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MIT Museum

On labor for its own sake

By Laura E. Hatt

“A machine may be about fabric or grease, but it may also be about thick liquid and sensuous movement. A bit deeper, it may be about meditation or the sense of release. And taken another step, it may be about pure invention and the joyfulness in the heart of its creator.” - Arthur Ganson

I live in a paper sea. It’s made up of spell-checked resumes and half-written articles and ironclad “five year plans,” and it laps a little higher with every midnight to-do list I produce. The sensation isn’t without its own peculiar thrill—ambition saturates every double-spaced line of this papery tide. The emotion is equal parts wood pulp and hunger, carbon black and drive. It is warm with the enthalpy of my exertion.

A little too warm, sometimes. The problem with emotion made manifest is that it becomes real. Ambition is fleeting before it is chiseled into college-ruled sheets; disappointment is nebulous until it declares itself in print. Ambiguity does not translate to the physical universe.

The part of me that once took a philosophy class called “Care of the Soul” perks up at this idea. Perhaps understanding the physical universe is the key to understanding the metaphysical one. Perhaps a longer look at the detritus of my ambition will help me come to terms with the nature of it.

Unfortunately, when I try to apply this theory to my personal life, I fail. Apparently, I have spent too many days wading through my own term papers to find anything new in them. I need someone else’s ambition, someone else’s sea.

I find both at the MIT Museum. I’ve come across several mentions of its Arthur Ganson exhibit in recent weeks, and it sounds appealingly weird. Apparently, Ganson is a kinetic sculptor who specializes in “gestural engineering.” His creations are supposed to be both whimsical and unabashedly physical. I travel two stops on the Red Line, pay a $5 entrance fee, and make a beeline for his exhibit.

The room itself is dark and hollow. The whole space rattles with the whirring of more than a dozen independent installments. I see silver and tin and iron and oil and even a little flutter of paper near the back.

Being a methodical person, I start with the first installation on my right and plan to move counterclockwise around the room. It is a small contraption—barely larger than a toaster—but it is densely packed with slender rods and gears. Rickety wheels spin at odd angles. Jointed arms extend and retract. A coiled spring quivers at high frequency. The whole machine telegraphs its labor so plainly that I feel vaguely inadequate just looking at it.

The direction of that labor, on the other hand, is less clear. Yes, wheels spin—but they travel no ground. Yes, arms extend—but they anticipate retraction with every elastic inch. In truth, as I struggle to squint past the sound and the motion and the shiny Western industrialism of my conditioning, I realize that this is a machine that does nothing.

I glance at the caption: “Untitled Fragile Machine.” I laugh.

It’s a joke. It has to be a joke. Ganson has created a machine that does nothing, and he’s confessed that uselessness outright. The whole exhibit feels like something I’d find in a mad scientist’s basement. Half of me wants to find the guy, elbow him in the ribs, and chortle, “You got me!”

The other half knows that I’m wrong. This creation is too complex to be a joke. When I look at this spinning, waltzing, beating heart of beaten steel, I don’t see a gag.

I see myself.

The desperate industry, the inconvenient complexity, the embattled but enduring conviction that all of this has to be going somewhere, has to be fulfilling some purpose, has to be something (anything!) other than futile—all of this is wrenchingly familiar.

After all, the whole concept of futility sucks. It’s antithetical to every value I grew up with and every lesson I was taught. “Don’t stop when you’re tired. Stop when you’re done!” said the motivational poster. “Set measurable goals!” said my tenth grade teacher. “Work until your idols become your rivals!” said Drake.

All of this is great advice. I consider myself a goal-oriented individual, and I too subscribe to the ideals of upward mobility and the American Dream. Increasingly, however, I’ve begun to see the limitations of a worldview espoused by a wall decoration.

Many machines are built to move, but fewer are built to move forward. In fact, the more I stare at this particular machine, the more I question whether the direction of its motion even matters. Sure, these rods and gears follow the same route tens of thousands of times a day. They aren’t upwardly mobile. They aren’t even laterally mobile.

But they are mobile. A wheel that spins above the ground still etches a circle in the air. An arm that reaches for nothing still bridges space. A fragile machine that charges no batteries and turns on no lights still defies inertia and creates change and stops onlookers in their tracks. It is labor for its own sake. It is beauty in its own right.

Ambition is a pitiless thing. It tells me always to do more—to aim higher, to move quicker, to work harder. It tells me that running in place is running backwards. It is persistent and it is loud.

It can still, however, be drowned out by the clatter of an untitled fragile machine.

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