During an art opening held at a local architecture firm, guests from 5 to 85 sat transfixed around several circular, black steel tables inside of which a steel ball moved with precision, creating intricate patterns in white sand. Captivating and curious, the tables gave rise to many questions: Is it random or planned? If planned, what’s guiding the small ball? How does the ball transform the exquisitely detailed ridges, tunnels and lines into mandala-like patterns? Who thought this up and how does it work?
These art functional objects are known as Sisyphus, and are tables that combine kinetic art, technology and design into a mesmerizing process of meditative beauty. “In Greek mythology,” explains text on the product’s website, “Sisyphus was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain for all eternity. In our art, Sisyphus is a kinetic sculpture that rolls a ball through sand, forever creating and erasing beautiful patterns. Sisyphus is a kinetic art piece: It is an instrument. As a musical instrument plays songs, Sisyphus plays paths.”
The brainchild of Bruce Shapiro, who left his job as a doctor 25 years ago to follow his passion for using computer-controlled machines to create art, the Sisyphus tables are part of the growing Maker Movement in the Twin Cities. In fact, Shapiro and his collaborator Micah Roth started Nordeast Makers, a community space with lots of toys, including CNC routers, liquid-cooled laser cutters, high-resolution 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, full woodworking shop, and electronics lab. When we asked Shapiro to shed light on our questions about Sisyphus, he was happy to oblige.
Where did the ideas from these tables come from?
In 1998 a fellow artist jokingly challenged me: Could I build a robot to rake a Zen garden? I’d spent the early ’90s learning to build my own CNC machines with the goal of using them to make sculpture. At the time, although very common in industrial settings, the ability to move cutting tools under computer control was very expensive (and still is). My solution was to scrounge parts of scrapped automation equipment on the local Twin Cities market (think 3M, Control Data, Honeywell, Seagate). I built one machine after another, and got better and better at it—both the hardware side and writing my own programs to control the machines. Sisyphus was my first CNC machine to break free of the studio, as a kinetic sculpture on its own.
How does the mechanism work?
Sisyphus is a two-dimensional drawing machine. To control movement in 2D requires two motors—like the two knobs on an Etch A Sketch. Though the Sisyphus mechanism is polar (not XY), the idea is the same: By blending movement along two independent axes, it can move a magnet under the sand field very precisely along predetermined paths stored in files within a small computer inside the table. As a music player plays music tracks stored as files and organized into playlists, Sisyphus does the same, only its tracks are visual.
Talk about the mystery and curiosity they generate in people: What are you communicating artistically with these works?
Sisyphus “works” on both emotional and analytic levels at the same time. Nothing is more “natural” and familiar than the way sand behaves on a shoreline or in the desert. And the steel ball appears to be rolling as if by a magical force, guiding it to build intricate patterns. But even very young children quickly intuit that a magnet is involved. Looking under the table, one can see the robotic mechanism and circuit boards with blinking LEDs—definitely complex technology under the hood. I think it’s this juxtaposition of cutting-edge tech being used for something as whimsical as creating ever changing sand dunes that catches us off guard, producing enchantment.
Most of the tracks that I compose for Sisyphus are algorithmic, meaning derived from mathematical and programmatic methods. This is likely due to my never having learned to draw by hand. But my choice is only one style. There are many others, including hand-drawn continuous line drawings. We are now enlisting artists we find online, who specialize in “one-line” drawing (no picking up the pen), and making their work available for downloading and playing on people’s Sisyphus tables.
Where are the tables sold? In addition to being part of art exhibitions are they sold to people privately for their homes?
At present, home versions of Sisyphus are available only online. We ran a Kickstarter campaign in September 2016, and more than 1,500 were ordered. We are now fabricating and shipping those tables from our facility in Northeast Minneapolis, and hope to start taking new orders in the next few months. Prior to developing versions for the home, I was focused on large scale, permanent installations for museum settings. There are currently three, from 8 to 10 feet in diameter, installed in Switzerland, Germany, and Australia.
By Camille Lefevre