Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Our company is called Creative Machines. We make things that encourage creativity, support social interaction, and inspire self-confidence. Practically this means we make interactive museum exhibits for science and children’s museums, permanent public art installations, and rolling ball sculptures. We have been active for 15 years and have work in many countries around the world. The distinction between these markets blurs a bit internally. We’ve always defined ourselves by what we want to do rather than say “we are museum exhibit makers” or “we are artists”. We just want to make cool stuff that serves a positive social purpose. We even produce a compact 20-ton press for making water filters in the third world. It is all the same thing to us, but it is hard to pigeon-hole by market or discipline. And of course the distinctions between disciplines changes all the time. Our mission (encourage creativity, support social interaction, and inspire self-confidence) has remained constant and will remain so, but the venues through which we do this change over time.
What inspires your sculptures?
We’re inspired by nature in a way, but for us the interest lies in the generative mathematics of natural forms, or particular details blown out of proportion. We’ve got nothing against pretty trees and flowers, but the nature outside our window does a better job of that than we could, so we need to dig a little deeper and add something of ourselves to the mix in order to properly use nature as inspiration.
We’re also really inspired by people’s desire to control things in interesting ways. Years ago we made the worlds’ largest accurate model of an erupting volcano for a museum in Hawaii. We had the full-sized prototype set up in our shop and were hosting a visit by museum staff, designers and volcanologists. Everyone was taking a turn making eruptions by controlling the pressure and volume of the underground lava. Controlling these variables made for an interesting range of 16 foot high eruptions. Everyone was having fun with the controls and one of us said “of course in the real exhibit this will all be under computer control” and we all just looked at each other, realizing that would be taking all the fun away from visitors. We settled on four erupting fissures in the volcano model. Three were under computer control but any visitor could go to the catwalk above the caldera and use buttons to control the four erupting fissures.
You take a different approach to developing your art pieces. Can you tell us what prompted you to include public in the development of your machines?
We often say that a sculpture or exhibit isn’t really finished until the public uses it. People enjoying our work is really part of the work itself. We are both scared and attracted to the populist nature of museum exhibits and public art. We want to create things that can be enjoyed by the widest possible cross-section of humanity: young and old, rich and poor, generalists and specialists. People are basically intelligent, curious, and derive pleasure from touching unique objects, discovering capabilities they never knew they had, and sharing their experiences with others. Consequently we try to create work that is immediately accessible but yields subtle riches when examined at greater length.
What inspired you to bring your Creative Machines to hospitals?
Many of us have had a friend or relative in the hospital and when you go there it is like entering another world. Despite the many wonderful and talented people who work in hospitals it feels like a world with the hope sucked out of it. One particular aspect of being in a hospital spoke to us and that is the feeling that everything is happening TO you. You are helpless, you have no control, no agency. So we wanted to create opportunities for people to control aspects of their environment when they are in the hospital. And we wanted the experience to be collaborative so parents could work with kids, kids of different ages could work together and people with limited physical or mental abilities would be on the same footing as people who are otherwise abled. It seemed a way to give some agency, some humanity back to people who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances.
What’s the best way for the public to participate in the development of your creative machines?
We don’t advertise it widely but our shop is open to visitors pretty much all the time. (We appreciate a heads up by phone or email, of course.) Just call us or send an email. In the work we do, there are no specialists. Someone walking in off the street is as likely to give us new insight as someone who has been working on a particular piece for a long time.
What tools do you find invaluable in making your pieces? (software or hardware, people’s feedback)
Software: rhino, solidworks
Hardware: laser cutter, waterjet, CNC router, bandsaw, hot glue gun
People’s Feedback is also invaluable of course. We note that a good designer or artist studies the world of art and design. But a truly great designer or artist studies EVERYTHING. In our aspiration to become great, we keep an eye on the world of art and design but we also keep our eyes wide open while traveling, while in nature, while at home, while mingling with other people – with the expectation that anything and everything can be a source of inspiration to a mind properly prepared.
What words of encouragement would you offer a young artist just starting in the art world?
It is going to be harder than you realize, so find out what you love to do. Don’t settle for a job that just pays the bills so you can do a little of what you love on the weekend. Almost any career these days demands long hours and sacrifices. So you might as well be doing that for something you love doing. We love being makers. It is a lot of work, but at the end of the day you have taken something inside yourself and made it real outside of yourself. And if you’re lucky, that external thing now affects other people in a positive way. What else is there?