5,000 Moving Parts

On view through November 2014

Another exhibition update


With the opening of 5000 Moving Parts now less than a month away, here's what we've been up to:

The gallery has been painted, the text has been edited, the graphics have been designed, and the sculptures are being installed over the next weeks.

Arthur Ganson's Machine with Breath, which includes sound by composer Christina Campanella, is in the process of being installed, with completion scheduled for November 17, when Christina will fine-tune her composition in the space.

The Takis work, Electromagnetic I, No. 13 (which dates from 1968 rather than 1964, as we discovered when the work was brought out of its crates) has been tested and installed, and it's working.

Anne Lilly will be installing a new large-scale work, To Conjugate, during the week of November 11, along with two smaller works, To Caress and Eighteen Eighteen.

John Douglas Powers will be installing his works Ialu and Haliades from November 7 - 9.

And, finally, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer will arrive in the few days before the exhibition opens, to install Please Empty Your Pockets.

Many people at the MIT Museum have been involved in bringing the exhibition along, including Mary Leen and Katie Porter, who are handling administration and much more; Joan Whitlow, who takes care of artists' loans and transportation of the sculptures; Alexander Goldowsky, the MIT Museum's Director of Exhibitions, who is contributing advice and oversight in many areas; and Don Stidsen, who has been preparing the gallery and installing works. Paul Montie has led the design effort toward elegance and simplicity, including directions to viewers that explain how to operate many of the sculptures.

Our meetings now almost always move into the gallery, and with each meeting my anticipation of seeing, hearing, experiencing the exhibition grows. It's been a privilege to work on this project.


An Exhibition Update

We’re getting very close to being able to announce the works that will be shown in 5000 Moving Parts. Arthur Ganson, Anne Lilly, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, and John Douglas Powers will all be participating in the exhibition, and the Takis work (see my April 26, 2013 post) will be shown.  Please keep an eye on this site for details to be announced soon.

In the meantime, here's an update on a few other things that have happened as we prepare for the exhibition:

The opening date has been set for November 21, 2013 just a week before the MIT Museum's annual Friday After Thanksgiving Chain Reaction, an event that draws over a thousand people to MIT’s Rockwell Gymnasium. Families, clubs and other teams create links that are all connected, then finished with a flourish. There will be crowds in the Museum over the Thanksgiving weekend!

The 5000 Moving Parts exhibition will be a leading piece of the MIT Museum's year-long initiative on kinetic art. Featuring public programs, workshops, gallery talks, classes for MIT students, and more, the initiative will help the Museum make explicit connections among art, science and technology. This is a field in which MIT has excelled. Over fifty years ago, MIT opened the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (now a part of ACT, the MIT program in Art, Culture and Technology), and just recently launched a new Center for Art, Science and Technology (CAST). Numerous faculty and students at MIT are engaged with projects at the intersections of art, science and technology, and CAST sponsors an active program of Visiting Artists in the field.

Paul Montie has been engaged to work with me on the design of the exhibition. A highly respected graphic designer, Montie has gained significant exhibition design experience in recent years, including the current Wolk exhibition in MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning.

All of the parts of 5000 Moving Parts are moving along smoothly, and I’m very proud to be a part of it. I hope you’ll join the effort, follow the link to contribute, or let me know if you’d like me to put you in touch with the MIT Museum’s development team.


Moving Movement in 1961: Amsterdam and Stockholm


The MIT Libraries borrowed Bewogen Beweging (“Moving Movement”), a 52 year old exhibition catalogue, for me a couple of weeks ago. In 1961, Bewogen Beweging opened at Amsterdam’s Stedlijk Museum, where it ran for only six weeks, and then moved to the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where the exhibition’s curator, K. G. Pontus Hulten, was the Director.

The cover of the catalogue depicts Marcel Duchamp's bicycle wheel and one of his roto-reliefs. Printed in black and blue on cream colored stock that has almost certainly darkened since it was published, the catalogue is two and half feet tall but only four inches wide, with an extensive historical essay gatefolded and bound into the back cover. Reading through the catalogue is a little like playing an accordion. But the design worked really well when I spread it out on a table and peered into it – once again forcing me to engage with kinetic art by getting up and moving.

The catalogue opens with statements by a huge variety of artists and other thinkers, including the Futurist Manifesto, quotes from Alexander Calder, and an admonition from John R. Pierce, who (among many other accomplishments) proposed the design for the first US telecommunications satellites, coined the term “transistor,” and worked on Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey (here’s a 1968 New York Times interview with Kubrick about the film). Quoting Pierce: "Artists, regard not machines with awe or trepidation!”

They didn’t.

As shown in the massive exhibition, Allan Kaprow, Robert Breer, Calder, Naum Gabo, Heinz Mack, Moholy-Nagy, Otto Piene, Robert Rauschenberg, Oscar Schlemmer, Vassilakis Takis, Jean Tinguely, Stan Vanderbeek, Marcel Duchamp, Victor Vasarely and many many other artists worked with, for, over, under, and through machines to make art.

I was taken by the simplicity of the catalogue and by its boldness. The librarians had a hard time finding it when I arrived at the Reading Room to fetch it, until one of them said to look for something shaped like a baguette. Pontus Hulten was responsible for other, more elaborate, exhibition catalogues (see, for example, the metal-covered catalogue for the MoMA exhibition The Machine As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age) but this one took courage. It looks like almost nothing, in the weirdest possible way.

The image of the Bewogen Beweging catalogue is from the site Luiscius Antiquarian Booksellers, accessed June 14, 2013.

For recent comments on the intriguing poster for the Swedish installation of Bewogen Beweging, see Julia Zeltser’s article on DesignEnvy. The poster was designed by Dieter Roth. It’s on view now in an exhibition at MoMA: Wait, Later This Will Be Nothing: Editions by Dieter Roth.


David Medalla

David Medalla 
 Cloud Canyons 
 series of sculptures, begun 1963 

      David Medalla, Cloud Canyons, from an exhibition at Another Vacant Space, Berlin, 2012.

David Medalla

Cloud Canyons

series of sculptures, begun 1963

David Medalla, Cloud Canyons, from an exhibition at Another Vacant Space, Berlin, 2012.

David Medalla's work has begun to achieve renewed interest in the past few years, especially in Europe, where in 1960s London he founded Signals, an influential gallery and newsletter. Medalla featured advanced artists from all over Europe and South America, and often focused on kinetic art. The Signals gallery and newsletter were named in honor of the sculptor Vassilakis Takis, who created many works by the same name, and who Medalla exhibited and featured in the newsletter to significant acclaim. (For a feature on Takis at the MIT Museum, see below.)

Medalla's early sculpture Cloud Canyons, created in 1963, is one of the most important kinetic works of the twentieth century. The piece is essentially a simple bubble machine, but its effects on viewers were profound.

Curator and author Guy Brett, who has written extensively on Medalla, described experiencing it: "creation proceeded inseparably from destruction, the fullness and monumentality of form was accompanied by its complete evaporation, it was simultaneously a material 'something' and an immaterial 'nothing'. A seething activity went together with an overall calm. Chaos and order coexisted; motion and rest."

By the time Medalla first exhibited Cloud Canyons in 1963, he had been working on the piece for three years, and had shown a 3 inch prototype to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard (author of Air and Dreams and other texts that resonate beautifully with Medalla's work). Medalla's friendship with Bachelard paralleled his friendship in Paris with Man Ray, who had been introduced to Medalla by Marcel Duchamp. (Medalla didn’t speak French and Duchamp recommended the native Philadelphian Man Ray to help him navigate Paris.) Medalla cites Duchamp's Monte Carlo Bond as one of many references that inspired the Cloud Canyons, including

  • beer bubbling in vats, seen at a brewery when he was a teenager
  • clouds seen on that day too
  • a young man, who had come to warn Medalla’s family to flee their
  • home during World War II, who was found dying in their garden, hidden
  • under a hibiscus with blood bubbling out of his mouth
  • a memory of watching his mother cook outside, pots bubbling, as he
  • recovered from a childhood illness

Of these disparate inspirations, Medalla says, “I like to provoke—in a nice way—to show different realms of experience.”

Marcel Duchamp,    Monte Carlo Bond    photo by Man Ray for Duchamp’s tongue-in-cheek financial instrument, 1924.

Marcel Duchamp, 

Monte Carlo Bond

 photo by Man Ray for Duchamp’s tongue-in-cheek financial instrument, 1924.

Created in a period when artists were, in Guy Brett's formulation, "modest" about the idea of chance, Medalla's Cloud Canyons achieved, "freedom and depth by being transparently simple, by being both ordinary and cosmic at the same time."

It’s that freedom and depth that are inspiring, as I look for work that makes me slow down and watch.

David Medalla
Open the window,
Close the book.
Do not shake
Against the wind.
Let the wind claim the candle
For its bride.
Let the darkness dissolve
This room
And its memories.
The voice of your childhood
Is singing
In the tree's branches.
Open the window.
Close the book.

"I recited this poem in the finale of my performance entitled, The Poet in Abyssinia, at the Academy Raymond Duncan [Raymond Duncan was Isadora Duncan's brother] in Paris 1960." - David Medalla


Further reading:

Signals journal (David Medalla, ed.) has been re-issued as a boxed set, available through the Institute of International Visual Arts in London.


Iniva has also published David Medalla: Works in the World (Cv/Visual Arts Research), in which Nicholas James interviews David Medalla, an e-book available through Amazon


and Google books


and elsewhere.

Anuradha Vikram wrote an interesting 2009 article about Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond for SF MoMA, aligning his ploy to raise funds to support a new work with contemporary artists’ fundraising projects.


Guy Brett, Exploding Galaxies: The Art of David Medalla, with illustrations by David Medalla, was published in 1997.

Other books by Guy Brett, with substantive remarks about Medalla’s work, include:

Force Fields, Phases of the Kinetic, 2000.


Kinetic Art: The Language of Movement, 1968.

Takis at the MIT Museum


 “When I use a found object, a piece of some machine, it is to get away from art and nearer invisible forces.” Vassilakis Takis, in Peter Selz, ed. Directions in Kinetic Sculpture, exhibition catalogue, University Art Gallery, University of California, Berkeley, 1966.

The MIT Museum Collection includes an important piece by the sculptor Takis, whose influential works using electromagnetism led many other artists to think about the possibilities of art that makes invisible physical forces visible.  Takis was in residence at MIT for two years in the 1960s.  This is a short version of a research report that I wrote last fall about the MIT Museum’s Takis sculpture, in hopes that it might be included in 5000 Moving Parts:

Vassilakis Takis 





 MIT Museum

Vassilakis Takis

Electro-Magnetic I


MIT Museum Collection

“Electro-Magnetic I” is from a series of similar sculptures created by the artist Vassilak is Takis in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Takis, who was born in Athens in 1925, began making sculptural works in 1946.  He became a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT in 1968 and continued his Fellowship into 1969.

In 1954, Takis began to develop works using electromagnetism, including the “Electro-Magnetic” series and numerous works designated “Signals.”  The “Signals” sculptures were inspired by a long wait for a train to Paris, when Takis became fascinated by the signaling mechanisms that controlled train traffic. He spent several hours drawing the mechanisms while waiting at the station, and soon afterward he began making magnetic sculptures based on the drawings.

Takis’ interest in invisible forces extended to the uses of political power. In a now famous 1960 performance, Takis briefly suspended the British poet Sanford Beiles in a magnetic field in a Paris gallery, thereby “send(ing) first a man in space before the Russians.” The action took place six months before the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was launched into space, and for Takis it remained a point of pride that the first “man in space” was his magnetically suspended poet.

There is much more to know about Takis career, so I’ve listed a few sources of additional information. We don’t know yet if the MIT Museum’s Takis' work will be OK to exhibit.  More on that soon, I hope.

  • Wayne Andersen, Takis; Evidence of the Unseen, 1968.
  • Artworkers Coalition: 1969 January, February, March, April Documents. http://www.primaryinformation.org/
  • Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century, 1968.
  • Nicolas Calas, “Takis Magnetic Attraction: New Works at Howard Wise,” Arts Magazine, February, 1969.
  • Grace Glueck, “Art: Whirring and Quivering Aplenty. Electronic Sculpture of Takis at Wise Gallery,” New York Times, February 8, 1969.
  • Katherine Kuh, “Recent Kinetic Art,” Gyorgy Kepes ed., The Nature and Art of Motion, 1965.
  • David Medalla, ed., “Magnetic Manifesto,” Signals, October-November, 1964. C
  • Vassilakis Takis, Estafilades, Paris: René Julliard, 1961.
  • Vassilakis Takis, “L’Impossible: un homme dans l’espace,” Laura Knott and Bernd Kracke, eds., Sky Art Conference 2002, published in 2004.
  • Howard Wise, Takis: Magnetic Fields, 1970.

Another Busy Day, This Time in Manhattan


My 20 hours to New York and back yesterday included two long bus rides, one meal at a favorite restaurant, and visits to two art fairs, The Armory Show and The Art Show, to see what I could see in kinetic art.

Art fairs, of which there are hundreds held annually, are marketplaces. They're not contemplative, they don't explain much, and they exist to sell work. But they provide visitors with the chance to see a large number of works in a relatively contained space, and to get a quick take on what the art dealers think the collectors will want to buy.

This year's iteration of The Armory Show celebrated 100 years since the Show began, and attracted exhibiting galleries whose stock ranged from works created in the early twentieth century to the very newest works available from artists' studios. The Art Show, organized by the Art Dealers Association of America for the past 25 years and held (confusingly) at the Armory on Park Avenue, included some new work as well, but focused mostly on works by artists whose reputations are already well established.

I've captured here some moments of kineticism from a very full day of looking:

Works by George Rickey (1907-2002) and Alexander Calder (1898-1976) were everywhere. There were tabletop sculptures, and a hanging piece (by Calder) and one human-sized George Rickey sculpture. With one exception, the pieces, and the way they moved, were more delicate than I’d expected, especially from Rickey, an artist better known for his monumental public sculptures than for the small pieces shown here.

There were two or three other works on view that were created at the edge of kinetic art and op art, most prominently those by Jesus Rafael Soto (1923-2005), whose “kinetic structures” created disorienting optical effects with real movement.

But the most elegant of the historic works that I saw were by Harry Bertoia, whose Altarpiece for MIT Chapel (1955) remains among the most subtle of the works in MIT’s distinguished public art collection. Bertoia's small sculptures at The Art Show generated sound with just the slightest touch.

Finally, Nick Cave's Blot, a video created this year, was entrancing. The video combines two views of a costumed dancer, creating a perfectly symmetrical pattern of his (or her?) motion. The sound from Cave’s soundsuit costume, distorted and amplified, added to the dynamism of a work that was already visually dynamic. The suit reminded me a little of Gunther Uecker's New York Dancer. And although it’s not strictly within standard definitions of kinetic work, maybe it should be. I stood and watched Blot for a long time.

It was a good day for motion.

A full day in Alabama


I spent more time than I'd expected to in John Douglas Powers' studio in Birmingham, Alabama yesterday, making a quick decision about which of his works to bring to the MIT Museum for 5000 Moving Parts, and then being utterly captivated by listening to and watching Ialu, one of his works made with reeds. I liked the work on video, but it's so much more complicated and subtle in person. As with almost all works of art, there really is no substitute for experiencing Ialu.

From the video, I'd thought that the motion of the piece was pretty much closed - that it operated in a cycle that a viewer would quickly discern.  But what I couldn't see in the video, and what was immediately apparent in person, is that the reeds are flexible, so they gently bump into each other, creating random, unexpected motion that doesn't repeat. It was a revelation. I watched the piece for what seemed like a very long and thoroughly satisfying time.

I also hadn't noticed on the video that the reeds are painted gold. When I asked John about their color, he said that he'd begun to imagine the Ialu after he'd visited a temple in Japan that was filled with gold-colored statues of the Buddha. Following that experience, he began to think about images of paradise, many of which describe fields of plant life swaying in the wind. So, gold reeds. The play of light on them is wonderful.

And although the sound of the piece on the video is obviously important (and one of the reasons that I was so drawn to it), the squeaks and shudders of the machinery are much richer in person than they are in the recording. I was hearing suggestions of birds, and water, and the life of a wetland.

Being in the same room with Ialu confirmed the idea I've been exploring here, that what makes kinetic art so compelling is the complete kinesthetic experience - seeing, walking, bending, straining to hear, and staying with the work for a long time. The average time museum visitors spend looking at a painting is well under a minute. (But there are exceptions. See this James Elkins article about museum goers who visit works repeatedly and for long periods of time.) Maybe we'll need a bench for this piece. Ialu will reward persistence.

Understanding and Misunderstanding Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Please Empty Your Pockets


I first saw Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s work Please Empty Your Pockets at Art Basel Miami Beach three years ago, when I noticed a long line of people waiting to put a small personal possession onto a scanner that was attached to a white conveyor belt. I was curious, so I went closer to see what was happening. There were numerous overlapping images projected on the conveyor belt: phones, sets of keys and good luck charms. Joining the line, I added my own prescription bottle to be scanned, and watched as its image emerged in combination with the images of other people’s stuff. I left the experience with two or three ideas about what was going on.

The piece reminded me at first of sending my belongings through the X-ray machine at an airport. Only it wasn't in an airport, there were no guards around, and there was something infinitely more intriguing about it than any experience I've had with the TSA. Still, it was unsettling. This first impression was a bit out of synch, though, because I’d misread the title. I thought the title read, "Empty Your Pockets." Lozano-Hemmer’s "Please" changes everything. What I had taken to be a command was really a request.  This wasn’t TSA, it was an invitation.

Lozano-Hemmer connects Please Empty Your Pockets to the 1940 Adolfo Bioy Casares novella The Invention of Morel. Reading the novella last weekend helped me see the Lozano-Hemmer work in a new way. Ideas about absence and presence are more important to Lozano-Hemmer’s piece than I'd recognized. When a viewer places an object on the conveyor belt, the projected image of the object is left behind and added to a database of up to 600,000 other scanned images that are mixed and re-mixed with images scanned in the past and images that will be scanned the future. So placing an object under Lozano-Hemmer’s scanner projects it both backwards into the past and forward into the future.

Somewhere, right now, my prescription bottle is sharing virtual space and real time with thousands of personal possessions that meant enough to people that they kept them close.

Taking Little Steps


A principle I apply often: big projects get made one little step at a time. This exhibition is no exception. Here are a few of those steps - halting, tentative, and sometimes backwards - that I took in the last few days:

A studio visit and a few bugs

I went to visit a couple of artists we've invited to join the 5000 Moving Parts exhibition, and discussed with them several possibilities for works to be included.  The work I had been thinking about would have required the Museum's staff to maintain a moss garden for the duration of the exhibition.  OK, that's doable.  But I was surprised when the artists told me that in previous installations, "things hatched" from the moss garden. In an institution such as the MIT Museum, which houses large collections of works on paper, things that hatch are rather seriously frowned upon, to say the least. The artists are proposing a different work, and no insects.

Marcel Duchamp's rotoreliefs

Duchamp’s rotoreliefs are often cited as early examples of kinetic art and they’ve become popular online. But the mechanical simplicity of these works can't really be thoroughly reproduced digitally - they were made to be "played" on a turntable. Just imagine looking down at them spinning on a creaky machine.  That would be another experience entirely, and one much more closely related to the work we're looking at for 5000 Moving Parts: work that requires doing something other than sitting still.

You got to move

I said in my previous post that I'd be thinking my way toward trying to distinguish what makes kinetic art so engaging. One thought: Is it that, in addition to engaging the visual sense, it's also kinesthetic? The work moves, and you have to move too.

I spent years making dances and toward the end of my time doing that, I did really simple things just to make the audience turn their heads or look up during a performance. Last year, I met with a former colleague-in-choreography who later became an architect. We agreed: once a choreographer, always a choreographer. I can’t develop an exhibition about kinetic art without thinking about how people will move through it, or bend over the sculptures to get a closer look, and she can’t design a building without thinking about the experiences of the people in the building as they move through it.

Many more small steps to come.

Why is Kinetic Art Disconnected from Art History?


Several months ago, Vik Muniz came by the MIT Museum as part of his stint as a Visiting Artist on campus.  I was pleased to help show him around our exhibits, and delighted to discover that Vik is a long-standing fan of Arthur Ganson.  Arthur's work has been on exhibit here for almost 20 years, and our Exhibits Manager has collected dozens of comment books that attest to the huge number of visitors who fall in love with Arthur's work, and the many visitors who travel great distances to see it.

Although Arthur has been recognized widely - he's given a TED talk and he's spoken for the Long Now Foundation - his work hasn't taken off in the contemporary art world in ways that I might have imagined it would.  On our Museum tour, Muniz, whose work is frequently covered by the contemporary art press, began talking about how kinetic art is pretty much ignored in art history.  Muniz speculated that the reason is that the critics aren't necessary to its interpretation. Almost anyone can "get" a kinetic work right away, with or without an advanced degree in art history.

As I've begun to work on 5000 Moving Parts, I've started to think there's more to the story. The easy answer is that there's a lot of pretty minor kinetic art out there.  But that's too easy. There's negligible work in every art form.  Then there's the troublesome issue of maintenance.  The Tinguely Museum in Basel employs two fulltime conservators to keep Tinguely's hulking, spewing works hulking and spewing.  Arthur Ganson once told me that selling a work can mean a lifelong relationship with the buyer, making himself available to repair and tweak.

When Martha Buskirk wrote The Contingent Object of Contemporary Art several years ago, she looked at how the relationship between artists and museums was changing, especially in works made of materials that were designed to deteriorate rapidly. Her cover image is of a Janine Antoni lard sculpture that’s in a late stage of collapse.

I was teaching from Buskirk’s book when it came out, and I was so intrigued by her observations that I began trying to learn more about working in a museum. What, I wondered, was behind those decisions that were radically changing how artists and museums would work together? Who was making them and what was being considered?

For the next several months, I’ll be trying to answer those questions and a few more as we develop the MIT Museum’s new kinetic art exhibition.  Why make a kinetic art exhibition? What is it about this form that creates a condition in which the work is simultaneously adored by the public and ignored in the critical discourse?My aims for this exhibition are to show work that has all the depth and richness of the best work in any medium, and to give our visitors an experience that they will (a) never forget and (b) value.

     Site Design: Paul Montie