Bruce Shapiro’s Tech-Art Movement
How a renowned kinetic sculptor uses machines to mimic nature’s beauty.
by Nick Yulman
Though they involve computer-driven mechanisms that imbue objects with surprising, lifelike qualities, Bruce Shapiro hesitates to call his creations robots:
That term would not be inaccurate, but it conjures human-like machines popularized by Hollywood. Roboticists tend to work on more and more complex machines, often with the goal of equaling or besting human capabilities. I take an almost opposite approach: the simpler, the better… To me, nothing could be better than a single-motor robot moving real materials in a captivating way.
Shapiro’s kinetic sculpture Sisyphus comes close to achieving this minimalist ideal, using a two-motor mechanism beneath a table to guide a steel ball in precise paths across a bed of sand. The result is a mesmerizing mandala-like drawing that the machine constantly creates and erases, recalling the repetitive struggle of its mythological namesake, eternally condemned to push a boulder uphill.
From its first incarnation as an installation piece for science museums to the new iteration intended to live in people’s homes, Shapiro has made and remade Sisyphus for nearly twenty years. But there’s no sense of futility in this long journey—rather, there’s a broadening of possibilities. Shapiro’s current Kickstarter campaign for Sisyphus has gained the support of nearly two thousand backers, becoming the Art category’s highest-funded project to date. Shapiro sees these supporters not just as financial patrons, but also as creative collaborators who will explore his work in ways he’s never imagined:
Sisyphus is not just a kinetic artwork. It is also an instrument. The paths it “plays” are just as important as the sculpture— no different than a musical instrument and the songs played on it. My hope is that by getting it out there — into more hands, eyes, and minds — people who are moved by it may spend their time and energies to compose for it.
In the late ’80s, Shapiro, then working as a physician in Minneapolis, stumbled upon a bin of unusual motors labelled “steppers” while browsing a local surplus store. They had eight wires instead of the traditional two. “I had no idea how to run them,” he recalls, “but I instantly grasped that they must work by breaking rotation into discrete steps — motion pixels!” Shapiro had recently learned about computer-generated fractal art and describes the “light bulb in head” moment of realizing that he could do something similar with the physical world.
Stepper motors are what allow machines like 3D printers and CNC (computer numerical control) routers to execute precise, computer-controlled movements. Today, the growing interest in DIY electronics and the emergence of open-source platforms like Arduino means that a Google search yields a wealth of tutorials, control boards, and starter kits that make it relatively easy to build something with steppers. But Shapiro’s pre-internet, pre-maker movement learning process involved going to the library to research these then-obscure components.
After several months, I finally had two steppers and some crude circuits connected to the printer port of my PC running DOS. Friends and family knew that I had been consumed by this obsession for months, and I was at last ready to show off my great achievement. I gathered them down in my basement shop and presented my grand demonstration: two motors sitting on a desk with pieces of tape stuck to their shafts, looking like little flags. When I typed something on the keyboard, each motor rotated exactly one revolution. Then variations of doing that one motor at a time, different directions. At the end of the demo, I turned my gaze from the motors to my audience, and was met with boredom, annoyance, and a lot of worried looks. This was my first — but hardly my last — lesson that my feelings of fascination and excitement could not be depended upon to correlate with those of others!
Realizing that this raw technical demo failed to convey the beauty of his vision, Shapiro set out to find a more exciting application. Easter was around the corner, so he rigged up a machine that could decorate eggs with intricate patterns, mostly to entertain his kids. It was a hit. Dubbed EggBot, the device is now available as a popular DIY kit from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories and has even made appearances at the White House Easter Egg Roll.
EggBot’s enthusiastic reception gave Shapiro the affirmation he needed to pursue his creative work full time.
I left my day job practicing internal medicine to devote myself to this growing obsession with exploring motion control for making art, while at the same time being able to spend more time taking care of our kids at home. I wasn’t unhappy with medicine — I liked it. But this felt different. I loved it — and still do, more than ever.
Early on, this exploration took the form of CNC machines built from scavenged industrial parts that, like EggBot, used digital control to make static sculptures with elaborate, often algorithmically generated designs. Sisyphus represented a conceptual leap. Shapiro explains, “eventually, one of my CNC machines did escape from the ‘drudgery’ of fabricating sculpture, to become the kinetic artwork itself.”
This vision of the machine as a factory worker suddenly freed to express itself conveys the endearing, Geppetto-like affection Shapiro has for his creations. Beyond that, it points to the inspiration he draws from observing life and nature. While never taking the literal approach to mimicking human and animal behavior embraced by eighteenth-century builders of automata and the roboticists of today, Shapiro keeps a notebook of movements and phenomena he encounters in daily life, ranging from the way bubbles form in water to the way fabric moves.
I look for movement in nature that I find beautiful or interesting and that my bag of motion control “tricks” might allow me to capture. The way a cheetah runs? Gorgeous, but no chance with my simple machines. But once in a while, I can tease out at least some essence of a movement I find beautiful, like the flow of silk through the air in traditional Chinese ribbon dance. My Ribbon Dancer installations came out of striving toward this goal.
Indeed, Shapiro’s work is notable for how organic and unmechanical it feels. While artists going back to the Italian Futurists in the early twentieth century have celebrated the aesthetic power of machines, Shapiro doesn’t fetishize the impressive technology behind his work, treating it as a tool for creating beautiful experiences. And though the mechanisms in pieces like Sisyphus are often hidden, he is unequivocal about wanting to inspire audiences’ curiosity about how they work:
It is no accident that my large public works are installed in science centers… While I needed no convincing as a child, working as an artist-in-residence at a science museum taught me that many kids view the practice of science as sterile, full of memorization, and generally not fun. But when they see work like mine, they can see all this science and technology being used for exactly that — fun! My hope is to entice people to want to learn how to do motion control for making stuff, be it in the guise of a CNC machine or 3D printer or a whimsical art-machine.
This generous, democratizing impulse is certainly found in Shapiro’s decision to create a version of Sisyphus that people can experience in their homes—an idea that grew out of his involvement with a now-defunct Minneapolis makerspace called The Mill. Aside from professional CNC machines that made fabrication faster and easier to repeat, he found a community of collaborators who could help him push his ambitions further.
The machines were invaluable, but perhaps more so were the other makers I met there. One in particular made a lasting impression: Micah Roth, who had already developed a reputation for being able to do and make anything. When that makerspace closed, we decided to form a new one called Nordeast Makers, which will serve as our center of production.
And this appreciation of community is also at the heart of Shapiro’s effort to share his work on Kickstarter. In contrast to the commercial art world, which thrives on exclusivity, Shapiro sees value in opening up his work and making it more accessible. He views the backers of his campaign less as collectors or customers but as collaborators who will use Sisyphus as a creative instrument for their own imaginations. There’s little precedent for offering such a complex, idiosyncratic work at this scale — artistic editions generally center around printmaking or other techniques designed for easy reproduction. But in carving out an approach that leverages the recent accessibility of automated manufacturing, Shapiro hopes to inspire others to follow suit:
We have demonstrated that there is a demand for this sort of thing — call it motion control art, kinetic sculpture, animatronics, whatever — and this will be noticed by other makers. [I hope it will] help spur more exploration of this new medium.