Karl Lautman

The power and ubiquity of technology has bred complacency among those who use it regularly (i.e. virtually everyone in the developed world). While most would agree that we should not place too much faith in machines, in reality we can't help taking for granted that the light will go on when we flip the switch, the car will start when we turn the key, the plane won't fall from the sky, .... Yet the capacity of machines to misbehave is endless.

In fact, it's their nature. While this is a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics, it should be obvious that the engineer, the programmer, the operator, the maintenance person, all must work to coax the assemblage of metal, plastic, and electrons into performing the desired function, and keep performing it. Tossing the components of a personal computer into a bag and shaking won't yield a personal computer. Normal use, however, (of a PC, a drill press, a blender) will lead to erratic behavior and, ultimately, failure.

I'm fascinated by this tension between what we want, and expect, a machine to do, and what the machine "wants" to do. I call it "machine tension," or just "McTension." I explore McTension in my work by making things that behave unexpectedly, though not strictly randomly. While the behavior may be easier to infer for some of my machines than for others, they all tend to have an unpredictable (or, at least, difficult-to-predict) element to them. Whether it's calculating prime numbers on electromechanical counters, causing falling dominoes to stand themselves up again, or generating organized sequences of clicks on a relay (but at random intervals), the effect is simultaneously familiar and surprising.

There are several other themes which run through my work, though all may not be present in any one piece:

  • Pseudo-randomness isn't difficult to achieve, but also isn't very interesting, so I strive to make my work entertaining, sometimes even whimsical, rather than impenetrable.
  • I often use industrial/commercial components to reinforce the relationship between McTension and the technology we encounter every day. Some of these components will be familiar to the viewer (e.g. the counters), while some may not be (relays), even though all of them play key, if hidden, roles in our daily lives. I'm also drawn to their no-nonsense appearance, especially in a sculptural context. And, you can't beat "industrial-grade" for reliability, a big plus with kinetic sculpture.
  • Sound is a common (though usually irrelevant) characteristic of most machines, but an important part of many of my pieces. It not only tells the "viewer" (who might not actually be looking at the piece) that something is happening, it underscores the connection between the sculpture and traditional machinery. It also provides a dimension not present in silent artwork: a piece can stimulate whether or not it's actually being observed. The pseudo-random ticks and clicks provide an interesting (even relaxing) ambience. I call works where sound plays as important a role as motion, "acoustinetic."

I consider many of my pieces studies for much larger works for public spaces. The drama that would come from a large-scale installation would enhance McTension in ways not possible on the more intimate scale on which I normally work. I've designed pieces with thousands of relays or hundreds of servos that would be tens of feet square or hundreds of feet long.