MIAMI — Rube Goldberg machines have a knack for revealing the fatuities of humanity: their wild impracticality yields very simple results that never required a fake boxing glove hitting a lightbulb connected to a pulley system in the first place. (A short film featuring Goldberg is aptly entitled “Something for Nothing.”) In her essay about Goldberg, Stefany Anne Golberg writes, “Rube Goldbergs were mechanical slapstick. They satirized the promise of technology, and the (American) idea that technology is progress. … the contraptions expose human folly, the ways in which we’re persistently falling over ourselves in a forward motion toward a predictably absurd finish.”
This is true, but surely the overly complex contraptions also offer an appraisal of the power of movement — of development and anticipation. The machines are a bit like the human routine of trial and error, enacted in real time — will it work? It did work! — and as such are a delight to watch, a revelation in little intricacies, a series of small reasons to feel excited, skeptical, and excited again. The banana successfully peeled at the end is simply the punchline.
For their exhibition, Larval Acceleration: A Conversation in Chunks, the Israeli husband-and-wife artist duo Rotem Tamir and Omri Zin created two contraptions designed to facilitate a painstaking process of creating balloons and ink. In doing so, they’ve transformed Locust Projects into a lab for play and durational performance, working in the gallery periodically throughout the exhibition’s first several weeks. Tamir describes her factory as a “magic box,” a modular, ketchup- and mustard-colored magnetic receptacle with nooks and crannies that she must open and close throughout her balloon-making process: lift this lid to find gloves, shut it and open another to get a tool. The balloons’ glass molds are shaped like intestines and organs, a reference to early toy balloons, which were made of animal innards. The glass-blown molds, which lay in cushy foam beds, are smooth in texture but bulbous, like a bladder. She warms the glass in a small oven, dips it into latex — the balloon’s skin — then places the latex in talc, smooths the balloon over, and finally fills it with helium.
Meanwhile, Zin’s factory looks like a restaurant kitchen countertop. It is industrious and mostly metal, and rolls throughout the space on mechanized wheels — a process that makes a lot of noise. Unlike Tamir’s balloon station, Zin’s houses actual animal fat, kept cool in a refrigerator. The fat is pumped through a grinder, filtered through a number of apparatuses, and slowly turned into grease and then into blue-black ink, which is sprayed around the gallery through a tube as the whole system moves, like an engine leaking oil.
Over time, the machines will fill the space with their corresponding products. They are clanging, mad-scientist tableaux — one bright and mostly stationary, the other loud and roving. They are neither efficient nor simple — the balloons don’t stay inflated for very long and the ink ends up splashed about —but the results are hardly the point. With their noise, color, and smell, the contraptions titillate the senses, and as far as objectives for an art piece go, transformation and sensorial arousal are certainly more exciting than efficiency. Like the experimentation of the artist in the studio, the inevitable mishaps of raising a child, or the apprehension as the marble drops into the net at the end of a Rube Goldberg, it’s the process that’s most significant.
“Larval Acceleration contends with philosopher Levi R. Bryant’s pan-mechanism,” the exhibition’s press release informs us. This theory posits that the body is one small part of a much larger, mechanized chain, specifically geared to make products for commerce — the body regulated to a “choreography of movements,” manipulating various mechanisms with this specific goal in mind. But in the case of Larval Acceleration, this mechanization is humorous, even pleasurable, because the margins of error are clear. The balloons don’t float for long, and what are we to do with greasy ink on the floor? A sense of glee is apparent precisely because these mildly Sisyphean routines are all very fun to watch. Perhaps these machines unwittingly recall our difficult, daily attempts to make it all work, whatever “it” may be.
In a Q&A at the show’s opening, someone asked about catharsis — what’s the “A-ha!” moment here, the eventual release? “We were looking for materials that are non-conclusive,” Zin replied. “I’ve been interested in these processes that don’t really end or culminate. They don’t have a cathartic moment; grease keeps things lubricated and in motion. It’s a constant state of development.” Tamir added: “For us, this system is not to produce a balloon in the most efficient way. It’s almost the opposite — the most complex way to produce a balloon. […] And of course, it’s the story of being an artist in the studio, alone with your materials. We tried, in the most honest way, to think of how we could make something in which we constantly need to do things but would not be able to control it completely.”
Zin and Tamir’s ideology of anticlimax feels fundamentally contrary to romanticism: where there’s no apex from which to enjoy a cool refractory period, there’s no story, it seems. But bathos is the stuff of life, and referencing it via complex, clamoring processes that end in not-much serves as a kind of ode to the art of being human. Tamir’s balloons, flesh-colored and still matte with talc, float to the ceiling for just a short while before sinking to the floor, pooling like un-frothy bubbles. What determines the success of a balloon? They are not airborne for very long, but they are still beautiful.