This year’s Nuit Blanche included an artistic foray by a group of U of T engineering students involved in the Spark Design Collective. The group took on the formidable task of recreating a type of kinetic sculpture invented by Theo Jansen of the Netherlands.
The intricately-designed “creatures,” which Jansen called “Strandbeests,” inspire pure awe with their ability to walk effortlessly across a beach with a simple push from a person or the wind. Unfortunately, Spark’s attempt at a Jansen Walker failed to measure up.
The Spark exhibit, which was featured in a group exhibition called “Constellations,” was restricted to a stationary wooden stand and was unable to walk. A second “walker” on display was not even able to move. A team member who happened to be passing by explained that they had some issues with torque in the centre of the structure. Many of the parts were falling off, and the squeaking from the rubbing of the countless cardboard tubes forming the skeleton did not help things.
As the engineers only had one day to work on the project, it was impressive that they were able to produce a moving model. The students involved undoubtedly learned a lot from the building experience, and failure is often an educational experience. However, any intended message was lost, and there was no attempt to explain the designers’ experience or the hard work that the students put into it. From what I saw, the few people that managed to find the exhibit gave the crank a few turns, laughed a little, and shrugged.
Not too far from Spark’s exhibit, “The Robotic Chair” repeatedly crumbled to pieces and slowly re-assembled itself to the tune of “oohs” and “aahs” from an audience starved for something impressive. This unique spectacle, while not necessarily evoking the “empathy, compassion, and hope” described in the official Nuit Blanche booklet, demonstrated the intersection of science and art much more effectively than did Spark’s exhibit. The chair’s design certainly took much more time, resources, and expertise to complete, but the impact of a project is ultimately judged by the end-result, not by the process.
This is certainly not the last we will hear of the Spark Design Collective, but in the future, the team needs to give themselves a bit more time to build something they’ve never built before. Alternatively, they need to come up with an entirely new idea, so that they are not judged against what they attempt to imitate.