12 Jul 2015

Jiwi's Machines

From Standing Room Only, 1:30 pm on 12 July 2015
The logo for the web series, 'Jiwi's Machines.'

Jiwi's Machines Photo: MOTAT: Museum of Transport and Technology

The exhibits inside MOTAT, the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology, are all about design and efficiency. All except for their latest acquisition. 

Joseph Herscher is a kinetic artist who builds Rube Goldberg machines; wonderfully over engineered, incredibly complicated contraptions designed to perform simple tasks. Joseph is filming a web series called Jiwi's Machines at MOTAT and during the day tests his inventions in front of live audiences. 

Justin Gregory went to meet the man and his machines.

“Machines are usually designed to achieve a task as efficiently as possible. So the idea of a machine that is inefficient is a bit of a paradox. It doesn’t make any sense, it’s absurd. But somehow they are delightful to watch.”

A photo of kinetic artist Joseph Herscher.

Joseph Herscher Photo: Joseph Herscher.

Joseph Herscher is hard at work. On a film set inside MOTAT, he is testing and retesting one small part of an elaborate machine. This is his life; hours and hours of precise and focused work towards a wonderfully unnecessary end.

“It’s a lot of preparation for just a few minutes of comedy, basically.”

Joseph is a New Zealand-born artist who now lives in New York and he makes his living building what he calls ‘comical chain-reaction machines’. 

Joseph’s first machine was an elaborate three minute long obstacle course that eventually resulted in a hammer smashing a creme egg against a wall. The machine covered the walls of his apartment and a video of it in action has been seen by more than three million people.

Creme That Egg! 2008.

More and more contraptions followed and people started to refer to them as Rube Goldberg machines.

Rube Goldberg was an American cartoonist most famous for drawings of overly elaborate and convoluted contraptions that performed simple tasks - a subtle and delightful satire of man and our machines.

Rube’s drawings remained just that and were never built. Joseph became obsessed with the idea of bringing machines like them into the real world.

“You’re introducing this whole world of play into the world of machines. And human beings are playful creatures. So to be reminded of the potential for play in everyday tasks is a wonderful feeling.”

He says he is constantly noticing unusual things that happen around his house which he then stores away in his memory for future use.

“A lot of it is also just play. I’ll know that I want to turn a light on and I’ll know that I want to use a pot plant (to do it). So then it’s just a process of getting a lot of pots and testing them and seeing what surprises tickle me in the right way.”

An Image of Joseph Herscher in the role of Jiwi as he tests the chain reaction abilities of a line of chocolate bars.

Jiwi experiments with chocolate. Photo: Joseph Herscher.

You might think that machines that celebrate inefficiency would be a bit strange for a place like MOTAT. But Museum director Michael Frawley disagrees.

"Those Rube Goldberg machines show physics in an exciting and hands-on way. Whereas if you try to explain what's going on on a blackboard using mathematical formula, the kids turn off. So by engaging them in making the (machines) and by explaining in a simple way how and why these things work, you engage them with the world of physics. Get them young and you'll get the physicists of the future"

By day, Joseph is ensconced at MOTAT as a live exhibit, building and testing his machines in front of crowds of kids. And at night, he shoots episodes of an upcoming web series called Jiwi’s Machines.

Jiwi lives with his sister June and drives her bonkers building machines intended to make his life – but not necessarily hers – easier. When shooting is done at the end of August, Joseph will host a series of workshops for children to design and build their own Rube Goldberg machines.

The trailer for the short documentary "Joseph Gets Dressed".

In this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival Joseph stars in a short documentary called Joseph Gets Dressed. In it, Joseph builds a machine called the Dresser which will wake him up in the morning and dress him from head to toe. Unusually for Joseph, he performed with the machine in front of a live audience.

Producer and director Gemma Gracewood says the filming process was a little bit like shooting a wildlife documentary.

“It was basically me and my co-director turning up, turning on the camera, and waiting. The most satisfying part of the experience is learning the art of having patience. (Joseph) doesn’t get distracted by anything when he’s in the job…he’s in it, in it, in it until it’s worked enough times for him to move on.”

And so while filming for both Joseph Gets Dressed and Jiwi’s Machines is by necessity a slow and painstaking process, Gemma is convinced that the experience is a worthwhile one.

“There’s a lot that’s wrong in the world. So I remind myself that society needs the clowns as well.”

A still from the documentary, 'Joseph Gets Dressed' showing Joseph Herscher lying in bed surrounded by the machine that will wake him and dress him.

A still from the documentary, 'Joseph Gets Dressed'. Photo: Joseph Herscher.

Joseph Herscher and his Rube Goldberg machines can be seen each day at MOTAT in Auckland. Keep an eye out for the web series, Jiwi's Machines, later this year. The documentary, Joseph Gets Dressed, premieres at the NZ International Film Festival later this month.

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