Sustainable automatons in the digital age: exploring the practice of Parker Heyl

American artist Parker Heyl explores his sustainable, wood-based kinetic sculpture practice, and discusses his critical approach to automation in art.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Jan 15, 2022

Human civilisations the world over have created fascinating automatons through the centuries. While some were motivated more by purpose, many served as fanciful set-pieces on the larger sets of royal courts and summer palaces. Each of these were made through the expert craftsmanship of highly skilled workers, and no two pieces could ever truly be alike. Today, our attentions may have shifted more towards the digital, yet there are still artists such as Parker Heyl who continue the practice of creating elaborate physical configurations that harken, in a way, back to ancient automatons. This is not to say that Heyl’s work is not his own; far from it, in fact his pieces live in an era that is entirely separate from both, ours and antiquity. While some of Heyl’s works reference the present directly, others play with physics in ways that the artificers and toymakers of old did.

01 min watch A piece by the artist that functions through pendulums | Parker Heyl | STIRworld
A piece by the artist that functions through pendulums Video: Parker Heyl

Discussing his introduction to art, Heyl tells STIR, “I have no formal artistic training. But I was trained as a carpenter from an early age, at the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop in New Haven. Bill Brown is the museum director and an educator, and he introduced me to woodworking as a kinetic medium. At the museum I designed experiments and toys using raw materials—wood scraps, thumb tacks, DC motors, telephone wire, AA batteries, springs, paper clips and the like. These objects conduct electricity, and along with wood, which is an insulator, together create the basics of an electro-mechanical system. In this way, I began as a designer of automatons, along with the hundreds of other apprentices who passed under Bill Brown's roof.” While this would not resonate with Heyl as a potential direction to focus great effort and time on immediately, it did play some part in influencing his future work: he would find himself working at a robotics start-up via the Harvard Biorobotics Lab after completing his education as a Mechanical Engineer from Tufts University (BSME) and Architecture at the Bartlett, UCL. Heyl began his creative work in earnest after viewing a gallery opening in Peckham, where a friend of his had designed machines meant to eat away at plastic blocks. And then it all clicked. The artist looks back at this experience, and explains, “This was my first time seeing such things. I was, of course, aware of the intersection between arts and engineering, that this field did exist, but the Peckham gallery was my first time being immersed in the physicality of such a showing. It was incredibly inspirational to be there, and it was in that moment I realised I was capable of making my own machines.” 

01 min watch Heyl uses the TikTok logo in the most imaginative of ways | Parker Heyl | STIRworld
Heyl uses the TikTok logo in the most imaginative of ways Video: Parker Heyl

Heyl calls himself a ‘kinetic artist’, and explains that kinetic art is the term used to categorise sculptures which move through space and time. He is certain to stress on the fact that they move through physical space and not digital, and has made it a core focus of his practice to sift through the potentially infinite amounts of data necessary to program a physical device to move just so. Heyl says, “I am fascinated by the complex motion of physical objects: trees in the wind, waves on a lake, smoke, steam, bicycle mechanisms and everything else. The amount of information or "data" inherent to a physical object in motion is incredibly complex. On a technical level, in terms of information theory, it is infinitely more complex than digital motion.” This is undoubtedly a powerful claim to make, and Heyl believes in it wholeheartedly, having even addressed it in a thesis paper. The artist’s keen focus on physical media has driven him to take a critical position towards the world of interaction design. Heyl identifies a deep harm that he believes big tech to have caused human life, and, hardly mincing his words as he says, “By now most of us have come to realise the negative effects of digitisation and the dangers of the screen, and yet, there's still a large part of the corporate world that fetishizes this technology. When it comes to smart buildings, the internet of things, digital connectivity and consumer technologies, the benefits are often offset by a lower quality of life for the user, especially in regards to mental health.”

02 mins watch ‘Jacob’s Wall’ by Heyl | Parker Heyl | STIRworld
‘Jacob’s Wall’ by Heyl Video: Parker Heyl

This has led the artist to abandon software near-totally. He only uses analog electronics in most of his artworks, and going even further, almost always uses wood to create his pieces. He mentions that his wood always comes from sustainably sourced timber, and that timber is, in fact, the only sustainable architecture material, which is something many might not be aware of. When every tree harvested is regrown, sustainably sourced timber actually has a neutral carbon footprint. The artist says, “We should be planting more trees and building more from wood, which is a carbon lock. I use wood for designs that you would typically expect in metal, acrylic, or nylon, such as in gears. I want to demonstrate that it's a miracle material. Sadly, it's not used much today in urban architecture, partly because of the higher cost of skilled labour required.” 

Another Cosmobloom | Parker Heyl and Mac Van Dam | STIRworld
Another Cosmobloom Image: Parker Heyl and Mac Van Dam

Heyl is currently a Teaching Fellow at the Interactive Architecture Lab at The Bartlett in London. When he is teaching, he keeps a strong focus on hand-skills and celebrating the imperfections of a handmade object, where the traces of labour have not been intentionally hidden. He aligns himself with the maker movement, but makes it very clear that the movement must grow to address issues of sustainability better. Currently his pieces called Cosmoblooms, which he created with the help of designer Mac Van Dam, are on tour with the Brooklyn-based rock band Crumb, who worked to install each fragile piece every night in under 20 minutes for 30 nights in a row. As of writing this, the first leg of the band’s tour is complete, and the artworks are still in pristine condition; a testament to be certain, to Heyl and Van Dam’s painstaking custom packaging. Here’s hoping the tour goes well, and that the Cosmoblooms may find a fantastic home in a museum or gallery, where they will inspire young creatives to follow a path of sustainable craftsmanship.

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