The Humorous Machinist - Absurdity Week


Kinetic artist Joseph Herscher with his Rube Goldberg masterpiece, “The Page Turner”. Photo by Fletcher Lawrence.

Written by: Jennifer Smith

When you imagine using a pencil as a lever or a cup as a mode of transportation, the inner workings of everyday life suddenly become less constrained by the limits of purpose. Taking a sip of coffee sets a chain reaction into motion, bringing a beaker to a rolling boil and sending a vase crashing to the floor, all in the name of merely turning the page of a newspaper.

The serious business of creating a goal-oriented, finely tuned machine gives way in the wake of humor and surprise—a process that’s most famously illustrated by the absurd and unpredictable elements of a Rube Goldberg machine, which New York City kinetic artist Joseph Herscher reimagines with his modern moving installation, “The Page Turner.”

“Machines are usually designed to be as efficient as possible so I kind of want to turn that on its head and make it as inefficient as possible,“ Herscher says. “I’m introducing play and whimsy, which have no part in efficiency. By doing that, you get people to think more about the process of the machine instead of the goal and to sort of have fun and take delight in the process.”

Herscher was born in New York City but raised in New Zealand, where he earned a bachelor’s of science in mathematics. He built his first machine when he was five—a candy machine he made with a box and a tube. Other machines began to take form in Herscher’s life as it called for them.

“My mother worked very late,” Herscher says. “She’s a singer, and I wasn’t awake when she got home so I made a machine that when she opened the door, it pulled a string, which turned on a tape player, playing her a message. Welcome home, Mom.”

Herscher developed a knack for noticing the way objects move around him. He recalls how he once played with different bottles in the aisles of a supermarket just to get a feel for how they rolled. He doesn’t use any measurements or calculations when he builds his machines, but rather, uses familiar objects in an unfamiliar way. The arduous process calls for “a hell of a lot of trial and error.”

“You know, trial and error means trial is hope and error is reality,” he says. “It takes a long time.”

“The Page Turner” took about four months to build and incorporates absurd elements such as a live hamster and a Macbook that tumbles to the floor. Herscher draws a lot of inspiration from Rube Goldberg, who tempts him to push the boundaries.

Rube Goldberg was a Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist, sculptor and author whose depictions of silly, complex machines continue to inspire engineers and scientists worldwide. Today, his name is an adjective in Webster’s Dictionary and yearly Rube Goldberg machine contests challenge students to interpret a simple task in a new way.

Goldberg’s granddaughter, Jennifer George, contacted Herscher after seeing his work.

Photo by Fletcher Lawrence.

“I try to make everything as over the top and unrealistic as I can,” Herscher says. “That’s what comedy is … doing things that are totally over the top but doing them in a serious manner. I try to think, ‘What’s the most ridiculous thing I can use for a tool in a machine?’ The other humor I use is contrasting the over the top with the simple so all I’m trying to do is open a newspaper, but I have all these things destroyed in the process.”

Herscher mainly showcases his machines, such as “The Falling Water” and “Crème That Egg!”, through videos, but has also done a few live events as well as workshops for kids. At the 2011 Venice Biennale, Herscher built a 40-foot Rube Goldberg machine with the help of forty local kids. He’s currently looking for a gallery space in New York City to house his next project: a contraption that will run over month as a tree grows to trigger the next part of the machine.

“Machines epitomize a goal-focused mindset,” Herscher says. “Everything you do is to achieve a goal and much of our lives are like that. Whether it’s studying to get a degree or to get a job to get more money … everything tends to be all focused. And because my machines are about the process, and the journey is not the end goal, I want people to think more about the process of the objectives they try to pursue and to appreciate the magic and beauty in everything around them and in the journey to where they’re going.”