Interviewsand Articles


Borderlands: A Conversation with Chris Eckert

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 13, 2015



My friend Suzanne Tan and I had been promising each other lunch. She had a new job at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design and was excited about showing me around. In 2012 SFMCD had moved to Dogpatch, once a gritty industrial/residential neighborhood now reborn as a place of hip shops with a growing population of twenty and thirty-year olds full of entrepreneurial drive.      
     When the day finally arrived, after lunch, we took a little walking tour of the area. The energy of the place was infectious and as we went back to the museum I found myself looking at the neighborhood’s modest Victorian houses, wondering about real estate prices and imagining myself living in SF again.
Back at the Museum of Craft and Design, I took a closer look at the exhibits. It’s how I ran across the work of Chris Eckert. Several wall-mounted machines were quietly writing on slowly unwinding spools of paper gathering in curved piles on the floor.
     “Hmmm, technical stuff,” I thought, moving toward another wall-mounted piece, this one a silver chalice with an embroidered linen cover.
     “Oh, religious stuff!” I thought. This one looked like it had been taken right off the altar of a Roman Catholic church.
     I stood there looking at it, not knowing what to think. Then something possessed me to pass my hand over the piece. To my surprise, when I did this, bells rang! It got my attention, and my interest in Chris Eckert’s work immediately jumped to a new level. What was really going on here?

     A careful look at the rest of the exhibit followed and by the time I left the museum, I wanted to meet this artist. In fact, I knew I would ask him for an interview. Here was the collision of science and religion, certainly. I’d stumbled across an artist asking deep questions, not only with irony and intelligence, but with—I strongly suspected—real sincerity. In addition, the obvious beauty and craft evident in each piece was on as high a level as I could remember seeing anywhere. I found this unexpected discovery quite exciting.
     Chris was gracious and an interview was arranged in at his home in San Jose, California. I began my questions by bringing up the question of craft…

works:  One thing your work brings up for me is the intersection between craft and art and how craft has lost its standing.

Chris Eckert:  I think it always kind of got a black eye. I think about it a lot, because my parents are artists and sort of from the craft area. In the 70s it was an up-and-coming thing. It was going to be respectable, but it seems like it fell out of favor, right? I thought that when CCA [was California College of Arts and Crafts] dropped Craft off the end of their name it was symbolic.

works:  I know. There was a long-standing tradition in Europe, certainly, in which craft was very much an honored thing: apprentice, journeyman, master. I think this loss is more of a contemporary thing.

Chris:  Well, I think a lot about this when I machine my own parts. I’m self-taught on that, but there is still a tradition there. You go and you learn with someone at a machine shop, basically as an apprentice. It’s not a formal thing here, but you come up through the ranks and learn from more experienced people, which is a great way to learn. It goes back even—it’s almost medieval, right?
     But then came a time in Western art where the guys from the stone masons’ guild carving statues were trying to elevate themselves. The poets were the lofty thinkers. So artists were saying, “We’re working with ideas and concepts, too,” and sort of downplaying that they worked with their hands. If you were a poet, it was pure thought and that was where it was at. With painting, you still had to paint, but there was something more. So that was a little better. And stone carving, well that’s even more physical.
     I don’t know if we ever really got out of that. I think it’s still there in the background. I think it’s like, I think of it as kind of this continuum. On one hand you’ve got pure craft, which is just about making stuff. Then you’ve got conceptual art—which, at its worst, is a ruse. So I want to be somewhere in the middle on this continuum between pure craft and pure concept.

works:  When I looked at your work one of the things that stood out is what I would call an incredible level of craft—the care and the quality in the making of your objects is very fine. Would you tell me about the importance of that for you?

Chris:  Yes. Well it’s very important to me to articulate exactly why that is. There are people— say like Tim Hawkinson—who makes sculpture, that’s much rougher than mine. I love it and I sort of envy him that aesthetic. But it’s not mine.

works:  Is there a satisfaction in getting it just right?

Chris:  Oh, sure! Certainly! It’s like making a watch. People still buy mechanical watches and pay crazy amounts of money for them. It’s sort of funny because you can get a watch that’s every bit as precise and probably does more for $15 at Target. Yet there’s something about that mechanism and the precision of it that’s beautiful.
     That somehow feels relevant and important to me in my work. There’s almost a form of penance in it. If it was easy to make these things, I wouldn’t want to make them, if that makes sense.

works:  What do you mean by “a form of penance”?

Chris:  Well I want to push myself always. It has to hurt a little bit, it seems like.

works:  So talk about a moment when you’re pushing and you actually get further because you’re pushing it. Is it fair to assume that sometimes you do get somewhere from this pushing?

Chris:  Yes. A lot of times I start out with a goal in mind and then I have to push through all sorts of things to get there. That machine Scribe that writes with calligraphy pens is a case study in that. There were all sorts of things I thought were going to work that didn’t work. So I had to reinvent and re-imagine and push through those things so it would function.

works:  That’s one aspect, but let’s say laying down a line of gold leaf and getting it just right. What surrounds that?—both the wish to get it just right and the moment when it feels like you’ve gotten it just right?

Chris:  Oh, god. Yes, how do you know when you’ve gotten it just right? For a while I was painting eyes in some of these pieces. I wanted the eyes to be realistic. I think I hit some that were good enough, but not really. I had to go back and strip them down and redo them, because they weren’t close enough.
     It’s a good question. They don’t have to be the perfect facsimile of the human eye, but it has to all resonate somehow. When you hit that point, it hums in some way that you feel. You feel it, and then it’s done—and you feel satisfied.

works:  That’s the thing. It’s that point that I’m asking about. There’s something that can happen and you describe it as “that point.”

Chris:  Yes, yes. It’s just that you only know when you cross over it. It can be really frustrating, because sometimes I’m pushing to get to that point and I can’t get there. It’s infuriating, but then once I cross over it, it’s almost a sigh of relief. The eyes are kind of like that. I’ve struggled with painting eyes for a long time to get them right.

works:  I’m glad you brought up the eye. I remember looking at that eye in your piece Gimme that tracks you and it shakes the little can. I remember looking really closely at that eye and thinking, “Gosh, it really, really looks like an eye; that works!”

Chris:  I have a confession. I don’t like the eye in that one as much as I do in the other one in the red box, Party Gift. So I pushed it a little bit farther on that piece and that one came together a little bit better.

works:  See this is interesting to me because it represents a territory in craft that we don’t talk about. It’s the territory around where you reach a certain point and something happens. It’s something that’s not so easy to put your finger on and yet it affects your feelings. Right?

Chris:  Oh, absolutely! It’s a threshold that you cross.

works:  And it changes your state, even.

Chris:  For sure. It’s a very discernible line. I think the thing that’s tough is that I can never find it on the other side, if you know what I mean. It’s difficult to see it approaching. You only notice it when you’ve crossed it.

works:  To me, whatever it is about art that we celebrate isn’t that different from what we’re talking about now, which you could say is an aspect of craft at a very fine level where that shift happens.

Chris:  Yes. But isn’t craft an aspect of all art? So Richard Serra has his own craft. He clearly knows what he’s looking for technically and formally.

works:  Yes. Marguerite Wildenhain. Do you know that name?

Chris:  No.

works:  Okay. She was in the first Bauhaus class of pottery in 1919 in Weimar. The way that class was taught came through the old Guild tradition entirely. Later on, she talked about how, when one had traveled a certain distance in terms of technique, one could make a bowl with all of one’s self, the whole person. This is was real craft. But for her, it was the point at which you could call it art, if you wanted to. Does this make any sense to you, any of this?

Chris:  It does. I’m almost on the opposite end of it though. Because, say you’re throwing pots. It’s such a limited grouping of tools and material. It still can get crazy complicated, but I’m using so many different things that I always feel like I’m sort of on the brink of losing control. I’m not much of a skier, but I remember years ago I was skiing with some friends and one of them said, “Chris isn’t happy unless he’s just on the brink of losing complete control going down the mountain.” That’s kind of true in my studio, too. I’m doing all of these different manufacturing processes and painting and electronics. You could spend your entire life developing mastery in any one of these areas and I’m trying to balance them all. I just don’t think there is going to be enough time in my life to get on top of it all.

works:  Right. I’m curious about what other ideas or questions you’re grappling with. For instance, there are religious references in your work. Did you grow up in the Roman Catholic Church?

Chris:  Yes. I still go to church on Sundays. Yes, all my work comes from a pretty personal place. So the religion is that, of course. I got really frustrated being Catholic for a while. I decided I wasn’t Catholic. I couldn’t take it anymore. Then I came to the conclusion that being Catholic is not just a religious identity. There’s a cultural and a secular identity that goes with it. And I’m Catholic whether I like it or not.
     The other thing that happened is I had a son. At some point I asked myself do I want my son in this or not? I guess I did. There’s a lot of good that comes with it, too. Where it really hit me was when we were looking at schools. We looked at all sorts of different ones and I instantly loved all of the Catholic schools. They were really cool.
     I came to realize that I really like Catholics as a community. I just had troubles with hierarchy and a lot of the positions of the clergy. I thought that the views of the community at large were very different.
     So all this started coming out in some of these pieces. Auto Acolyte is one. I was an altar boy for thirteen years, something like that. It was actually a really positive thing for me. But there have been a lot of developments in the church recently and I had to ask myself if I really wanted my son going through that. I thought, “no,” so he’s not.

works:  When I looked at Auto Acolyte and some of the other pieces, there was a first read like, “Okay. Let’s take some shots of the church.” But then something about the work made me think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

Chris:  I hope so.

works:  Of course, even the word “religion” is in disrepute now because of all the harm done in the name of religion. But if you were to look in a deeper way you could find absolutely inspiring things belonging to that word. It’s not so simple.

Chris:  Right. I was educated at Santa Clara University. I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering there. I couldn’t say enough good things about that school.
     You’re a child when you come to college and you come out the other end as an adult. With the Jesuits there, it’s a very open-minded thinking and questioning; it’s different. To say you’re Catholic is difficult to explain to somebody. The best I can come up with is it’s saying that you’re an American. It means a lot of different things to different people. There are a lot of different flavors of Catholics.
     So I’m not trying to mock the Church or take pot shots at it. I’m frustrated by certain aspects of it, and I’m trying to figure out how it relates to me and my life. I try to work through that sometimes. So I make these things. There are a lot of them.
     Auto Rosary was a big one for me. When you touch the medallion in the center it prays a rosary. The genesis for that piece was when my wife and I started trying to have a kid. We tried for over six years. It was really frustrating. My mother-in-law mentioned at one point that there were people praying for us on four continents. It kind of freaked me out, because the people didn’t know anything about me. Maybe I was a drunk who beats my wife up. Or maybe I wasn’t supposed to have a kid.
     I thought well what if they pray for us and we do have a kid? What does that mean for all of the other people in the world who don’t have access to the secret Catholic mojo that made this happen? So it made me wonder, what is prayer? Is it real? Is it a good thing?
     I was really uncomfortable with all of it. I still am, but then I thought here are these people taking time out of their lives to pray from someone who needs something or wants something. There’s no quid pro quo, if you know what I mean. It’s just a kind thing to do. And that’s very touching.
     So I still don’t know what to do with that. I don’t pray myself. But I do respect its importance for other people. My grandfather just passed away. It was really important to him and useful. So I made a machine that would pray, but it wasn’t meant to be irreverent—maybe a little irreverent. But it wasn’t meant to mock someone, if that makes sense.

works:  Well there are aspects of prayer we all know are trivial like, “Please God, let the 49ers beat the Steelers.” On the other hand you may have read how there is evidence or many reports of real effects coming from prayer.

Chris:  Yes. I mean my father had colon cancer and it got really ugly for a while. It got up to Stage IV and it doesn’t get much worse. When you feel helpless like that, you become religious quick.

works:  I feel that your work represents an engagement with big questions. One of them you could cast it in terms of science versus religion. Many scientists think we can, or will be able, to explain everything through science. Is this at all a question for you one way or the other?

Chris:  Oh, sure. I mean science, great. It’s fantastic, but it breaks down at some point. There’s something spiritual and ephemeral that is unknowable and that’s not the role of science, anyway. That’s the role of religion. I get upset when religion starts to dabble in science, but I get equally upset when science starts to dabble in religion. They both have important roles to play. Another thing I get frustrated with is it seems to me that all religion has the basic message: just be cool with each other. It’s not that complicated.
     For this piece, Scribe, I’ve had to really pick through the Gospel of Mark. I guess my whole point in that piece is that you can’t argue about the tense of the verb. It’s stupid to do that. You can only look at it in broad swathes and those are pretty consistent. Jesus is pretty open to other people, and he doesn’t judge other people. It never really occurred to me, but with the stories of Jesus and tax collectors and prostitutes he never even tells people: don’t be a tax collector; don’t be a prostitute. There’s no judgment there. That’s what I take away from it.

works:  Of course, there’s this question around the meaning of the word “sin.” For us, that word is weighted down with a lot of condemnation and so on, but in Greek apparently the word we translate as “sin” is better translated as “missing the mark.”

Chris:  Yes. I get frustrated with Catholicism sometimes because I feel there’s this idea we’re getting it right and then there are all these other people. The best we can do is sort of begrudgingly tolerate them even though they’re not worthy. The Pope would call me a cafeteria Catholic because I pick and choose what I believe in a more a relativist way, let’s say. I guess I think about these things a lot in my work.
     I don’t want to say that my work asks questions. But there are things that haunt and trouble me and I don’t really understand them and I’m trying to figure them out. Maybe these pieces are meditations on things I’m trying to work through on some level.

works:  Yes. That aspect of the Church that used to say, “Only through Jesus, otherwise you’re going to hell.”

Chris:  Right, right.

works:  That’s a pretty tough thing to swallow. But I think even in the Roman Catholic Church they have gotten past that. It might have been Pope Paul. I mean, doctrinally, they’ve let go of that.

Chris:  That’s funny because years ago I knew a priest who was a canon lawyer. He was saying that it is your obligation to follow your conscience, which I thought was interesting. If you felt that the Pope was wrong, it was your religious and moral obligation to stand in opposition to it. I don’t know, maybe I kind of spun that into where I wanted to be, but I like that. I plan to embrace that, whether it’s true or not.

works:  Some of your work must be a meditation on other things. The thing I found so interesting about your piece, Gimme—with that little eye tracking me and the can shaking the coins as if demanding a handout—is that it affected my emotions. I couldn’t help it. It was interesting to see how automatic I am myself. In spite of knowing this was just a little machine with no sentience whatsoever, I was still reacting to it as if it were a person.

Chris:  That’s fantastic. I love to hear that.

works:  It’s fascinating to have this tiny window into the truth that I’m conditioned. And if I’m conditioned in this way, I’m must be conditioned across the board. I think there’s something going on there on that level in your work.

Chris:  Well okay, yes. I’m really uncomfortable with the panhandling, not for the people, but for me. I want to do what’s right. So what’s right? Some of these guys are hard up. Most of them have schizophrenia. They are not in a good place. So if I give them money am I helping them, or am I helping me? I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really self-serving. I do it kind of to buy them off, if that makes sense. It’s taking the easy way out. Right?
     When I made that piece, I would go running in the mornings with my son. We would go running down by the creek. There are a lot of homeless guys who panhandle down there. Especially with a kid, you feel extra vulnerable and protective. It’s kind of an enclosed area that’s difficult to get out of. So I would always be very polite and get out as fast as I could. Around that time the Institute of Contemporary Art was doing a capital campaign and I had to call people and ask for contributions. Everybody iced me politely and got out as fast as they could. It was really funny to suddenly realize that in the span of twenty minutes, I was the guy holding the cup.

works:  So you’re interested in that inner world of reactions and emotions yourself, right? And that somehow makes it into some of your work.

Chris:  Yes. I mean stuff around that piece Gimme, I feel very conflicted about all of that. I’m not musing on homelessness. I guess I’m thinking more about my own reactions, my relationship to that situation.

works:  With Scribe, the very elegant piece with the calligraphic pens writing the entire Gospel of Mark out, somehow you programmed it so that when people gather around the machine starts making mistakes. It gets “distracted.” So is that another place where you’re bringing in an experience you know in yourself?

Chris:  I think there’s some truth to that, but what I was thinking about mainly is this idea that the text slowly morphs over time. Those mistakes are cumulative. They’re not typos. It actually still makes sense. It’s just that the content has changed a little bit.

works:  That’s even more interesting. So in other words, you’re modeling how what has been passed down to us as sacrosanct text has probably gone through all kinds of changes and we don’t really know what they are.

Chris:  This is the thing that I think is so fascinating. They have a pretty good idea of what a lot of these changes are. They even know some of the people who made some of the changes. Bishop Irenaeus edited certain things. A lot of times it’s the people who are arguing that the text is the immutable word of God who are then editing it to what “He really meant to say.” I’m struck by the humor and the irony of it. Bishop Irenaeus was around at a time when they were taking Christians and throwing them into the arena and watching lions eat them. So it was literally the end of the world for a lot of these guys. You can sympathize with how that would make you more arrogant or more bold in your assumptions.

works:  It’s fascinating to ponder the early era in the Christian Church and how certain texts became canonized and others thrown out. I mean major decisions were made.

Chris:  The Gospel of Thomas is a great read, by the way.

works:  Anyway, one of the things that just blew my mind in looking at your work is the level of technical mastery there. For instance, with the machine that’s writing the calligraphic copy of the Gospel of Mark. What has gone into that, technically? And how do you pull something like that off?

Chris:  Well, that’s the newest one I’ve made. If you look around in that room, it starts out with that little finger that taps and it sort of builds from there. Each piece gets a little more complicated. I think Gimme is the last one where I did all the electronics and all the programming. I still do all the electronics, but with the writing machines, the programming gets complicated enough that it exceeds my abilities. But the world throws you these very fortuitous things sometimes. I mean I was blazing ahead on these pieces and was really not going to have a way to technically realize them, to be honest. Then I happened to run into Martin Fox and John Green. They both programmed at Adobe and are world class programmers. I keep trying to convince them to make art, but they just want to support the stuff that I’ve got going. What a gift! They could help me take it into a whole new realm. But I had Scribe in the back of my head before I even met them. Then we worked on some other pieces and built up to that. Babel was one and To Do. They write in people’s handwriting and it’s not just handwriting, but it’s my handwriting. It’s my wife’s handwriting. It’s people I know. So each of those is kind of a portrait in a sense.

works:  So let’s say you were someone who wanted a machine that would do what Scribe does. How much would you have to pay to get that made by someone else?

Chris: Oh geez. A lot.

works:  Give me a ballpark figure. It’s not the most elevated question, but I mean I’m marveling at that.

Chris:  It would be hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe more, because you would have to pay multiple engineers for extended periods and then you would have to buy all the stuff.

works:  It could be millions.

Chris:  It might be. I did factory automation for a while. I remember the smallest machine we made was like $20,000. Anything less than $20,000 you almost couldn’t get out of bed for it—and this was a company of like six people.
     This is what led to the creation of Auto Auction. That’s the piece that sells itself on eBay. That piece is more conceptual than most people realize. They see that it sells itself on EBay and they kind of get a chortle out of it and move on to something else.
     I mean, I’m tormented by this. Right? How much does it cost me? What I had to realize is that all of my work is worth something to me, and I won’t let it go unless it crosses some threshold. But where is that threshold? It’s difficult. If I add up everything, all of my materials costs, and then try to pay myself an hourly rate and pay John and Martin an hourly rate, there’s no way. I couldn’t sell any of it! There’s no way we could do it.

works:  You’re touching right on this fundamental question for artists, the money question—and what is it that we’re doing as artists, anyway? I’ve had to deal with this question, too. So what are your…

Chris:  So people ask me this. Someone will say, “My daughter is interested in going into art. Can you talk to her about what it’s like having a career as an artist?” It’s asking the wrong question, because it’s not a career in that way. It’s more of a vocation.
     Nobody goes into the priesthood because they want to make big money. You go into it because you have to do it—you just have to. There’s really not a good reason to do it. There is actually a reason not to do it. Then you just have to find a way to make the rest of it happen.

works:  Would you say what you mean when you use the word “vocation”?

Chris:  Well, it’s a calling. Right? I mean there is every reason not to be an artist. When you’re in engineering school, people ask, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” You have some basic game plan. But when you’re in art school, you have no idea. It’s just this gaping black hole. You’re falling into it. It’s terrifying, and then you get into it and you’re still groping around in the dark trying to figure out where you’re going and what it all means.
     You can’t help but be plagued by insecurities and doubt and all of that. Everybody is. I guess I sort of found some peace with it all when I realized that I wasn’t in it for the money; I never was. It was just this ugly truth that I had to deal with money to stay alive. You know?
     This is sort of a funny thing, but if you go to France and you go downstairs and try to get a pastry, they don’t treat you well sometimes. As an American you have this idea—I have money and I’m going to buy this. I am being polite and you should be polite to me.
     Then I had an epiphany. It’s like if you’re in France and you make pastries, it’s because your father made pastries and that’s who you are. Money is this ugly thing you have to deal with, but you don’t have to be happy about it. Some tourist is going to walk in and buy one damn croissant that makes no difference to you whatsoever, and it’s just a pain in the ass. When I understood that I could deal with it much better. You always go to the same shop and you always stand in line and buy from the same people every single day. The first time they’re rude. The second day they’re nice. By the third day they’re friendly. If you can go a week, they’re family. Maybe in Europe people have a different relationship to art somehow. I don’t know if it’s better or worse than it is here, but it’s different on some level, it seems to me.

works:  I haven’t been in Europe much. But in England I did get a feeling there was a different attitude about amateurs. It felt like there is a celebration of amateurs, meaning, presumably, that there’s still respect for something done out of love. But anyway, you had a career as an engineer, and what kind of engineer?

Chris:  I was a design engineer. Equipment design.

works:  So you designed the machines that make things.

Chris:  Yes. I did that for years.

works:  So what happened? Because now you’re making art.

Chris:  Yes. My parents are both in art, so I had a lot of art in my life early. I probably didn’t pursue it as a career initially because I had a pretty good understanding of what the realities of it were. In high school I got interested in physics and that led into engineering and I really loved making machines. I was pretty good at making machines and I was good at a lot of it things. Where some people pick one area and drill deep, I went across different areas.
     That was actually a pretty valuable skill set. I was the guy who could manage everything. The irony there was that I got elevated to a point where I wasn’t doing any of the stuff I love; instead I was managing everyone else doing it.
     I remember one time I really hit a wall. We had designed a piece of equipment and installed it at a company. It took us a couple of weeks to get it installed. We had it up and running and the first thing they asked us to do was unbolt it and push it into the closet because something had changed in their product cycle and they were moving into something else. I knew at that point that they would never even turn it on. It had been mothballed and would eventually be scrapped.
     Then I had the epiphany that this was the best customer we would ever have. They would pay their bill and we would walk away and we would never have any troubles. But that was so demoralizing. Then I started getting really cynical about all of it. Like who cares if I can shave a few seconds off the cycle time of this machine? Everything was about speed. You had to develop it fast. You had to build it fast. The machine had to be fast.
     But there’s an aesthetic to motion. Sometimes it’s interesting when a machine does something slowly. Then there’s the aesthetics of how the machine looks. No one cares about that now. You slam it out. It needs to be functional, and if something doesn’t directly contribute to this function, it’s eliminated. I guess the main thing is that when you’re an engineer, you don’t do anything unless you know exactly where you’re going.
     As an artist, you often bumble around trying to figure out where you’re going while you’re headed there and sort of discover where you’re going, maybe. So there are a lot of similarities but there are big differences, too. So I got out of engineering.
     I really like making things, but I was increasingly managing other people who were doing the stuff I enjoyed. It sort of came down to that. I thought well, if I’m going to make stuff, let’s make stuff I want to make. That led me to getting my MFA and exploring a whole different direction.

works:  A lot of your art machines, the ones I saw, have what I would guess is a 19th century look or maybe early 20th century. Can you talk about your aesthetic? I mean there’s an aesthetic there? Right?

Chris:  Yes. Sure. There are a couple of things. One is that there was a time where machinery was embellished in a way that it’s not now. I was trying to get back to that. Today, if you need a frame, you make a frame. But there are no curves in it. Those curves don’t serve any particular function, so they’re eliminated. But those curves are beautiful.
     Tools would have castings that had interesting engravings and pin striping—like typewriters and bank vaults. There was something more sensual, aesthetic, there. They were interesting objects in their own right, and then they were also tools. Now it is more form follows function. I wanted something where function followed the form. I think there is this interesting thing that happens there.
     When I came of age as an engineer and went out into the world to work, I was on the cusp of CAD. Computer aided design had just been developed and it was replacing draftsmen. The engineers make all their own drawings now, but in the past an engineer would do a drawing and then hand it to a draftsman who would make formal drawings. So they had these rooms, like those typewriter rooms with rows of women sitting at typewriters. And they would have rows of drafting tables. The guys would sit there with their technical pens and electric erasers and do these drawings.
     When I was first coming in to work there would be these old rooms with drafting tables that were ghosts of what had been there earlier. We would do the drawings on the computer and then output them to a plotter that would drop a pen and draw these large drawings. What we had done was basically automate the person. So there was no longer a guy with a pencil. Instead, we built a machine that essentially held the pen the same way he would have and drew these things. Then someone woke up and went, why the hell are we pushing a pen around? The machine doesn’t need to do that. And now they have these big laser printers that just pop out huge drawings if you need them big.
     You see this kind of thing again and again. When you automate something, at first you imitate the way a person would have done it, but mechanize it. Then some day you reinvent the whole process.
     So I’m sort of interested in that transition, that cusp where you take the person out, but you let the machine do what the person used to do. I find it more interesting.

works:  And I noticed that your machines also have some pin striping. There’s a beauty there.

Chris:  Yes. I want them to be aesthetic objects, even if they don’t get turned on. Just sitting there dormant, motion is implied. It’s another layer. I like layers and stuff. So it should be an object in and of its own right. Then the fact that it moves and how it moves and what it does is sort of another thing that goes on top of that.

works:  With your objects can I use the word beauty?

Chris:  Yes. I hope so. I think there’s something beautiful about machinery. And there is something more beautiful about old machinery. Maybe it’s just nostalgia, but I was looking at pictures of a nail factory. They had these enormous castings, these huge machines that hammered out these nails. There was something quite beautiful about them, and intimidating at the same time. It’s sort of an interesting contrast.

works:  One of my early experiences as a kid, when I was only five or six, my father took me to some place that must have been like the turbine room in an electrical generating plant. There were giant machines in there. I was completely awestruck. I mean, it was one hundred percent magical.

Chris:  Right. Some of that old steam machinery is fascinating, too, because some of it can be remarkably quiet. The way that it moves is very slow and hypnotic, or sometimes fast. Have you seen what they use for throttling—the balls that swing to gate the steam? They’re just generically beautiful, you know, the counter weights. I’m talking about a steam governor. The faster it spins, the more they swing up.

works:  I think I’ve seen something like that.

Chris:  They’re just beautiful objects, but they’re beautifully made, too. They’re not purely functional. Somebody is making aesthetic choices on those.

works:  Yes, that’s so true. Sometimes one will see these old machines and it’s just so clear that there is a lot of care and a feeling for beauty that went into the design.

Chris:  Yeah. But beauty isn’t a bad thing.

works:  No. Have you thought about beauty per se?

Chris:  Yes. I guess. Beauty is such a subjective thing though. Those steam engines are beautiful. I think there is something somewhat universal about that. There’s a reason people restore huge old steam engines. When I was younger, I wound up in England and I was walking down the street. I accidentally stumbled into the Museum of Science there. They had huge, full-size steam engines that had been mounted and were running. They were just gorgeous. But think about what it took to build a museum around that and put that on display and run it every day. Then everybody just stood there just agape at this gorgeous machine.

works:  Oh, yes. This has been great talking with you, Chris. Is there something you’d like to talk about that hasn’t come up?

Chris:  We’ve been talking about steam engines and I get associated with steampunk a lot. I’m always a little uncomfortable with that. Like Scribe is funny, because it’s from all over the place with a two-thousand-year-old text being written in a medieval tradition on a machine that looks like it was made in the 20s or 30s that’s all being driven by state-of-the-art electronics.

works:  That’s interesting because it encapsulates a incredible amount of history all in that one piece. I imagine that’s part of what you like about it.

Chris:  Yes. Or maybe it’s something I struggle with, because at some point when I was drawing it, I was trying to figure out this quasi-illuminated text. How do you make it all hold together? They’re not really illuminated drawings. They’re illustrations. It’s more of an illustrative Gospel of Mark than it is an illuminated Gospel. That’s because I have two small of a palette and I can literally only draw with one pen. I can’t gold leaf, you know? So if it’s not illuminated, how do I integrate that? I think it holds together as a piece, but it was a challenge because I had this realization that I was standing on all these different cultures and traditions. Trying to get them all into one piece is asking a lot.

works:  Yes. Do you ponder the question of where are we going as a culture with automation and the elimination of all of these human jobs? —the people who used to type and the toll takers at the plaza who actually had to reach out and take the dollar from your hand. It’s really mind-boggling the amount of change going on so rapidly. Do you ponder all that?

Chris:  I do, but maybe not in the same way. I’m not really worried about replacing guys in the tollbooths, because that just doesn’t seem like something most people would really want to do. I don’t think we’ve robbed someone of a career path in that sense. I mean, I use a lot of technology in my stuff. Technology is so disposable. How many cell phones have you used? Where does it all go? You start hearing about enormous chunks of the ocean that are full of our plastic. You’ve got to wonder about our relationship with that and how sustainable is it? It’s unsettling. I mean there are times I listen to NPR and I have to turn it off because it freaks me out. Then you go back and forth and I ask myself, am I making it worse? But if I became a painter, would I be making it any better? I don’t know. Maybe there is a piece in there somewhere.

works:  Well, I feel like I’m talking to a person right in the middle of these big questions of where we’re going today with all this incredible technology that’s evolving so rapidly.

Chris:  But there’s so much cool stuff like email. God, how small has the world become because of email, and I mean that in a good way. You can email a friend in France and ask how is everything going over there. Isn’t that wonderful?

works:  Yes.

Chris:  I think it will make the world a better place in a lot of ways. I think the world is on a good trajectory in general. I’m an optimist, but there is scary stuff, too. It always feels like we’re sort of on a knife’s edge. It’s sort of like my piece, Party Gift with Chairman Mao on the cover. I grew up worried that the Russians were going to invade or we were going to wind up in a nuclear war. Then in the 80s we were all terrified of the Japanese because they were “buying America.” Nowadays we’ve got China and India, and what’s our relationship to that? It is a little scary. So that piece has a blue eyeball inside that box. The blue was a very conscious choice.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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