One of the biggest installations coming to this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area on May 21 and 22 is Zachary Coffin’s Colossus. This nearly 70-foot-tall sculpture allows participants to spin 40,000lbs of stone and steel. Needless to say, we can’t wait to see this piece in action (not to mention watch being it installed). We connected with Zachary recently to get his insight into Colossus, what inspires him, and gravity.
1. Tell us about the project you’re bringing to Maker Faire. What inspired you to make it and how long did it take?
Colossus was built for Burning Man 2005. I often draw inspiration from ancient tales. In this case, one of the seven wonders, the Colossus of Rhodes, which was supposedly a gigantic sculpture that guarded the harbor. With it, you can spin about 40,000lbs of stone and steel by your own power, which is pretty fun and all kinds of awesome. It was inspired by some smaller experiments in human-powered rotational inertia (of huge rocks), a desire to push my scale to a new level, and a desire to take advantage of building in 3D CAD space, which had just started becoming accessible and affordable for ordinary mortals on desktop computers.
I regard it as a bit of a work in progress. The bearing we selected resulted in greater friction than I anticipated, so I am building a new bearing and hope that it will result in a more kinetic experience. Funny, when you talk about art, you usually talk about the “viewer” or the “audience,” both of which are passive roles. But when a sculpture invites the “viewer” to pull on a rope that moves 20 tons, what do you call them? As an artist, one of my goals is to turn an art viewer into an art participant.
We spent about 6 months designing Colossus and built it in a frenzied 6 weeks at a very supportive art space in Oakland called Nimby.
2. Your project is massive, to say the least. What is involved in the installation process? Where else have you displayed it?
The installation is actually fairly simple (knock on wood). I require a few helpers, a crane, and a manlift to put us in position. Of course, we built it a while ago and I haven’t put it together since it was in the desert. The work is raw steel and, interestingly, steel swells slightly when it rusts. I guess that extra oxygen takes up room, so I hope critical parts have not swelled to the point that it is now difficult to assemble, as some of the tolerances were pretty tight. Fortunately, my engineers Corbett Griffith and Daniel Bauen did a bang-up job keeping the files straight, so as I make changes 6 years later, we don’t have to clamber around with measuring tapes making templates. It is really wonderful what is possible with computer-aided design and modern CNC fabrication techniques.
You see, I am actually pretty lazy. I much prefer hanging out and drinking beer to forcing bolts into steel plates. Because of this, I spend a lot of time designing my work to be easy to install and uninstall. There is a saying that if you want a large object moved effectively, find the laziest person you know and charge them with the job. This is probably nonsense, but there might be a nugget of truth in there somewhere. I will be happy to argue the question, over beers.
Colossus has only been shown at Burning Man. Maker Faire is the first venue since to have the guts to show a work like this.
3. How did you hear about Maker Faire and why did you decide to participate?
I have known about MAKE magazine from its beginning and have watched the development of the Faire with interest. It is a fantastic venue for industrial-grade, human-powered, interactive art. I am excited to be involved.
4. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I have always been fascinated by machines and technique. Early on, I worked in photography and found challenge in the technical demands of the medium (this was pre-digital, of course) and often found myself photographing old industrial sites. I spent long hours behind a ground glass studying the stark beauty of utility. At some point I realized I could build these forms myself, that I could incorporate this visual, physical language into sculpture.
This meant that I had to learn the methods and techniques of structural steel and mechanical engineering, which is an ongoing process, as there is so much to learn. It also meant that I could take advantage of the extensive infrastructure that supports our modern industrialized world. So rather than think about sculpture on the scale of a large bronze, for instance, I could think about sculpture on the scale of a building or a bridge.
In the end, everything about my work comes back to our relationship with the weakest force: gravity. The human condition is so intertwined with gravity that we don’t even notice it — well, at least until we take a spill. The resistance to its pull is literally encoded in our genes. As astronauts have learned, without gravity our bodies begin to atrophy at an amazing speed, and without a column of air being pulled down upon us at all times, we would literally boil away. So, my problem has been to build visually interesting objects that are actually all about an unseen force that we all feel but only occasionally notice. I am also perfectly fine with my work just being fun whether you grok the underlying themes or not. The snobbery implicit in a lot of contemporary art has always bothered me. That you have to be in the “know” to be able to even look at a lot of art with any understanding simply means, to me, that the artist isn’t willing to take the time to clarify their ideas.
Though I read widely and try to absorb everything, most of my inspiration has come from three major areas:
1. Early bridge engineering: Lindenthal, Roebling, then later the advances made by modern builders, Otto, Calatrava.
2. The many nameless engineers of the industrial revolution, the best of whom built machines of pure utility that are actually objects of great visual and physical grace.
3. In sculpture, three greats: DiSuvero, Noguchi, and Serra.
5. Is your project strictly a hobby or a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?
Since college, I have focused entirely on the creation of kinetic interactive sculpture that causes people to look at and feel the world in a new way. As I set out to make this my life work, I realized that I had to develop my visual language and technical skills. I recognized that both scale and engineering would be critical to this. Scale because humans largely evaluate the world based on our physical relation to it, so we are affected by the scale of an object whether or not we are aware of it. Engineering because when building a machine (an object that does work), the way that it is built has everything to do with whether it actually functions as intended.
Everyone has experienced a well-built machine that seems able to function nearly effortlessly and a poorly made one that either works poorly or breaks immediately. I knew that in order to make an impact in this realm, I would need to become an expert builder. For instance, I have made a series of works that are basically large rocks mounted on bearings. These allow anyone, even children barely walking, to spin a multi-ton boulder. Though it looks raw and simple, the only reason that it works is because I have found the precise center of balance of the stone, that the bearing is precisely level and that my bearings and shafts are both accurately concentric and able to resist deflection from the load. If these criteria are not met, the sculpture simply becomes as you expect: a large immovable rock. One of these sculptures, Rockspinner6, will also be at Makers Faire this year.
Of course, I was not born rich, so I have done many different things to support myself and my art over the years. I have worked as a professional builder in many capacities and am now well versed in everything from carpentry and electrical to plumbing and more. Through a combination of planning, work, and luck, I am now able to devote myself full time to my art — well, except that my wife is getting a Ph.d. and we have two small children, so time is always tight.
6. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
As I am kind of obsessed with politics and the uprising in the Arab world is awesome to behold, I spent the last two summers in Istanbul teaching sculpture, and am fascinated by the pace of change in the region, but my heart aches for those beaten and gunned down by the tyrants.
In science, Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker, is apparently working on a way to generate power by forcing hydrogen gas through a membrane that separates the protons from the electrons. The electrons then go do work somewhere, then reunite with the proton to begin the cycle again. This blows my mind. How do you build a filter that separates a proton from its electron? How do you even think of such a thing?
In my work, I have been working on a technique that allows me to build large volumetric forms out of light gauge stainless steel by forcing individual pieces into a complex curve and spot-welding them in position. By working in CAD space, each piece can be individually defined, cut by laser, then assembled. The shape of the parts (and a set of reference points) actually create the form in space without the need for an armature. I am just starting to explore the visual possibilities of this technique having stumbled upon it while building my last large public commission. It allows me to build volumes of great visual complexity and scale that have very low mass, so I can use them as sails to catch the wind as well as the eye. I am now working on a private commission that is allowing me to push this technique to a whole new level. I hope to have this work done around the end of the year.
7. What is your motto?
Gravity never sleeps.
8. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?
Learn as much as possible about materials and technique. Push yourself past your limits, but keep on your toes and be sure to jump clear if it all comes tumbling down. Document, then destroy your failures, don’t pay rent on them. Embrace technology and take advantage of the new.