Artist Christian Ristow builds badass machines. And the one he’s installing at this year’s Maker Faire Bay Area, May 21 and 22, is no exception. This massive interactive piece, named Fledgling, is as engaging as it is stunning. We caught up with him recently to chat about installation processes, what inspires him, and how he got into robotics.
1. Tell us about the project you’re bringing to Maker Faire. What inspired you to make it and how long did it take?
Fledgling is a large mechanical bird, made almost entirely of stainless steel. One person at a time, from the general public, is able to ascend a staircase on the tail feathers, and then lower themselves into a seat, which is in the ribcage. From there, they can pedal a set of bicycle pedals, which set in motion an intricate arrangement of cranks and gears and chains and sprockets that cause the wings to open and close in much the same way that a real bird’s wings do.
I was inspired, rather directly, by birds. I find them beautiful and totally amazing in the way they work, from a biomechanical point of view. Fledgling was built under a very tight deadline, and was completed in eight weeks. I’ve never built such a complicated and ambitious piece in such a short timeframe, and hope that I never have to again!
2. What is involved in the installation process of the piece? Where else have you displayed it?
Fledgling debuted at the Coachella Valley Music Festival in mid-April. The folks behind the festival generously made the piece possible with a grant. As long as a crane or large telescoping forklift is available, the installation of the piece is really quite simple. Only 34 bolts are required for its assembly. In some ways, this is my reaction to the complicated and time-consuming assembly process required of my last big piece, The Hand of Man, which takes about a day to assemble. Fledgling takes about an hour.
Here’s a video of Ristow’s Hand of Man in action at Maker Faire Bay Area 2009:
3. This isn’t the first time you’ve participated in Maker Faire. What other projects have you brought previously?
I have previously displayed my robots, specifically the Drunken Master and the Subjugator, as well as the Hand of Man.
4. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I have been a tinkerer all my life. I grew up in the Bay Area during the 70s and 80s, and so simply for that reason I was exposed to some of the seminal early work in the field of robot-combat-as-performance-art, primarily perpetrated by the group Survival Research Laboratories. When I came back to SF in my twenties, I worked with them for quite a number of years, and that time was really my schooling in the field of robotics. Since that time, I have also done quite a lot of work in the world of film special effects. These various experiences have given me the skills necessary to harness my creative drive and bring my wacky ideas to life.
As for inspiration, I get it from all over the place. Some examples of things that inspire me are current and former developments in the world of robotics, nature (specifically the musculo-skeletal systems of animals), and the work of other artists of all sorts, past and present.
5. Is your project strictly a hobby or a budding business? Does it relate to your day job?
Building stuff like this is essentially my day job. Don’t follow in my footsteps, kids, if you want to live the high life! But when it works out, it is very rewarding.
6. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
I continue to be very excited by the idea of wearable robots, or, described in a different way, any kind of powerful machine, preferably of zoomorphic or anthropomorphic form, which requires a human to inhabit it for the purposes of control, preferably through some sort of telemetry. I intend to build one one of these days. I can tell you, though, that it won’t be like the other ones already being built!
7. What is your motto?
Stop talking and thinking about it, and start building it! This can be difficult advice for anyone to follow, including me. But the truth is that you learn the most, and inspire others the most, by actually getting your hands dirty.
8. What advice would you give to the young makers out there just getting started?
Read a lot, talk to other makers a lot, and try to start acquiring tools. Tools are what you need to make things. When you have the tools, start using them.
Thanks Christian! I’m dying to give Fledgling a try and can’t wait to see it installed at the Faire. For more information on Christian, check out his website, and for all the info you need on Maker Faire Bay Area, including how to get tickets in advance, head to the Maker Faire site.