University of California at Berkeley

Not Your Usual Engineering Job

Engineer's Whim? Artist's Magrittesque Dream? See What You Will, Say Its Creators

 by Kathleen Scalise

Some describe it as an overgrown potato. Others say it's more like a beast caught in a cage. But everyone agrees the huge new multimedia sculpture the campus helped develop, on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through Dec. 1, makes a strong statement about the constraints of technology.

The exhibit is called "Gnomon," named after an ancient Greek device for understanding space and time. This gnomon involves an egg-shaped object about the size of a minivan rolling around a gallery a bit too snug for comfort.

"The room is not a whole lot bigger than the object," said Mechanical Engineering Professor Dave Auslander, whose students helped engineer the piece.

"It's kind of like trying to park your car in a garage where there's not a lot of space. Part of the art is a feeling of constraint."

The artists who conceived the Gnomon asked Berkeley mechanical engineering students last spring to help make the technology work. Class projects contributed to designing navigation and obstacle detection systems.

The Gnomon moves at speeds in the neighborhood of a few inches a second.

Strange sounds emanate from inside and images appear on the surface -- "patterns, abstractions, in focus, out of focus, animals, sheep, not what you would call a linear script," said Auslander.

While it appears aimless, the Gnomon's rocking and rolling has a plan behind it.

The artists and engineers designed Gnomon so it can't bump into people in the gallery or touch the walls around it.

At the same time, the object is trying to follow a scrambled signal transmitted by satellites in the U.S. Global Positioning System.

But here's the hitch. With the limits of the people and the walls, the Gnomon can't ever get where it wants to go. You might say it's rigged for failure.

All in all, "it leaves quite an impression," said Auslander. "The object is very interesting. It gives a very organic feeling. I wouldn't say it feels like an organism, but somehow the description fits."

And what exactly does the sculpture say about technology?

"It's just an object in a room," Auslander shrugged. "You're free to draw your own conclusions."

Groups from one undergraduate class and one graduate class contributed to the Gnomon.

Several students continued working into the summer, including Rob Passaro and Susannah Gardner.

"I'm totally psyched about it," said Passaro. "This is the reason I went into engineering, this kind of strange combination of engineering and art. It's not your typical engineering job. But we still had to come up with cheap, effective ways to solve pertinent, real-world problems."

The project "required the application of what we call mechatronics," said Auslander. Mechatronics is the science behind much of today's industrial manufacturing and robotics. Even something as simple as a bag to hold potato chips is built with computers using this sort of technology, said Auslander.

As for art and engineering, "this is something that's been going on for a long, long time," said Auslander.

"Technology and art have always been intertwined in various ways, from the technology of pigments and paints to the tools to apply them, there's a lot of technology in art no matter where and when it was done."


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