Must we always have to be learning or doing or trying to resolve some kind of problem? Clearly no, but in the context of education, especially the type centered around Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as STEM, the lack of an active verb makes educators nervous. Without qualifiable results, it is hard to tell if progress is being made. The trouble is that human progress is a finicky thing often driven by our foibles, frailties, greed and mistakes. We insist on acting on things we can’t prove. We are motivated by irrational passions. We eat our sandwiches too close to the petri dishes and are too lazy to clean up the lab before we go on vacation. That is not realm of STEM, but the human nature that we express in our art. Human progress needs the A. The “A” is for Art. It is the missing ingredient that turns STEM into STEAM. Art is our inspiration and expression of who we are. Art is what separates us from machines.
In the new exhibit Mechanics Alive! at Explora, art is in the form of machines made by hand that express things human, not mechanical. It may seem a departure from the hands-on style of durable STEM exhibits often associated with Explora, but Director of Exhibits and Operations Shane Montoya is quick to explain that it is not. “Art has been part of Explora since the beginning,” he says. “It adds texture.”
The 13 pieces on display through early December come primarily from the London workshop of Paul Spooner’s Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. Spooner is part jokester and part 20th century craftsman. His small contraptions run on wooden gears and simple mechanisms that can be clearly seen and understood. There is an elegance to them, but these machines find more in common with the claymation of “Wallace and Gromit” than the dreams of da Vinci. In “The Miser’s Deathbed,” the manservant lifts the lid of his master’s bedside chest, presumably to pilfer, only to find himself caught in the act by the miser sitting straight up in bed looking at him as the lid is opened. In “Allegory of Love,” a man with a puzzled look continually attempts to hammer a bent nail only to miss every time. Not be overlooked in this season of heightened awareness of Anthropocene mass extinction, “The Last Dodo” shows six hungry sailors banging their cutlery on the table as the captain in dodo-feather adorned hat prepares to carve up the last dodo bird, presumably without knowing it’s rarity.
Mechanics Alive! offers a simpler view of machines that can be understood and enjoyed by all ages. Spooner says he strives to be funny to overcome his lack of mechanical prowess, but it is the lack of sophistication that makes these works so charming. Clever or funny, they are reminders of the art that lies in what imperfect machines we all are.