by Chris Eckert
One year ago, I began working on an installation for the San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art to commemorate its 40th anniversary. I designed and built two enormous writing machines, each over ten feet tall, filling the ICA’s front windows. Titled Art & Life, the devices skim the internet, searching, respectively, for sentences about art and life, slowly writing them out (e.g., “Art is….”; “Life is…”) in different people’s handwriting during a six-month run ending June 20, the night of a gala reception. The event, as I envision it, will culminate with each machine scribbling huge letters forming “Arts Longa” in one window and “Vita Brevis” in the other.
Months of work ensued. Unforeseeable obstacles were overcome. Unreasonable sums of money were spent. Eventually, with technical hurdles vaulted and the chaos of installation overcome, both machines came to life and began accumulating their tediously written sentences. Every day, all day, the machines relentlessly scrawled sentences, gradually filling the front windows with their scavenged prose.
Then the coronavirus blew through our world, and we sequestered. On March 19, both machines were unplugged, a bit less than half-done. There was never time for regret or frustration. I instantly transitioned from managing the installation to the newest pressing emergency: where could I buy toilet paper?
Those first few weeks of quarantine were especially complicated. I have a sister living in New Jersey. She and her husband work in Manhattan. I received regular updates as the virus dragged New York and the rest of our country into turmoil. First, her father-in-law was diagnosed with COVID-19. Then she and both her young daughters became sick with a fever of 103. Testing was unavailable. She was told to stay home. My parents in Arizona, especially my mother, who has existing lung complications, are at high risk. I was, and remain, consumed with worry for my friends, my family and our community. Reports arrived from Italy, a nation with a first-world healthcare system drowning in patients. A friend in northern France described their overrun local hospital. There were not enough ventilators. People were dying.
I became obsessed with ventilators. The United States was projected to need as many as 900,000 machines. With reserves, we might have 200,000, but a gap of 700,000 did not sound encouraging — or remotely acceptable. Maybe I could make my own machine? Foraging on the internet, I found groups that entertained similar thoughts: one in Spain designed a device powered by a windshield wiper motor; another, consisting of doctors in Oxford, devised a bag-valve mask that could pump compressed air; and my favorite at MIT, the E-Vent Project. Though each of these machines was technically within my reach, a quick skim of E-Vent hinted at unforeseen complexity. A simple device rapidly becomes lost in a tangle of important tests, critical evaluations and subtle refinements. A well-intentioned effort could easily cause harm. It demands collaboration with disparate professionals. It is not something for an individual like me.
“If building a ventilator was not realistic, I could still make a machine that breaths. More precisely, I could build a machine that has difficulty breathing. I could build a machine that gasps.”
How, then, is an artist, oversaturated with news and caught in a self-destructive cycle of worry, supposed to redirect his energy? I needed to make something. As a beginning, I dragged out our old sewing machine, taught myself to sew, and created masks for all my friends and family. Somewhere in the middle of sewing masks, I had a revelation: as an artist, I have an important job. I create work about who I am, what I see, how I feel. The worries and fears keeping me awake at night are ore for the furnace. If building a ventilator was not realistic, I could still make a machine that breaths. More precisely, I could build a machine that has difficulty breathing. I could build a machine that gasps.
I envision Gasp as an installation of wheezing machines, each mechanically identical yet pumping its individual rhythm in its own “voice.” For me, creating such a machine becomes a delicate balance, one demanding a subtle equilibrium between aesthetic desires and technical limitations. First, I dove into learning about concertina and accordion bellows, which offered clues as to how I might create a device that can pump air. Next came learning to sand cast 3D-printed parts in aluminum. Yet even with my thorough preparations and planning, I never know if my idea will work – technically or conceptually. Maybe this will be the defining sculpture of my career. Perhaps its only purpose is to prevent me from going crazy.
Now, in the middle of this pandemic and our national non-response, George Floyd was publicly murdered, and a machine gasping for air suddenly takes a new, darker dimension. My faith in public institutions diminishes daily: the federal government? Catholic church? Police? There is not much left. Our path ahead looks long and dark, and it keeps me awake at night. Happily, everyone in my circle of friends and family is healthy again. That gives me hope. Of course, not everyone has been as fortunate. I feel like the world is burning while I make art.
Time well spent? If nothing else, quarantine allows me to reflect on life and the relevance of art. Speaking of art and life, what about those two machines in San Jose? There were riots a block from the SJICA a few days ago. Not the best time to have artwork in a window. I would heave them into the street and light them on fire myself if it would help change our world, but for now, the machines linger in the dark. The June 20 gala remains on the calendar, but it’s since mutated into a virtual reception – a vague shadow of the event imagined and an opportunity to wonder what might have been. I have no idea if the machines will ever be turned on again. Still, the overarching questions they pose – what is art, and how does it relate to life? — seem vastly more relevant.
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About the author: Chris Eckert is a technology-based artist. He graduated from Santa Clara University with BS and MS degrees in mechanical engineering in 1993 and worked for several years designing and building factory automation in Silicon Valley. After earning an MFA from San Jose State in 2003, Eckert began building conceptually based art machines using the equipment and skills acquired as an engineer as a means of creative expression.