The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is a wonderful institution filled with interesting, creative work. It is—truly—a significant part of why I chose to move to Pittsburgh in 2014. The Museum sponsors an annual exhibit creation program called Tough Art, where artists from outside the institution are invited to submit proposals for pieces they’d like to build and install.

Last night was the 2016 Tough Art Opening party, and I got to see the new pieces and speak with one of the artists at length. There were four new pieces, of which two were interactively engaging. (Of the other two, one was a static ceramics project and the other was a non-interactive looping video.)

Worth noting that the name Tough Art refers to the fact that the work produced needs to meet a high standard of being physically tough to exist without being destroyed out on the museum floor. Kids can be a surprisingly aggressive audience for artworks!

Here is my brief critique of the two interactive pieces:

“Bubble Device #4” by Nicholas Hanna

This piece is a machine which soaks and then draws open a pair of strings to blow very large bubbles towards the visitors about twice per minute. Nicholas was at the opening and was kind enough to show me the backend operation of the machine, including the computerized control system. Technically, the system is pretty straightfoward: there’s a Processing sketch sending serial data to an Arduino to drive the motion of two stepper motors. A large industrial fan placed behind the bubble blowing plane is running at a moderate speed (reduced using an electronic control panel). Add in a few calibration procedures that can be used for changing the height to which the string is drawn, setting the zero points, etc., and this is the totality of the system.

Bubble Device #5 by Nicholas Hanna installation image from Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh YouTube video still

For my money, the beauty of the installation is its carefully executed, spare aesthetic and the simple, uncomplicated way it works. A string driven by one motor raises and lowers the whole soaked bubble-ready loop, and another string pulled by a stepper pulls the two loop open so that the bubble film forms between them. The motion is clean and simple, symmetrical, and easy to understand for a viewer. I think it’s a good piece and unsurprisingly the huge bubbles delight children of all ages.

I found myself trying to learn how to blow a small bubble into one of the larger ones; the well-timed sharp poof of air directed into the outer skin seemed to do the trick sometimes. This invented challenge is exactly the sort of open-ended possibility that a beautiful and unconstrained natural process frees a visitor to play with.

“To Conjugate” by Anne Lily

This is an interesting purely mechanical piece comprising two very large antique fire carriage wheels on their own stands, each attached through a steel rod to a rectangular hub with two tractor-style metal seats on top. The seats are attached to each other through a sort of seesaw. Sitting on one seat begins to drive a simple gear system which puts a torque on the shafts to the large wheels, starting them turning slowly. The wheels have maybe a five foot diameter and are made of steel, so they have a lot of angular momentum. As the wheels turn oppositely to each other, the seats slowly rise and fall in counterpoise.

To Conjugate installation by Anne Lily installation image from arts.mit.edu

It’s a fairly well-made system: the gearbox is very tough, rigid, and well-anchored. However, in the exhibit hall by myself, and wanting to see how fast I could get the wheels going, I started to pull down on the opposite seat while pushing myself down into the one I was sitting in. The wheels sped up as I did this until at one point, one of the wheels started to vibrate its stand out of place, occasionally hitting some of the spokes of the other and making a really unpleasant noise in the process. I got worried and did my best to slow the wheels down without breaking anything and once they had stopped, moved the wheel’s base back to where it was supposed to be. I found out that the wheels were not anchored, and that other than the basic mechanical aspects of the device that provided a small amount of running friction, there were not any speed governors on the system. The art is very tough but apparently not so tough that this committed visitor couldn’t upset the balance! (I don’t know if my own strength and will to get the things spinning is more than a future teenage visitor may be, but I hope so.)

I think that “To Conjugate” is a good piece overall, loaded with some interesting metaphorical meaning about motion and a sort of very primal mechanical connection with history, but also its fragility at high speed worried me a bit that it may get damaged by a visitor or pair of visitors who are motivated to really get the thing going.