Sometimes, there’s great delight to be found in the tedious. Arthur Ganson’s remarkable kinetic sculpture Machine with Concrete demonstrates that with playful aplomb.
Like all kinetic sculptures, Ganson’s work moves. It’s powered by a motor that spins at 200RPM. And yet, as much as it whirs away, it is also trapped in a moment of stillness, even literally. Machine with Concrete is actually a fairly simple mechanism, formed of 12 pairs of gears connected in a linear chain. One gear spins the next, which spins the next, and on it goes. So far, so uninspiring.
The thing is, thanks to some elegant gearing, while the motor inputs a 200RPM spin into the contraption, the final gear in the chain turns at (1/50)12. In other words, it will make one rotation every 2.3 trillion years. Often playful and even mischievous in his artworks, Ganson has set that final gear in a block of concrete, just in case anyone missed the fact that it spins very, very slowly.
And that is the glint in the eye of Machine with Concrete. It is an active machine in motion, entirely uninterrupted. Simultaneously, it is trapped in a moment by concrete. Setting aside the engineering concept of ‘backlash’, where tiny gaps in mechanisms add a delay between moving parts, all of Machine with Concrete is moving. It’s simply that the final gear moves slowly enough not to trouble hardened concrete.
In fact, Ganson’s contraption is unlikely to get through much of its immense journey. If the parts don’t erode and decay first, our Sun’s death will scorch everything from Earth in a mere 7.6 billion years, kinetic artworks included.
Machine for Concrete is an idea so big – so silly and so smart – that the fullest life of the planet we inhabit doesn’t offer enough capacity to see its final gear – well… turn around a bit. Ganson has built a demonstration of utter irrelevance, and imprisoned it in a fleeting moment that lasts trillions of years.
Ganson’s own endless runner also provides plenty of fodder for discussion about video games. For the likely billions of buttons presses we’ve collectively made when playing games, is there much tangible impact? Why are we so often enchanted by linear narratives that lead to endings that may as well be set in concrete? What about the meditative quality that can be found in arcade forms that pack a hell of a lot into a short from experience; even if not a couple of trillion years into a small spread of moving parts?
And does all that time grinding Animal Crossing: New Horizons actually change much in the end?
Really, though, when considering Ganson’s joke told with a concrete punchline, it’s striking that it’s so contrary to what games are. Machine with Concrete almost seems to mock foundational concepts in gaming such as progress, ending, impact and player agency. But all that makes whatever Machine with Concrete: The Video Game is a strangely alluring proposition
That game should be more than a mechanical puzzler. Titles like Cogs, Gear Works and The Incredible Machine do a decent job of pulling beguiling gameplay mechanics from real mechanics. But they aren’t about setting the futility of the infinite in an eternal moment.
Certainly, Ganson’s sculpture code easily inspire ideas around infinitesimally small movements, games about patience, and even titles that ask players to invent self-serving machines that take a meaningful look at the meaningless. But those ideas don’t quite capture the irreverent magic of Machine with Concrete.
Releasing this particular kinetic sculpture as a video game should surely deliver something of a time travel title set in a single moment. A game with a 2.3-trillion-year timeline that only lets you move around a second set in stone. Maybe it would be the ultimate idler; a ‘waiting simulator’ that provides a moment to comprehend what separates us from the eternal. Perhaps there’s a chance to realise a game that ends up being more about its pause screen than its machinations. And there’s something very appealing about gameplay systems that erode and decay as you play through a game.
OK. It’s very hard to say how Machine with Concrete would work as a game, but somebody should absolutely make it.