Inside Flux Factory’s “Rube Goldberg” Machine

April 30, 2014 | Rhett Jones

“I sort of avoid the A-word. I’ve come to the decision that having fun can be a political act. I actually consider what I do as more in the vein of comedy. No one has to justify jokes,” Jason Eppink tells ANIMAL, seated in the kitchen of the Queens art collective the Flux Factory, avoiding the word “art” at all costs.

For 25 years, Flux Factory has operated as a non-profit studio space for NYC artists and ANIMAL stopped by to see an elaborate Rube Goldberg-style machine that Eppink conceived and built with the other residents of Flux. Titled Exquisite Contraption, it runs through the entire main space, encompassing three rooms and two staircases, turning the old building into a life-size game of Mouse Trap. If you ever played Mouse Trap as a kid, you know it also doesn’t always work perfectly.

“It’s an engineering spectacle, but it’s also about trying to create a community ritual,” Eppink explains. The resident artists have a meeting every week, but their tradition of taking a family photo after the meeting had fallen to the wayside. “So we decided to make this machine which actually does something useful, I.E. take this family photo.”

Every Monday they set up the machine and run through the house as various levers move, balls run down ramps, and buckets on strings are lowered. It all culminates with a camera automatically going off and taking a photo of the gathered residents. It’s very impractical.

“It’s about the people who come see it and about capturing their photo. That’s very in line with many of my projects which are about giving it away, and inviting people to be a part of it.” All the talk of community, the love for the analog of Polaroids and giving away work and experience might give you the impression that Eppink is a hippy-dippy technophobe, but his work is most often rooted in digital issues.

He’s the Assistant Curator of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image where he’s curated an indie video game exhibit last year. Since 2005, many of his projects related to our digital world with a focus on sharing or community. Eppnik’s @freeNYTimes, a Twitter account that posts every article from the NYTimes website, takes advantage of a loophole in the Times firewall allowing anyone free access when linking from social media. Kickbackstarter was a Kickstarter project that raised money just to fund other friends Kickstarter projects. The issues of sharing and building organizations using the web are key to his practice.

Eppink credits Clay Shirkey’s book Here Comes Everybody as changing his view of groups and communication. Written in 2007, the book highlighted the ways social media is making organization cheaper and easier: “A social tool is only as good as the job it is meant for, and it must be a tool that the user actually wants to use.”

In his own way, Eppink has taken the book’s view on social tools into the real world with Exquisite Contraption and starting the meeting with the most elaborate way anyone ever took a group photo.

The word “community” is often deceptively positive. It carries an assumption of togetherness and good will, but communities are tough work and require maintenance. For Eppink the ramshackle nature of the machine is fitting. The first unveiling of Exquisite Contraption had some technical difficulties (it still does), but they had a relaunch party recently that they titled, “It’s Totally Working Now.”

“What was really fun at that party is every time we ran it, we would say ‘everyone who’s seen it can tell you, it worked perfectly last time,’ and everyone who’d seen it would say, ‘YEAH!! Wooo-Hoo!’ It was a narrative people were excited to be complicit in. When it failed, there were ‘AWWW!!!’s,’ then someone would nudge it, and there were more ‘YAY!!!’s” Eppink strives for participatory nature. “I’m not interested in making a thing, and there’s the thing, now look at it. I want to invite people to respond to it.”

As we ran through Flux, chasing the machine with cameras, lights began to illuminate, toy cars zoomed, balls were rolling, we climbed the set of stairs to the kitchen and just before the camera bulb flashed… Here Comes Everybody.

 (Video: Aymann Ismail/ANIMALNewYork)