AutomataCon Returned to the Morris Museum

Art & Sculpture Craft & Design
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Various automata sculptures by artist Jim Casey at AutomataCon 2018. Photo by Andrew Terranova.


This past May 18th to 20th, AutomataCon returned to the Morris Museum in Morristown New Jersey, drawing automata artists, historians and enthusiasts from around the globe, from Kalamazoo to South Korea.

If you are not familiar with the term, an automaton (the singular of automata) is a mechanical device, often imitating the movement of living people or animals. The history of automata goes back to ancient times, and stretches through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, and into modern times. Famous historic examples of automata include a mechanical duck created by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1737, and Henri Maillardet’s human automata, which could draw four different pictures and write poems in French and English. Maillardet’s automaton has been restored to working condition, and can be seen at the Franklin Institute.

AutomataCon may be the largest gathering of its kind. This is the second iteration of the event, which the organizer, Brett King, plans to run every 2 years. I had a chance to speak with Mr. King, and he shared some of his thoughts on the event.

AutomataCon 2018 was a great success. When we held the first convention in 2016, we were hoping to build a community of automata enthusiasts, which had only existed online to that point. For our second event in 2018, we saw many of the same people returning, from all over the world, so I’m really pleased in that regard. This event is the only place some of our attendees meet in-person, even though they may have worked together or known each other for many years.

The other great thing about the event is it brings together people with different perspectives on automata. We had historians and curators from a number of museums in Europe sharing their expertise with modern automata artists and collectors. Along with panels by restorers and horologists, I think the programming helped bridge the gap from 18th and 19th century historical automata to the modern maker. It encouraged modern makers to think about things like the artistic impact of their work as well as its longevity, which is always a challenge with kinetic art. -Brett King

Many artists had their works on display throughout the building. Cecilia Rod, a New York City based photographer, was in attendance, and captured short video interviews with several of them. Video copyright Cecilia Rod of CCR Pictures, all rights reserved. AutomataCon logos are copyright Brett King, used with permission.

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There was also an exhibit of modern kinetic art, A Cache of Kinetic Art: Curious Characters, which was put on by the Morris Museum. The exhibit was going on during the convention, and many of the artists were in attendance. Chris Fitch, whose kinetic sculpture Bird of Paradise is featured at the top of this article, took first place in this juried exhibition. Another artist, Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, had three pieces on display, including Floribots, shown in the video below, which was given the People’s Choice Award.

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The exhibit provided a great companion to the Morris Museum’s permanent collection of historical automata, the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Musical Instruments and Automata.

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This device, built by an unknown maker c. 1825-45, is a serinette. It is used to train caged birds to sing tunes. The device is part of the Morris Museum’s collection. Photo by Andrew Terranova.

For makers, there were panels on classical tools, methods, and materials, as well as modern tools like 3D printing and laser cutting. Some artists choose to work using the older methods; some use new methods, including robotics, and some use a mix. “Fundamentally, automata are about creating the illusion of life in sculpture; we just have more tools available now,” said Brett King.

The convention has been really effective in their use of automata to encourage interest in STEM/STEAM. Building an automaton requires a little bit of all of those skills. AutomataCon had a number of hands-on workshops where kids and adults built automata using cardboard, wire, paper, and other common materials.

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Young makers learn to create a simple automaton using common household materials. Photo by Andrew Terranova.

Brett King says they intend to hold the event every other year to make it easier for the people who have to travel great distances to get there. “The formula we’ve used for the first two events seems to be working pretty well for us, so we’ll continue to build on it in two years,” he says.

We’ve reached a lot of the people who are involved in automata professionally, but there are more out there that still don’t know about the event or haven’t been able to make it to an AutomataCon yet. So, we hope to continue to expand the tent with both professionals and newcomers alike. -Brett King

If you missed AutomataCon this year, you’ll just have to wait until 2020. However, the Morris Museum is running their modern kinetic art exhibit through June 20 2018, so you may still be able to catch that. Their permanent collection of mechanical musical instruments and automata is open year-round.

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Andrew Terranova is an electrical engineer, writer and author of How Things Are Made: From Automobiles to Zippers. Andrew is also an electronics and robotics enthusiast and has created and curated robotics exhibits for the Children's Museum of Somerset County, NJ and taught robotics classes for the Kaleidoscope Enrichment in Blairstown, NJ and for a public primary school. Andrew is always looking for ways to engage makers and educators.

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