot of your impulses for your work move you or question you but you don’t know why?  Is it an important component to not understand for you?

Ganson: Exactly.  There has to be a level of not understanding in order to have the motivation to make the piece and the making of the piece is part of the discovering what’s underneath.  So every piece I feel like it’s starting from a very naive place when I start.

Rumpus: Because otherwise why would you make it.  I feel like with a lot of art there’s the feeling that the artist has figured it out and then they make it just to have the satisfaction of someone else going oh that’s brilliant, but that’s very different from the artistic practice of wondering and questioning and investigating that strange feeling.

Ganson: Yes, inherent in the piece is the process of discovering – the piece is a record of me working through something.

Rumpus: Do you ever feel that when the piece is finished, do you ever feel like that isn’t it, that isn’t what I was going for.

Ganson: Sometimes I’ll keep working with it until it does feel right, sometimes I’ll just mothball it or just realize that it’s not going to speak.  Lately I’ve made a number of pieces that were like that.  There are some pieces that I’ve shown once or not at all.

Rumpus: But that’s rare?

Ganson: Yeah, two years ago i kind of had a bad string where I was making stuff then really hating it when i was done.

Rumpus: That’s just the judging place – do you try to have separation from your work?

Ganson: I can try and try.  I think there is something about working from a place of complete naivete.  There was some artist who was talking about trying to be in the proper state for making work, I think he was a painter, I forget who it was, and he said I go into my studio and I have to first kick out the public, and then I have to kick out the critics, and then I have to kick out my wife, and then I have to kick myself out and once I kick myself out I can start working.

Rumpus: Because you can’t have the critical mind when you’re making art.

Ganson: Exactly.  Yes, it’s too self-conscious, it’s got to be coming from a very child-like place.

Rumpus: With the machine Cory’s Yellow Chair, you talked about this idea of us all coming together then dispersing, and you used your lecture as an analogy of that, how we all gathered in one room and then would disperse and go on our way.  One of the things I think about is this idea that the world is so vast and so full of people you’ll never meet, how can you contain that longing?  I was obsessed as a child with the question, how are we all going to meet one another?

Ganson: That’s a really beautiful thought.  I think on one level in that eternal place, we all know each other, but we’re not able to meet all the discreet personalities, but maybe we can find peace in that.  There are so many personalities out there in the world, that we would all just love to know, because we would be so enriched by one another.

Rumpus: That must be part of what compels art, that idea to connect beyond your individual means.

Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about the Hitler piece.  Do you feel like sometimes what you’re trying to translate is so large that it seems ridiculous or absurd to make a representation of it – you were talking about a huge vast well of human suffering and spiritual sickness over time, and to try to put it into this thing that’s so small, literally small, and has an element of humor and whimsy, and think how can this machine even speak to that experience.  How do you feel about the end result of that piece?

Ganson: With that particular piece I feel like in some ways I’ve approached it but then again I don’t know if i’ve approached it at all.  It’s too new, I have a feeling that it’s so huge and how do I really address it.  I think the piece I showed is the first piece of perhaps maybe a series, and it feels like a very child like attempt to even address it.  It is so huge and I kind of came up with the idea through deep conversation with my girlfriend, because together we talk so much about what it means for healing and spiritual growth and she just became a catholic, which is rare for a 48 year old woman to become a catholic, but really for her it’s been a long process of redemption and dealing with her childhood, and so it came out of that.  The day that I had the idea to make that piece, without knowing it, she had written a letter to one of the priests in the church that she was going to these classes and becoming a catholic and she had written this letter and in one of the classes the priest was talking about the devil and evil and she wrote him and asked, ‘well if i’m really here to learn to love and open my heart i should be able to love even the devil.  Doesn’t even the devil need my love?  Couldn’t I even love Hitler?’  That was the same day that I had conceived of this piece, and it was really  – I was asking that question , “could I open my heart even to a Hitler?”.  There’s this wonderful story – Jack Kornfield, had told this story about a woman whose daughter was brutally raped and killed by some young man and at the trial when he was going to prison she said ‘I’m going to destroy the person who killed my daughter’ and what she proceeded to do was visit him and transform him, and then when he got out of prison and she actually invited him into her home and she couldn’t get her daughter back but she could transform him.

Rumpus: Your work seems to be about the experience of large love or large ideas.  I can see how some people could see your work and have an intellectual experience, but to me they feel more open-ended, not specific, and they have a ton of grace to them.  It’s weird because you never know what experience people are going to have watching your machines, but for me they have a wide suggestion of the human spirit’s capabilities and the way that we are in our true selves, that we sometimes have trouble translating.  I think of them as spiritual machines.

Ganson: That feels really good.  That totally resonates.  I think that’s something I’m understanding about my own work – it’s taken a long time to even realize that that’s what’s underneath it for me.  If the making of the work is like a big ocean, aside from the surface of the specific ideas, the engineering, and the problem solving, there is that reaching for a place of quietude and oneness.

Rumpus: Yes, it’s not a knowable thing, a kind of knowing that can’t be fully articulated.

Ganson: I think at the heart of them is something that can’t be articulated.  There’s no way to.

Rumpus: That’s how I even feel about writing, all I can really do is point to the thing we all know is there, I just want to remind someone that it’s there.  You had a great line in your talk about how the moment of perception is the eternal place.

Ganson: I think when I said that I was referring to the fact that we exist in a kind of duality with the temporal, physical world that seems to be governed by actions in a kind of linear time, but then there is the aspect of us that is eternal;  we’re in both worlds and I think the place of perceiving the work and being with it is in the eternal place.

Rumpus: So you step off the timeline.  For the most part we’re walking around on the linear timeline, but then we dip outside of that timeline.  And those are the moments people might describe as spiritual experiences.

Ganson: Yes, and where is love in the timeline?  It’s not part of that line.

Rumpus: And there is a kind of depth to us that isn’t in time.

Ganson: Exactly.


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 →