Applied Kinetic Arts: Benjamin Cowden interview

Craft & Design
Applied Kinetic Arts: Benjamin Cowden interview
benjamin cowden manifold ballast.jpg

Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Applied Kinetic Arts (A.K.A.) is an artist collective made up of kinetic artists who each bring their own unique aesthetic and skill set to the crew. From their site, “Works incorporating motion, light, sound, and interactivity are represented by the group’s ever expanding member base.” A couple of weeks ago, I interviewed co-founder Nemo Gould as well as Jeremy Mayer . This week we catch up with Benjamin Cowden, who has contributed to the pages of MAKE magazine with his Geared Candleholder project in Volume 21. Through the project, Benjamin teaches us how to make our own gears out of metal plate, a skill he has beautifully mastered, as witnessed through his thought-provoking art.

1. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
In high school I was carving wooden figurines and sewing moccasins out of deer hide. I was committed to utility as well as a high standard of craftsmanship. In college I went abroad and studied traditional crafts in Cameroon, including basketry and knife-making, then I learned jewelry-making in San Jose, Costa Rica. I was always so impressed with people who take raw materials and, with minimal tooling, create simple, elegant items.



Geared Candleholder on Make: Projects2. How did you first become involved/interested in making kinetic art? Tell us about the first kinetic piece you made.
I lived in Tennessee, where I practiced blacksmithing and lock-making before going to graduate school in southern Illinois in 2004. In grad school, I knew I wanted to work with mechanisms, but I didn’t want to hide them inside padlocks and boxes. One night I had an epiphany and began constructing my first machine: a marionette controller. Seven months and much sweat later, this is what I ended up with. I built it piece by piece, each one designed around the previous parts, so that only the general idea of the movement was maintained. The result is awkward, but elegant at the same time.

3. What goes into building one of your pieces? What’s your process?
I generally begin with a movement I am interested in using, although sometimes I begin with a part or a theme. My recent piece Radio, for example, began when I came up with a method for building a three-dimensional piston. I do a lot of sketches to get the idea worked out, and generally move to CAD software just to get dimensions and sometimes to draw parts for laser- or waterjet-cutting. Lately I have been doing a longer design phase and shorter construction period; often about two months or more of design and about a month or two of construction.

4. What’s the biggest challenge in making art that is kinetic?
Moving sculptures, especially one-of-a-kind pieces, require maintenance and often have delicate or “finicky” parts. This makes kinetic sculpture a challenge to move, set up, and market. Coupled with an art world that is simply not set up to handle moving work (exhibition prospectuses often allow only still images, for example), kinetic artists are largely on their own to find an audience.

5. What’s your favorite tool/material?
A six-inch rigid ruler. I love measuring things.

6. How has being a part of a collective like Applied Kinetic Arts helped you and/or informed your work?
It’s a great help to have a group of mechanical geniuses around me for technical problems and learning about new mechanisms, etc. Also, having solo exhibitions is a great deal of labor and requires a large body of work; showing with AKA makes this process much easier.


7. Is your art strictly a hobby or is it a business? Does it relate to your day job?
My art practice is a business, although I have a day job as a project manager for a small custom metalwork company. I oscillate between making work that is more marketable and work that I find interesting regardless of marketability. Wayward Calliope, for example, falls into the latter category.

8. What new idea (in or outside of your field) has excited you most recently?
It seems like every week a new solar cell or wind generator comes out. I am fascinated with the idea of creating electricity for semi-random movement in sculpture. I have not found the right project yet, but it will come.

9. What is your motto?
My studio is a “do-ocracy,” not a “stand-around-and-talk-ocracy.” (Thanks, Mitch, for the word “do-ocracy”!)

10. What advice do you have for people who want to get started in the kinetic arts?
If you are interested in mechanisms, get 507 Mechanical Movements. It’s the best little book of ideas for transforming and using motion I have found.

benjamin cowden gears.jpg

Thanks, Ben! For more of Cowden’s precision geared sculptures, check out his website,, and for more videos of his pieces in motion, check out his Vimeo page.

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

View more articles by Goli Mohammadi


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