Solar Powered Kinetic Art / Interview with Mark Malmberg
Ignacio Zamora (IZ)
During the design process, when you combine computer elements and hand-worked fabrication items… What is the percent of art and what of science in your work? How do you manage this in terms of Artist’s signature of the final work?
Mark Malmberg (MM)
All artists are engaged in technology at some level. Painters at a coffee shop talk about what pigments they’re using, ceramic artists delve into chemistry to create glazes and clay bodies. I’ve always felt that one can’t be completely free to create without mastering the technology of the medium in which one is working. Different artists find their own balance, and I’ve since childhood found myself embracing the technology and creativity equally and in fact as one and the same.
When I was 10 my mother let me dig up some red clay I found in her garden; I made a slurry to strain it through cheesecloth to clean it up, dried it to a usable consistency, made a little sculpture with it and got it fired. I didn’t think of that as two separate interests at all; it was all one act of expression. I do however feel that, in my work, that part of the process that might be separated out under the heading of “Science” is always in service of the part of the process that would be placed under the heading of “Art”. Artistic expression is what drives my work, never science for science’s sake. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; there seem to be many entering the art world from a technology-centric interest. My background is in sculpture, and I’ve learned whatever technology or science has been necessary to do what I need to do artistically.
Video interview with Mark Malmberg by Thomas Gorman
How would you describe the reaction from the public when they face your work? Do you want to transmit a particular message to them?
I have always found a warm welcome for my work, whether static formal works or solar-powered robotic pieces. The powered kinetic pieces do, however, have a leg up when it comes to engaging an audience. They reach out a bit more for your attention, and then reward it. This has increased with the complexity of the pieces, but even in my earliest, simplest pieces, I would eavesdrop on conversations in which people projected their own ideas of what the piece was thinking about, why it was moving this way or that; many people will watch them for a long time and come back later to watch some more. Though the works offer a certain complexity of interaction, with the wireless inter-communication and the sounds and movements they exchange, they still leave room for a viewer to interpret what’s going on in a personalized way. I think it’s critical to my work, if not anyone’s, that the experience of the artwork is a collaboration between the artwork and the viewer – that half of the art is provided by the person experiencing it.
Most if not all of my work I see as expressions of hope and joy, as what I feel the world needs and as what I feel I have to offer. The robotic pieces depict living beings or life forces in an abstracted way that doesn’t distinguish between life and technology or between art and science. The pieces seem to make people happy and that is as much as I want from them.
When you started to produce solar powered art works… Did you have any key referent or inspiration? If not, How was that moment when you decided to implement a solar power source of energy to your piece?
I had a long-standing interest in mobiles, and had made several in a range of scales. I loved the optimistic playfulness of the world up above, like clouds, birds and stars. It seemed odd to me that by their very given name “mobiles”, one might think they would move – whereas most did not, unless a particularly large breeze came through. At the same time I’d been looking for a way to get involved in the solar industry, as it was getting going a decade or so ago, and I was looking for work. So it occurred to me early on that solar would be a great way to provide power to mobiles. With much difficulty (believe me!) I taught myself the electronics and programming skills needed – I would not call myself a natural at it by any stretch – to make pieces that could interact with each other in both sound and motion. I find this still quite challenging, and wouldn’t say I’ve yet “mastered” the technology, but that’s also the good news – there’s much still to learn and many pieces waiting for me to make them.
Overview of some pieces showing at Blackfish Gallery in Portland, OR USA
In a previous interview (Straight Talk to Mark Malmberg by Danielle McCloskey SciArt in America June 2014) you mentioned that “I’ll likely start focusing my solar pieces on outdoor contexts”. What are the contextual elements you consider to create a public artwork (potentially) powered by solar?
It’s funny that, for whatever reason, I started out making solar-powered mobiles for indoor environments. Well, I guess it makes sense as the mobiles came first, then the idea of having them move themselves around somehow. I’d like to do some large mobiles for interior public atrium spaces, where they can really activate a large space. But I also eventually realized – I don’t know why but it took a while that there’s a lot more sun outdoors than indoors. And a lot more places that could support a solar powered artwork outdoors than in. So I’m looking forward to following that path of low resistance to create some large works that live outdoors and hopefully free-range in landscape scale environments. My first outdoor piece “Albireo” comprises three creatures on poles that communicate wirelessly, waking in the morning, singing, jabbering and playing with each other through the day and eventually going to sleep at night. Actually they have some little LED REM dreams and tiny sonic snores as they fall asleep if they’ve had a really good day. Depending on their placement, they might hibernate through winter.
Albireo 2.0 at the Albuquerque Museum of Art, for ISEA2012 in Albuquerque, New Mexico USA.
Finally, here is a more generic question. How you conceive Public Art in general in terms of purpose and function in your context?
Public art is a particular case in the art world. In the best circumstance, the artist is able to gain a deep understanding of the environment, history and community into which the artwork will be placed, and is able to integrate that knowledge with her/his own artistic vision. In the worst case, you have the infamous “Plop Art”, where a piece of art is dropped into an environment without any real consideration. It’s easy to find examples of either. I would be very cautious with my work in the realm of public art, to be sure there’s a real reason for the piece I’m making to be in the intended context. My interest in public art is to provide relief from the pressures we subject ourselves to and that are imposed on us in today’s complicated, busy world. The pieces can be complicated and busy at the same time as being meditative, joyful or humorous, much as observing the interactions of birds or bugs or squirrels can be any of these things. I guess I’m creating my own little natural world, and one which I think wants to be in the public realm.
My current work has a lot to do with improvisational interactions and communication, and how individuals in a group behave both as individuals and as part of a community. What is the threshold of complexity at which something successfully represents a living thing? Actually it’s a pretty low threshold. We humans seem to be quite eager to imbue objects and machines with personalities and even sentience. My pieces are like paintings. A painted portrait uses enough paint and skill to represent the subject. At a certain point, the subject comes to life in the painting, sometimes startlingly so. I work in the materials of our time, so my pieces can live symbiotically in the context of the world in which we live. “Technology”, as we use the term today, is the hammer and chisel of days past, or the painter’s brush and palette. My “living” sculptures have just enough technology and artistry to come to life – the viewer really does the rest.
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Mark Malmberg has been building solar powered kinetic / robotic sculptures since 2007. His previous experience in the fields of sculpture and animation became a key factor to merge computer coding and hand-worked fabrication. Malmberg’s work reflects on the boundaries between natural and artificial life, the randomness, and (as per his own words) “also intended to bring awareness on the unlimited availability of the sun to answer our growing energy needs”.
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All pictures and videos of this article have been authorized by Mark Malmberg.