WHAT ARE SENSATIONAL ASSEMBLAGES ?
I coined the term Sensation Assemblages because there was no named art movement or medium that describes what I was doing. I am using “Sensational” here to denote the stimulation of multiple senses and they are assemblages because they use repurposed articles in a sculpture. In the 1960’s there was a recognized Lumino-kinetic art movement, so I could have chosen, “Lumino-kinetic Assemblages”, but some of my pieces use sound and even words. Further, my use of sound is different than the usual voices or music in the multimedia genre. For example, in my piece, The Prisoner of Time”, the sounds of the metronome and the alarm bell subliminally imprint the message by adding just two sounds, reinforcing the visual and the poem. The finality of “The Last Ride” is the sound of the locomotive pulling away from the station. Both of these pieces strongly exhibit the principles of Sensational Assemblage through the melding of form, lights, motion, words and sounds. In other of my work, the inclusion of “weird science” elements, such as Jacobs Ladders, plasma balls, and wiggly neon, capture the eye as they create anachronisms of design and time. Another element in some pieces is their utility. I want to bring my art “off the pedestal” and into the everyday life of the owner. By incorporating a clock, one that maybe runs backwards, or a vintage looking Bluetooth player with a music-responding display, are two examples.
Assemblages originated in early 20th century with such artists as Picasso and DuChamp. They were mostly two dimensional with attached elements, and hung as paintings. In the 1950’s, John Chamberlin, started incorporating old car parts, and moved assemblages into the 3D world. Kinetic art also has its has its roots back in the 1900’s with DuChamp’s, “readymades”, but it was Tatlin, Rodchenko, and Calder especially, who took the stationary sculptures of the early 20th century and gave them freedom of motion. Using sound as an artistic element came with multi-media in the late 1960’s, but sound in this context refers to spoken words or music rather than sounds of events which I use. A number of my pieces evoke functioning devices and so one can see elements of the 1920’s constructivists with their machine and technology aesthetic. The pieces with practical uses, lamps or clocks, are in the spirit of the Bauhaus, making useful objects beautiful and eye catching. In the Bauhaus there is a concept called “Materielgerecht”: doing justice to a material by exploring it with every sense. With Sensational Assemblages, the “material” is the vintage piece that is enhanced, explored and exposed using lights, motion and sound with an anachronistic twist.
In the 1960’s, there was a flourish of what has been called Lumino-Kinetic art. The historian of art Frank Popper, views the evolution of this type of art as evidence of, "aesthetic preoccupations linked with technological advancement" and a starting-point in the context of high-technology art. By the early 1970’s this movement died out but it stands as a precursor to other contemporary cybernetic, robotic, and new media-based art. There were no LEDs or micro-controllers, or inexpensive plasma devices in the 1970s as there are now, which when used today, make those 1960’s pieces seem dull. Today there are a number of pure lumino/photonic artists, some making neon and plasma sculptures, as well as pure kinetic artists, but I am perplexed that more artists have not taken advantage of the technologies of the 21st century, to create more stimulating art by mixing lights and motion with sound.
One notable example of the myopia of the artistic community with regards to incorporating technology, is the Arduino movement. The Arduino, an inexpensive open-source microcontroller and software platform was developed in Italy in 2005 specifically as a tool for artists and non-technical users. Today there are millions of these Arduinos all over the world, taught in junior high school and used by hobbyists, roboticists and DIY’rs, but with very limited use by the artistic community. There are likely a number of coexisting reasons for this. One is that artists tend to be “medium” specific, while assemblages using numerous elements, requires a diverse skill set. Further, interest in science and technology does not seem to be common in the artist mentality, which may lead to a right versus left brain debate. Certainly no art education programs I am aware of even talk about the synthesis or art and technology unless it in in the computer or multi-media arts, which are different altogether than creations of the hands. The best explanation may be that these computer based arts may be co-opting those artists with what Popper called, an aesthetic preoccupation linked with technology, as manifest today in computer game design, with its high economic rewards. For whatever reasons those building Lumino-Kinetic-Audible-++ pieces with their own hands, whether new or old are few in number.
An automaton is a self-operating machine or control mechanism designed to automatically follow a predetermined sequence of operations. They have been around for centuries and some very complicated ones that could write complete letters, were made by clock makers in the 18th century. I am unclear as why they are not generally considered “art, but instead reside in their own “compartment”. There are a number of accomplished contemporary automaton builders, whose work is beautiful, interesting and often combine numerous movements to tell a story. These pieces are pure amazing art and belong in any discussion of Lumino-Kinetic art, assemblages or not.
Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy that incorporates technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery. It is not a description of an artistic style or composition other than its emphasis on the dress or materials of the victorian age, with the imagined fictional machines and futuristic weapons from these alternative universes. Steampunk becomes the perfect blending of alternate history with science fiction.
Steampunk was my original inspiration as the genre resonated with my diverse skill set and the new versus old dynamic resonated as my background which includes antiques as well as high technology. Usually steampunk devices are repurposed assemblages, and some include lights, clocks and motion to a lesser degree. The best pieces in this aesthetic style are certainly art, but the community has collectively decided to name Steampunk Artists, as “Makers”. Some award winning steampunk creations have fantastical back stories, and often have a constructivist feel as a mythical machine such as in the Wormhole Navigation Unit. Later, as I wished to expand my palate with chrome and steel I have expanded beyond the victorian age into which some call “Dieselpunk”.
One small breakthrough of Steampunk into the mainstream art world, was the special exhibition of Steampunk Assemblages at the Oxford Museum in 2009-2010, which collected many of the most noted Steampunk artists in one international exhibition.
Some have asked me why they don't see more creations like mine and my answer is that they are very difficult to build because they require expertise in many disciplines, ranging from the intangible of creativity to the practical arts of metal working, electronics and fine woodworking. I am fortunate to have learned those skills, usually by necessity. These devices also require many weeks of time to build. Then there is the need to figure out how to make parts work and fit together that were never made to do so.
Vandegraaff Gearheardt is the nom de guerre of Greg Barnhart who lives and works in Escondido, California, with his wife Karen. Greg has been an autodidact from the the age of 12 when he read every book and magazine about electronics at the local library so that by the time he was 14, he was tearing apart old TVs to build electronic gadgets. At this time he started to expand his self studies into history and psychology. An electrical engineering degree from WPI followed, and afterward he spent three months in Europe exploring the great art museums. Upon his return he worked as a design engineer and took night courses in history, art and dabbled in watercolor painting like his mother. After buying a 200-year-old, 55 acre farm in New Hampshire, he did everything himself from installing a new heating system to rebuilding farm equipment. Becoming interested in antiques, Greg became a part time dealer specializing in the Federalist period. Now a full-fledged polymath, his practical arts include woodworking, ceramics, culinary arts, metalworking and architecture. Extensive travel in Europe during his career in technology management allowed further growth in his understanding of 20th century art movements. He has always been interested in Cubism, Dadaism, the Bauhaus, Constructivism and Kinetic art.
A few years after retirement and after building everything he could think of for his house, Greg discovered the world of Steampunk, That aesthetic of mixing the Victorian with science fiction sparked Greg’s imagination and allowed him to apply all of his skills and build upon his study and appreciation of the aforementioned art movements. Repurposing and the Industrial Aesthetic came along later with his addition of kenetic elements and the use of the latest photonics.
Best of Show Steamathon, Las Vegas, 2016
Best 3D Theme Art San Diego County Fair, 2016. (Largest judged art show in California),
Best New Artist Spectrum Art Show, Indian Wells, Ca. 2017
"Prisoner of TIME" Included in California Center for Arts Museum, April-June 2017
Peoples Favorite Voted by all attendees at Art Expo, NYC, 2017 (25,000+)
Featured Artist Edwardian Ball, San Francisco, 2018