Dave Gordon is a digital artist, photographer, animator, and sculptor whose work S. J. Chambers witnessed firsthand at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation during International Steampunk May 6-8th. The exhibit, Virtual Kinetics and The Art of the Image, takes a multimedia exploration through the history of photography and animation, to create an interactive and magical experience between the viewer and the work. Many of the pieces play upon form and are not what they first seem, like Zosel, which at first appears to be a static carousel with horses. At the bottom of Zosel is a crank for the viewer to turn, and suddenly the three little figures standing in the foreground, and that are holding what appears to be flowers, begin emitting light from their flower bulbs, and the horses all begin to gallop. It is quite clever of Gordon to put the “magic” in the viewers hands, because it breaks the “fourth wall” of gallery-going in which one quickly takes in a piece and is afraid to get any closer than a few inches from it, for fear of being yelled at by a docent. But in Virtual Kinetics, you are encouraged to touch, and when you do so, you are rewarded with a magical and nostalgic experience unlike anything gleaned from simply looking.
Originally scheduled to run from April 23 through July 5, museum-goers have been so enthralled with Gordon’s animated installations, that Charles River extended Virtual Kinetics’ stay through the end of August. If you are in the Waltham area, you can’t afford to miss this unique exhibit. If you are not in the Waltham area, you can get a sense of Gordon’s work through his website which features images and videos, some of which are shown in this interview below. We’re glad that Gordon was able to sit down with us here at Volume 2.0, via e-mail, to discuss what animates him and his art.
The Steampunk Bible: What is your definition of Steampunk?
Dave Gordon: Steampunk in the visual arts is a blending of modern technology with Victorian technology and Victorian style. The Steampunk aesthetic often emphasizes the exposure of underlying mechanics and electronics, something I’m very interested in as a way of making all technology more accessible.
The Steampunk I enjoy the most employs technology which actually does something. I can appreciate gears glued to goggles but I’d much rather see goggles combining a modern laser range finding system with a watch gear control system. As far as I’m concerned, the best Steampunk art combines Victorian and contemporary technologies creating something usable and understandable that was not before seen or possible. This is what I try to do in my own art.
SPB: How long have you been involved/interested in Steampunk?
DG: My creation of what could be called Steampunk works pre-dates my awareness of Steampunk. Since around 2000 one of my interests has been using modern technology to explore and reinterpret early industrial art and technology. Around 2006, I discovered Steampunk and realized much of the art I was producing fit this aesthetic. My art hasn’t emerged from an interest in Steampunk, rather I and the members of the Steampunk community share a set of interests.
SPB: Who and what within Steampunk influences your work?
DG: A lot of my influences predate the emergence of Steampunk as a specific art form. I am heavily influenced by the artistic movements which emerged during the Industrial Revolution such as Futurism, Surrealism and Dadaism. Zoecycle is an elaboration on Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (on a stool) and the animation it shows is inspired by the work of Salvador Dali. Muybridge is almost too obvious an influence to mention. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is visually stunning and provides amazing insights into the time period that produced it. I love to read old science fiction and am fascinated both by the ways it has predicted and failed to predict our present. The Machine Stops by E.M. Forester is a wonderful example of Victorian science fiction that remains relevant in the Internet age.
More contemporary influences include Terry Gilliam whose visual aesthetic in films like, Brazil and 12 Monkeys first made me think about the exposure of technology as an aesthetic. I was inspired to do physical animation by the amazing work of Gregory Barsamian. Within the Steampunk movement the work of Jake von Slatt has been particularly influential. Seeing his keyboard and LCD mods, as well as his documentation on the builds, led me to make my first specifically Steampunk pieces. What I love about his keyboard and monitor is that unlike many other Steampunk computers, they don’t feel like they’ve been decorated so much as re-imagined. Even if they weren’t part of the Steampunk movement, they’d present a unique computing experience that would stretch the aesthetic envelope.
SPB: Your work looks at an art form we take for granted now, animation, and you break it down to its origins through references to the photography of Muybridge and the animation techniques of the zoetrope. What inspired you to break down animation back to its roots?
DG: In a word, Muybridge. He used banks of still cameras fired in sequence to create plates of still photographs showing very short sequences of motion. You can’t break down animation more than that. What I did was to reconnect modern practice with its historical and technological roots.
In re-examining the technologies for creating artificial motion which predate film I also saw aesthetic opportunities which are unavailable using modern techniques. This lead me to re-imagine the zoetrope using microcontrollers and LEDs to create three dimensional sculptural animation that incorporate the best properties of the zoetrope. This includes a tactile connection to animation that comes from hand spinning the artwork. There is a speed at which spinning still images suddenly become animation and it is different for every viewer. It is a magical moment and my pieces let the viewer control it.
SPB: What is your process when you start creating a kinetic piece?
DG: It really depends on the piece. Generally I start with a broad concept and allow my imagination to take flight. I think of all of the craziest things that might possibly work or be cool based on that original concept. Then I start to think about the materials that I actually have available to me, the things I actually know how to do and the problems that I might face trying to make these crazy ideas real. One might think these limitations would result in art work which is inferior to my flights of fancy but the opposite is true. I find I often find art in my limitations. The process of struggling with limitations and problems challenges me to refine my concepts and results in art work which is generally more streamlined and effective than my original concept. One of the things I like about making Steampunk art is that it introduces a new set of constraints forcing me to refine my work even further.
SPB: What is it that you want people to take away from your work?
DG: The people who are coming to see my show Virtual Kinetics and the Art of the Image at the museum are incredibly diverse. I get six year old children, Steampunkers and eighty year old engineers. It is ridiculous to expect them all to get the same thing out of the show. There’s no one thing I want them to take away from it. People can approach my work as art, as innovative technology or as an educational tool… or they can just enjoy the flashing lights. I hope that most people will have a good time and experience a sense of wonder and when they do, it’s very satisfying.
People can approach my work as an artistic collaboration between two artists, separated by over a century. They can learn about how we use pixels to create still images and still images to create the artificial perception of motion. They can even use my exhibit as a way to explore the history of technology. I’ve tried to make my signage support all three of these approaches but frankly, most people don’t read the signs and that’s fine.
SPB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your one man show at the Charles River Museum?
DG: The museum has a functioning Victorian machine shop, working with the museum volunteers on that equipment to adapt my interactive artwork to survive the ravages of children was both an education and a pleasure. I have some wonderful memories of people in outlandish garb operating my devices during the Steampunk City Festival. I got to give a tour to a group of Japanese school girls. If I had to pick a moment as most rewarding it was probably watching a father explain to his very young child how persistence of vision and animation worked using my stroboscopic sculpture Zoecycle. He did it entirely in Russian, which I don’t speak, and I was still able to follow along perfectly and see the look of understanding in his son’s eyes.
From the very beginning there was a remarkable chemistry between myself, the museum, and its community. What was intended to be merely a show evolved into what was effectively an artist residency followed by an exhibition that has now been extended twice from 2 to 5 months. My art has changed as a result of having a show at the Charles River Museum of Industry& Innovation, I’ve gained new skills, new contacts and new friends.