I have been fascinated by Roxy Paine’s Scumak No. 2, part of the installation Scumaks and Dendroids, since it took residence in The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s Bloch Building Lobby.
The first question upon seeing it is “What is that?” Coffee maker? Meat grinder? Soft-serve machine?
From the museum’s website: “Scumak No. 2 mimics the factory assembly line. A computer program controls the process as colored polyethylene beads are heated. Molten plastic is dispensed and collects on a conveyor belt and, the resultant layered sculptures are then displayed on pedestals. Computer-operated sculpture-making machines, or Scumaks, address automation and computerization in contemporary life and spark dialogue about the purpose of art and the artist.”
Does it ever! I have overheard fierce debates on Scumak No. 2‘s validity–or lack thereof–from visitors young, old and in-between. Reactions range from lamentable (“Oh, please. I can do that!”) to exuberant (“That’s so awesome!”)
In the first few days of the installation, I noticed Senior Preparator John Laney eyeing it carefully. The didactic material had yet to be posted, and he seemed to know what was going on, so visitors asked him questions and he generously and adeptly answered them. I learned a lot in the few minutes that I eavesdropped. I warned him (as I do all my co-workers) that he ran the risk of being featured on my blog. Surprisingly, he was fine with that! So I emailed him a few questions about his involvement with the installation.
How were you selected as the caretaker for Scumak No. 2?
On Saturday April 9 and Sunday April 10 I was assisting at the job site for the installation of Roxy Paine’s Ferment dendroid. This involved prepping the job site, supplying tools and materials for the delivery and staging of the stainless steel elements, and acting as a spotter. Through the course of those two days, and the following two days on the 11th and 12th, I was part of the on-site crew that Roxy and his team gained familiarity and trust with. My supervisor, Chief Preparator Mark Milani, had designated me as the point man for the unpacking, staging and installation of Roxy’s Scumak No. 2 which was to get underway on Wednesday April 13, concurrent with the completion of Ferment. Our loan agreement with the James Cohan Gallery specified that their technician would work on installation and our art prep department would provide support and assistance as needed. Through the course of the installation, I had been identified by both the gallery and Roxy as a trusted and reliable art handler with the sensibilities to take proper care with the operation and oversight of Scumak No. 2. The unpacking and installation of the machine and its components also made me the default point man on how the machine was operated.
Roxy’s logic was very specific to the effect that he wanted to minimize the number of hands operating and functioning his installation, a logic that makes a great deal of sense to me as it ensures a consistent and uniform process at all stages of the operation, and at all times from day-to-day as well as month-to-month. The operation and care of the installation is not rocket-science, but does require a consistent and disciplined effort. I do think it is relevant to the work itself that each step of the process is uniform and replicated as exactly as possible. The attention to detail and oversight of the installation are natural extensions of my sensibilities as preparator (or art handler).
What have you learned since the project began? Anything you would do differently knowing what you do now?
One thing that I have learned from the very first week of installation onward is that the reaction of patrons can be extremely unpredictable. Kids seem to love it almost universally, as I think it embodies a sense of wonder that comes naturally to children. The piece itself is, in my opinion, an ideal installation for the Bloch Lobby: large scale, unusual, contemporary, constantly changing and growing throughout the day and throughout the week. I don’t believe many visitors walk through the doors of the Bloch Lobby and expects to see the installation, and in my opinion that sense of surprise and intrigue is one of the primary purposes of viewing and experiencing art. Whether a patron loves or hates the installation and the objects created by the piece, I think each person is engaged with the installation and the ambiguity that Roxy has crafted with this machine. I think strong reactions, both positive and negative, are vital to whatever impact art may have on the public at large – additionally I think it’s important that everyone embrace the fact that their subjective opinion matters, and that no one has to like anything. It’s okay to hate a piece of art!
Are you an artist? If so, has Scumak No. 2 inspired your work?
I do not consider myself an artist. I take photographs, write and conceptualize all sorts of creative projects but I am not an artist. Scumak No. 2 does initiate a wonderful and important discourse about the nature of the artist and the creative process, time-based art, and conceptual art. These are matters that I find extremely valuable for us to consider, both as individuals as well as a society and culture at large.
If you could take home any Scumak, which one would it be?
If I could take home any particular Scumak, it would likely be S2-P2-MAR7, the seventh object created. For one thing, it’s a bit smaller and easier to move, and it also has a graceful elegance to its form – almost an “s” curve happening. I think it’s a fun object from a fun installation.
Thanks to John Laney for answering my nosy questions! Scumaks and Dendroids is on view until August 28, 2011.