The tinkering artist Peter William Holden reveals the cogs of his devices combining engineering of illusion and art of body movement with his new robotic choreography, “Critical Mass”.
Artist of English origin based in Leipzig, Peter William Holden develops robotic installations where one can perceive behind a fun design an aesthetic and plastic reflection on the human physical gestures and behaviours. Presented these passed years in a number of festivals such as Ars Electronica (Linz), Via (Maubeuge) or still Exit (Créteil), his installations AutoGene (with its circular ballet of umbrellas constantly opening and closing), Arabesque (with its cohort of arms and legs getting carried away in mutant frenzies), or Solenoid (true rotating orchestra of tap-dance shoes), translate at best a rather singular hybrid vision.
“AutoGene”, Peter William Holden, “physical animation”, 2005:
Like many digital artists of his generation (he is 44), PW Holden grew up with a DIY spirit inherited from the punk culture as well as a great sense for waste recovery and the distortion of materials demanded by their cost. But at home, this “tinkering” approach is coupled with a strange poetic preview process of his pieces, taking shape in his mind first.
“When I was about twenty, I started to ‘build’, but only in my mind, moving sculptures” he says. “It was very inspiring but I lacked the technical skills to create them concretely. To remedy this, I started attending engineering, design and computer programming classes at university”.
“Many of my ideas come from play or day dreaming. For instance, AutoGene came from just observing people on a rainy day. Watching someone opening an umbrella and pausing for just a second to imagine armies of umbrellas opening and closing. Visualizing in the mind the abstract patterns that could be formed and how they would flow through their ranks.”
In his methodology, PW Holden then reflects on the way of creating devices able to reproduce these previews without losing their illusory aspect.
“For me, the illusion precisely resides in the fact of going beyond the technological aspects”, he insists. “It is about making technology irrelevant, reducing it to a simple tool, used solely for revelation of an artistic – conceptual idea.”
“So the realization of these works is in some ways reverse engineering. Where mechanical solutions are found which comply with the visual concept of the installation and not vice-versa.”
Peter William Holden
Choreography of elevated hats
In Critical Mass, his brand new installation, the principle of robotic choreography stages a squad of hats resembling an aerial ballet.
“Critical Mass”, Peter William Holden, 2015:
“All my work revolves around the human body, be the relation directly induced by elements of the body or indirectly by objects that are commonly worn or held that can as a result be considered as body extensions”, explains Holden.
“Hats are in this context objects I find particularly relevant, attractive as well as emblematic. I like for example the fine use that Hans Richter makes of them in his film Ghosts Before Breakfast (Dadaist short film from 1927), or the image sent back by J. Robert Oppenheimer when he wears a Fedora. Once again, my projects start off from an image fixed in my mind, and it is also the case for Critical Mass when I had in mind a squad of flying hats”.
In order to design a device able to make hats fly in close formation, Peter William Holden immediately thought to use Delta industrial robots for the prototype of his piece.
“They offer exactly this great precision of movement; it was the starting point. Unfortunately, Delta robots are very expensive and require rather complicated controllers. But art has an advantage over technology: art can be satisfied with making a device function on a simple illusion principle. I realised I could recreate Delta robots without the complex actuators and controllers, simply by using standard compressed air cylinders, classic valves and a very simple controller. With this accessible technology, I could still show the whole range of desired movements by scarifying only those linked to stationary positions.”
The first step of a making-of that obviously reserved other surprises (creaking joints, fiberglass rods that bend themselves in an uncontrolled manner, etc.). But every artist knows all about that…