Monday, July 4, 2016

Function and Anticipation at NEMO's Chain Reaction

NEMO, Amsterdam’s science museum, houses three stories of educational exhibitions, simulations, and activities. However, the interior’s visual and geographic center is a sprawling sculptural machine. Chain Reaction stretches across the museum’s atrium and up multiple stories through its wide central stairwell. The piece is a multimedia, multicolor labyrinth of toys, household objects, and PVC, that springs into action several times each day during fifteen-minute demonstrations. I was lucky enough to arrive at NEMO ten minutes before the final demonstration, which had already drawn an excited crowd. Children and parents surrounded the piece on benches and some even the stairs to get a better vantage point, while a NEMO educator carefully inspected and adjusted corners of the machine. At the appointed time, this educator took on the role of ringleader to grandly present the machine through a friendly Q&A about potential and kinetic energy. At the studied point just before eagerness became impatience, he invited a young volunteer from the audience, placed a showy, flimsy plastic hard hat on his head, and handed him a fork with which to pop a carefully-placed balloon. The balloon’s pop cleared a ramp through which a ball began to roll, knocking over a block, which in turn knocked over another, and then a whole sequence of blocks. The chain reaction had begun.

The modern cultural grandfather of this sort of piece is Rube Goldberg, famous for his illustrations of elaborate machines meant to accomplish simple tasks like ringing a doorbell or signaling a bridge partner. Made up of strings, buckets of water, spoon catapults, and the occasional live animal, the machines playfully juxtapose complexity and simplicity, proposing newfangled “technologies” to make everyday tasks easier while in fact making them exponentially more complicated. Goldberg’s machines were created as two-dimensional drawings rather than blueprints for sculptural pieces, though some have since become realized in three dimensions thanks to devoted fans and engineers. 

Rube Goldberg, Self-Operating Napkin

NEMO’s Chain Reaction is very much in this spirit, although the notion of the machine accomplishing a practical task has been entirely subsumed by its operation. Audiences are informed that the machine will, if all goes well, launch a foam rocket four or five feet in the air. Yet this is hardly the “purpose” of the machine, even in a purely nominal way. While Goldberg’s machines are titled for their simple goals—which are then immediately undermined by the means he proposes to accomplish them—Chain Reaction does not even try to suggest an end to its means.

The recognizable materials engage in this same conversation about function. A rolling desk chair sits precariously on a clear ramp, itself several feet in the air. It’s one of the larger recognizable objects in the piece and it therefore draws the eye. Yet its identifiability as a chair in form draws attention to its repurposing as a non-chair in function. An office chair, taken out of the office and unable to be sat on, becomes a spinning, falling cog in a huge domino chain. Its purpose is transformed to serve that of the larger machine, yet the machine’s “purpose” is (at least in a first-order mechanical sense) its own operation.

This discussion of functionality as function perhaps ignores the fact that NEMO is a science museum that prides itself on being educational and interactive. The choice of material operates successfully in Chain Reaction on a second, social level. “You could build this at home. In theory, at least,” the demonstration leader announced at one point to chuckles from parents. Yet the idea behind this joke is pertinent. The transparency of the manner of Chain Reaction’s construction and the familiarity of its parts make it accessible, particularly to the children in its audience. At one point, as balls rolled through a funnel and down a tube, a child exclaimed delightedly that it was just like his marble tower set. This transparency invites and even challenges reply, in keeping with Chain Reaction’s status as an educational tool in a science museum.

Chain Reaction is on prominent display during NEMO’s open hours and is only set in motion several times each day. This leaves visitors ample time to observe it at rest, which is perhaps an equally important first act before seeing it in motion. In its still state, observation is an interactive game of prediction in which one tries to reconstruct Chain Reaction’s Goldbergian roadmap. Yet the machine’s start and endpoints are unlabeled and nearly impossible to divine alone. This underscores the degree to which the practical function of the machine is to demonstrate its own unlikely functionality, while also propositioning audiences to pick their own starting points. For instance, it seems clear from observing the machine at rest that the fan will blow the raft across the trough of water, where it will somehow move the candle so that it burns through the piece of string. Yet the precise mechanism of candle moving are elusive. At a certain point it becomes unclear where the string leads. Eventually, the precise effect of a component in the grand machine is lost entirely. The only thing to do is pick another place and begin tracing again. In this way one can catch glimpses or episodes of the machine’s narrative but cannot quite piece it together as a whole. Only when it is set in action do the mechanisms of interconnectedness begin to reveal themselves.

Once the machine springs into action, its winding, intricate path is traced out linearly for the audience. Action and motion proceed from one microcosm of the machine to the next, never petering to an unceremonious halt without affecting something else. The audience, which has managed to find seats or stairs for observation and has waited through the introduction, has had plenty of time to observe and build up expectations of how exactly the machine will work. Yet Chain Reaction, in finally revealing itself to them, still manipulates pace to create moments of suspense and release.

Sometimes the motion is quick, moving swiftly and smoothly through Chain Reaction. It becomes difficult to write about or describe Chain Reaction since there is no clear place to stop: it seems as if one should go on describing it for paragraphs. Action cannot really be described at the level of a single, falling domino without snowballing into an unrelenting string of points that make up a single, continuous gesture. Expectations of what comes next are never really in doubt, but it becomes a delight to see those expectations (many of which begin to form during pre-demonstration observation) immediately realized. These “chapters” within the piece are roughly clustered geographically, some near and some far depending on each audience member’s vantage point. The threads which connect these moments are those in which audiences begin to worry, wonder, and anticipate.

After a few moments without a nearby flash of motion or color, a murmur of doubt begins to travel around the audience: maybe something has gone wrong this time. Is it possible that the machine has failed? After a few beats, the demonstration leader looks up, and hundreds of eyes follow his towards a basin of water two stories up which is slowly entering into a bucket, which is beginning to lower, pulling up a brick…

At times, Chain Reaction deliberately loses the audience or seems to fail them only to call attention to its own success. It’s a storytelling trope evocative of Gene Wilder’s introduction in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which his reclusive candy-making legend enters crouched and limping, teetering as if he could fall over at any moment. Eventually he does fall—only to launch into a somersault and land in a grand, sprightly pose. Chain Reaction exploits this carefully-calculated faux disaster to call attention again to its functionality, which is after all an impressive, ridiculous feat. This dynamic also works within the environment NEMO more broadly. The obvious connections are a cascade of tiny “aha!” moments in which the viewer’s efforts to form hypotheses and expectations are rewarded. The missed moments invite further experimentation and inquiry. Seated near the boat and fan, certain relationships were apparent to me while others remained mysterious. In this way, Chain Reaction is simultaneously functionless on a purely mechanical level and also functional as a prompter of playful intellectual engagement.

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