A rough guide to popular mechanics

A rough guide to popular mechanics

Interviews Julia Jarvis

Photographs Marius W Hansen

The world of kinetic art is full of wonder: sculptural machines that forgo utility in favour of futility, uncertainty and fragility. Meet the people putting the ‘fun’ into function…

Kinetic art is a funny thing: funny ‘ha ha’ and funny peculiar. But the UK’s leading automaton makers – including Nik Ramage, Martin Smith and Jim Bond and groups such as the Kinetica Museum and The Cabaret Mechanical Theatre – aren’t simply playing it for laughs. On the eve of their Marvellous Mechanica show for London Craft Week – in association with Hole & Corner and Plymouth University – we sat Ramage and Smith down over a cup of tea at London’s House of St Barnabas to discuss their fascination with moving parts, starting with the obvious question: why do they do it?


NR ‘There’s only a few people who do this. There were certain gatherings, like Hitchcocks’ in Bath, where they had quite a lot of automata folk.’

MS ‘ There are a couple of different worlds too – there’s the world of automata, with the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre (CMT), there’s Hitchcock’s’, there’s No.7 in Totnes. Actually, there’s a lot of opportunities for people to make kinetic things. Paul Smith put on a show of Nik’s work – it engages people very easily. You can be making things and people want to show it: you’re not making in isolation. But one of the things that seems to run through everyone I know in this world is they’re unemployable in any other job!’

NR ‘Automata has come to mean a certain thing – it’s Paul Spooner-esque. There’s this great history of automata that read and play the violin, ducks that defecate – wonderful things, and quite spooky. Whereas the ones you see now are maybe a little anodyne. But there’s all these funny offshoots.’

MS ‘We’ve all hunted these things out at museums, and then kicked against them. I’m doing a piece for the Crafts Council for a show looking at the history of automata from the 1970s onwards, and how it’s branched off from there. There’s a whole raft of Spooner copies now – his are exquisite, don’t get me wrong – but I think we railed against that a bit. We come from very different worlds: mine are much more product design… Some of my work is very deliberately done with the intention of giving me an income, so they’re made to a certain level of slickness I suppose. My earlier applause machines weren’t nearly so rough…’

NR ‘No. I mean your idea of rough is very different to my idea of rough! It looks pretty exquisite to me!’

Jim Bond’s Mesh Head

MS ‘I think one of the things that links our work is storytelling. That’s something that drove me early on, when I was making more traditional automata, they’d tell their little story and then there’d be a punch line. But I quite quickly realised I didn’t like them, I just preferred the punch line. There’s a narrative in Nik’s work too, but it’s not linear, it’s circular – it’s a breathing machine or…’

NR ‘Yeah, the thing about a punch line is there’s an obvious endpoint. Humour is a great way of getting under the radar and engaging people. But I like it to have a little more depth than just cracking a joke.’

MS ‘It wears thin very quickly doesn’t it? I was friends with an automata maker called Frank Nelson who made these exquisite pieces – he made props for Star Wars – but he’d do these huge stories based on Dylan Thomas for instance, and I quite quickly realised this was not what I wanted to do. I don’t want it to be an animation in three dimensions – however amazing that might be – I want it to be something that people can get involved with.’

NR ‘I think with my work, it’s that staring-into-the-fi re, mesmerising experience. Like my Hot Water Bottle piece that ‘breathes’ like lungs: there’s those repetitive motions that captivate people. It’s not really a narrative, it’s not A to B, but there’s a wee bit at the back of your brain that thinks, “That thing’s moving; it’s alive”.’


Wall Kicker by Nick Ramage

MS ‘It’s interesting that you’ve made an inanimate object alive. I love it when people invent how something works, you’ll overhear them sometimes saying, ‘It’s all water powered!”…’

NR ‘…and you’re thinking, no there’s a big motor here, I just plugged it in!’

MS ‘We all seem to like an analogue world, don’t we? The thing I like best is when kids draw my machines, and they try to work it all out, but they also change things.’

NR ‘I think part of the current appeal of this sort of thing is that you can actually understand it. In a way that we don’t really understand a phone or a laptop.’

MS ‘There’s a real cause and effect isn’t there? You think, “OK, that’s pushing that, which makes that move…”’

NR ‘I get people asking if my work is coded!’

MS ‘I hope you say yes!’


Martin Smith’s The Love Machine, in which two rotating discs seem to be holding hands but never quite come close enough to ‘kiss’

NR ‘I have these Free Range Pens that work on a Meccano wheel and because they’re off -centre, that’s enough for it. Then they ask why they all behave differently – well, because they’re handmade! I don’t really know, it’s just letting a bit of chaos in, and that’s enough for these 10 things to all behave differently.’

MS ‘I always say that nonsense is valid. These machines don’t need to be made – there’s no reason for them. We used to get people coming up to us at the Salone del Mobile in Milan saying, “Why are you showing at a design fair, you’re making artwork; it’s not functional.” I don’t agree that the work is always there simply to make you smile, there’s more to it than that, but I like a bit of nonsense. I think it’s important to explain that if you’re an engineer you don’t have to just be making Formula 1 cars or Harrier jump jets. By making nonsense it opens your mind up and takes you to new places.’

NR ‘I had the same conversation – I met a guy who was a trained engineer and he was saying, “What are you doing making useless machines?” I asked him if he was an engineer and he said yes, so I said – “Well, that’s the problem!” He was so used to thinking about function.’

MS ‘It’s funny the thing with engineers – essentially what we do is the same thing. My work involves setting myself problems. That’s what drives it forwards. And that’s what engineers do, they’re trying to solve problems. That’s what gets me excited.’


Nik Ramage’s World Scooter

NR ‘The art world has a slightly uneasy relationship with humour. It shouldn’t do, post-Duchamp. I’m also interested in the idea of hacking – how that used to be a computer thing, but now it’s become about putting an elastic band around your favourite pen to make it feel better or whatever – life hacking. It’s a digital term that has now become simply about making things better. It’s like the Richard Wentworth work, Making Do and Getting By – now we’re hacking analogue objects.’

MS ‘I think it was an analogue term to start with though? It’s like computer bugs – that came from getting actual bugs on the rollers on analogue machines, so you’d end up with black dots from the squashed bugs.’

NR ‘There’s that moment when kinetic folk get together, you always end up wondering, “Why do we do this?”’

MS ‘I was talking to another Nick about this once – we were working with engineers and he was worried someone might nick our ideas, and I said, “Nobody’s stupid enough to try to make any money out of this!” But there’s a fourth dimension in this, isn’t there, it’s not just a static sculpture.’

One of Martin Smith’s mechanical maquettes used to fine-tune the engineering before starting on a full-size piece

NR ‘Paintings are nice and easy – well they’re not easy but what I mean is, you stick them on the wall, they don’t break down. Then 3D gets a bit more complicated, but you stick the fourth dimension on, with moving parts that wear down… we do it anyway.’

MS ‘I do it because it is difficult. I don’t always set out to make something kinetic but it always ends up having some kind of movement. And if you’re doing public art, it has to last 15-20 years. It took me a while to learn that the less moving parts the better if it’s a public piece, otherwise you’re always coming back with your oil can!’

NR ‘It’s hard though, I was approached by someone to use my Jelly Wobbling piece in an advert. They offered me some money, I asked for a little bit more and it all went quiet. And then I saw the advert and they’d just used some jelly on a plate!’

MS ‘I quite enjoy scaring people away with money though! In Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures, he made the analogy of getting on a bus. After art college, you get on the art bus. Then you get disillusioned and you think, I’m going to get off at the next stop, so you get on a different bus – and his message was, “Just stay on the f–ing bus!” Just stick with it. It’s your language, your ideas, your work – it doesn’t matter if you’re in vogue or not. That’s the problem with fine art… whereas we can plough our own path. I’d have to ask the driver how much I had to pay him though!’



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