I have always had an interest in how things work. As a child I’d take stuff apart; I’d wonder what was in that box or how does that thing work? Then I’d try to get them back together again but that was seldom successful! Those were the days before the Internet and helpful YouTube guides on how things work and how-to-put-them-back-together-before-the-owner-finds-out videos.
Many years on I started making my own virtual machines. Initially, they didn’t do anything. That’s to say they ‘looked’ like they’d do something interesting but were actually just a collection of objects arranged under the camera. I’d use watch parts and wires in these early constructions and they invariably looked like homemade bombs!
Someone commented that they also looked like steampunk. At the time I hadn’t heard of this genre and eagerly started looking it up!
Steampunk looked really interesting. I liked the Victorian industrial utopia feel of the contraptions people were making and wearing. This was Victorian grandeur on steroids and plenty of steam! What’s not to like?
I’ve seen many Heath Robinson’s inventions before and loved the humour in them. I liked the way that they looked like they could just work if only someone was potty enough to make them. Steampunk contraptions followed a similar route. They were a kind of heavy metal version of Heath Robinson’s inventions.
Lots of things were coming together for me by now. Along with Steampunk and Mr R I’d been interested in Tim Hunkin and his humorous contraptions. He makes alternative arcade machines, among other things, which were born out of recycled objects and a fantastic imagination. There’s a room full of his arcade machines on Southwold pier in Suffolk (‘The Under the Pier Show’). He also wrote and presented Channel 4’s ‘The Secret Life of Machines’ in the late 80’s, early 90’s (yes, that still seems about ten years ago to me). More recently, James May’s ‘The Reassembler’ has provided some inspiration (I particularly like the neat way they arrange all the components prior to the assembly).
I started making my own contraptions look like they would work, like they have an actual purpose. This progression opened up a whole new interest in what I was doing. I needed to think about how things worked. I’d pick a subject and analyse the process involved. I’d then see if there was a wacky, complicated or over-engineered way of making this into one of my designs. I’d spend weeks drawing elements of a design and seeing if I could bring them together into something believable. I’d use humour as much as I could. I was also inspired by Nick Park’s Wallace & Gromit and Rube Goldberg’s domino effect machines, along with the others mentioned (by the way, you’d love the group OK Go’s video on this:.
Each part of my contraption had to be logical (albeit in a weird and wonderfully eccentric way). It takes even longer acquiring the ‘components’ for the devices. Each part may be made up of several objects I’ve found and individually photographed. I sometimes put together small parts if that works better, otherwise everything else is combined together in Photoshop. The aim is to combine objects, which may vary in scale, in a believable way. I introduce grunge and shadows which help mould them together.
Each contraption can take several months of planning and ‘construction’ and I actually like that. Photography can be so quick to produce an image and equally quick to move on to the next one. There seems to be little time to savour. Extending the process by making it more involved is similar to painting with oils. The process has natural brakes. Oils must dry before painting the next layer. I think that this intensifies the involvement of the artist and, I hope, the viewer lingers a little longer.