Stephen Guy has been collaborating with Cabaret Mechanical Theatre for many years, starting in Covent Garden in the early 1990s. If you’ve been to one of our exhibitions in the UK or worldwide you will have certainly enjoyed some of his playful machines.
Steve is also keen to share his love of all things moving with children and adults, beginners and experienced makers. He regularly contributes to our online Automata Tinkering Global Workshop and we’re hosting a new in-person weekend workshop with Steve this May, in Hastings called Fabricating Motion Automata Workshop. He also designed our Cardboard Automata Kit, a product he’s been using with schools and museum groups all over the world since 2009.
Steve tells us more about his approach to creating his assemblages and sharing the engineering possibilities behind the mechanisms.
What did you do when you were working at Cabaret Mechanical Theatre when it was at Covent Garden?
Well, let me first say how memorable it was turning up at Cabaret to be interviewed by the legendary Sue Jackson, the founder and inspiration behind Cabaret, who I’d not met before, for the job of Maintenance Man for two days a week back in the early 1990s. It was quite an experience.
Sue needed someone to fix malfunctioning automata and I turned up one day for an interview. I can’t remember if there was a trial period, but Sue and I got on very well which was an important factor and I passed the test of repairing a faulty machine as she watched over me. It was quite thrilling and daunting to be allowed to take off the cover of an exhibit and dive in with tools to repair it. And then began a happy three or four years as Maintenance Man at Cabaret for two days a week, and getting to know all the automata-makers who had machines installed there.
Then for reasons I can’t really remember, I shifted to doing a variety of jobs from working behind the till to being the education person. One of the really atmospheric aspects of Cabaret were the school groups. Suddenly the place would get really crowded with lots and lots of school kids with pencils and notepads and they’d all be drawing and laughing.
We weren’t doing workshops at that time, it was school visits, loads of them. There was a diary just for schools, hand written; you’d pick up the phone and book schools in and later they’d turn up. Funny thing now is that when I do adult workshops I’ve bumped into those very teachers who used to bring the kids in. They’re often art or D&T teachers who have just retired and are doing automata-making classes for themselves.
You gather and integrate a lot of toys and unusual junk into your work, have you always done this?
Looking back, I think I have always done that, ever since childhood. I can remember assembling items, paper, cardboard packing and arranging them on my bedroom wall as a child and teenager. I was an avid jumble sale scavenger looking for interesting stuff, the first in the queue outside the scout huts and church halls where jumble sales were held. So when it came to making automata of various sorts after getting involved with Cabaret, the assemblage and junk style came naturally, the two converged.
Today, it’s a continuous thing, I kind of live with automata in the sense of always being on the look out for interesting bits and pieces – especially old toys – I might be able to use, for myself and for my workshops. I store the gear I find in pretty well organised categories in my studio. One category I’ve labelled as Multiples; if I find a packet of identical items that’s where they go. Having loads of identical objects makes it easy to fill up the junk box for workshops as I’m not depriving myself of anything unique I could use! I also like the idea of a number of identical objects moving in a pattern.
The Ensemble workshop is extremely popular as part of exhibitions for all ages and abilities. Is this intentional? Where do you find all the toys, how do you choose parts?
In terms of finding parts, there are two angles: one is to find an object interesting, interesting not just for its own sake but which could combine creatively with another object in a striking way. Say a doll’s head with toy lizard body.
The other angle is a practical one, the object needs to be easily added on to the Ensemble. It can’t be too big or too heavy, and it’s got to be something that can have a hole drilled through it so it can just be slipped or pushed on to a supporting dowel. The thing about the Ensemble is that it can be assembled without having to use any kind of tools or glues, well, apart from the odd screwdriver used to connect the machines together. It also has to be easily dis-assembled. I’m always on duty looking for stuff for the Ensemble and have a dedicated storage category box for it, where I can just chuck in bits I find from the latest charity shop visit.
I suppose the Ensemble does reflect my own taste, it is a personal artistic workshop, but at the same time it enables individual creativity as participants assemble very different personal sculptures from the bits in the junk box.
I’m forgetting to say that another side of the Ensemble is the ability to make noise, nice tinny rhythmic impact sounds using metal objects. They need to be light and the best are circular symbol type things, which are much rarer, harder to find, so if I see any in a charity shop I’m especially pleased. You might think that bells could work well, but bells moving up and down on their own don’t make much noise, something needs to be hit, it’s an impact percussion reaction that’s needed. I think sound is something that can really be explored with automata, it’s often forgotten.
The Ensemble was first given a trial run in 2009, when I was working at Rose Bruford College. They were doing a promotional event for the college at the London Coliseum, and asked if I could run some kind of theatrical(ish) workshop. That’s when I came up with the Ensemble idea and it was only about 12 pieces long. I remember it was such a good evening, people really liked it and I realised I was onto something. Then in 2010 a much longer version went to the Granada Science Centre as part of a big CMT and Sharmanka exhibition there, where it played out nicely as a visitor workshop. Since then there have incremental improvements, more versions, but fundamentally it’s the same as the original. It’s the best thing I’ve done.
The Ensemble Workshop at the Museum of Making, Derby, 2022
The Cardboard Automata Kit is a great introduction to making cams work. You use this with large groups, can you tell us how this works out?
The box really evolved for purely practical reasons which was the challenge to come up with a kit where people could get a fairly robust machine made and working in a short space of time, a couple of hours, in a workshop situation. Glue takes too long to dry, so the design had to be a mostly glue free push-fit assembly, which also allows people to shift around the mechanical parts and experiment with them. The components needed to be easily available and cheap, and they have to match each other in terms of sizes. Those parts that couldn’t be found ready-made I had to make myself. The demands of mass-production are quite different from making one-off pieces.
The secret of its success is precisely that within a short space of time you can make a working automata driven by a cam or drive. I use them a lot in schools, I can just go in and within a two hour slot the children can learn a lot about the science, about the engineering aspects, and then move on to what we might call the artistic side, the creation of designs and stories for the moving parts.
I find schools can have different priorities, some schools may prefer me to spend the two hours just focusing on the machines and mechanisms, and then they do the art side in their own time. For other schools it’s more important for them to have a nice finished automata at the end of the two hours that children can take home afterwards. Some schools integrate the workshop into the teaching of another subject, say if they are studying Shakespeare, they can design Shakespearean characters and scenes that move.
You have designed the Fabricating Motion Automata Workshop for more experienced makers. What will participants make if they take part in this workshop?
I wouldn’t quite say that. The workshop is designed to accommodate the wide range of skills and abilities that automata-making classes attract, including the more experienced makers.
In the workshop I’m going to use what we call the Wood & Metal kit (it still awaits a more imaginative name) to get everyone started, regardless of their skill level. For those with little – or no – experience or skill, it provides a really good springboard to get them started, because like the box kit, you can get a mechanism working and it’s relatively easy to experiment and play around with it.
Some people are then happy with that working mechanism and will spend the rest of the workshop playfully experimenting with getting things to move, seeing how different materials work in motion, occasionally how to make a noise.
Often in workshops are artists in other disciplines who want to experiment automating their practice and the kind of materials they use. Anybody from jewellers to paper engineers, from textiles to ceramics. It’s not always successful though, as a ceramicist found when the body parts she’d brought along to animate were too heavy, and had to be re-cut in much lighter mdf. Such is the learning process.
What the Wood & Metal kit also enables, is for more experienced people or those more interested in mechanisms, to hack the kit around and build in more movements, to re-configure it. So the basic idea of the kit is to try and accommodate a wide variety of backgrounds and objectives.
I’m never going to get an automata workshop with people coming with similar abilities and expectations, that just isn’t going to happen. There’s a good reason for that, which is to say that my workshops allow people to build automata however they want, it’s completely open-ended, they can go in any direction. I try to cater for people who may want to work in wood, they may want to make junk-based ones, they may have their own carved heads or bodies or something that they want to use. They may bring in a half-made one and need help to finish it. I’m putting the emphasis on explaining how mechanisms work and different techniques for making them.
Also, my modus operandi is to let the mechanisms generate the creativity. I try to encourage people to look at the mechanisms and to enjoy the mechanism for its own qualities and see where that can take you creatively. You don’t need to make a complex machine. I find I’m personally not so interested in telling a story as most automata-makers are, but am more interested in the potential of the mechanism, the complexity of it and its relationship with objects. For me it’s more about composition and the juxtaposition of different objects, assembly and reassembly and to see what happens.
I’ll be bringing along a good range of stuff for the Hastings workshop, that’s both construction materials and junk. As I’m always on duty when I go into a charity shop, I’m now thinking ‘Hastings coming up, lets see what bits and pieces I can find’. Having said that, I also very much encourage people to bring their own stuff as well, which they usually do.
Most people will go home after the workshop with a completed piece, but it’s not guaranteed, some people will go home with a piece that doesn’t quite work, that’s not quite finished. In fact there’s a sort of funny flip side to this, which is that people have turned up at my workshop with an unfinished or faulty piece from somebody else’s workshop, to continue working on it with some help from me.
You have been part of the Automata Tinkering Global workshop since 2020, were you surprised that making automata via zoom would work? Have you enjoyed the online workshops?
For all of us the Covid experience was a big eye opener. It had never really occurred to me to do a workshop on Zoom, why on earth would you want to do it? But its turned out they can work well and are popular. The other big revelation for me arising from Covid was that you can cut your own hair; I’ve not been to a hairdresser since they all had to close for Lockdown.
Zoom workshops come with the obvious disadvantage they’re not in person, so you slightly lose the friendly group dynamic that always happens with an in-person workshop, and it’s not possible to distribute the variety of materials to participants that you would have in an in-person workshop. But there are advantages, not least that with a camera you can show something right up close so everyone gets a bird’s eye view of what you’re trying to demonstrate.
Another obvious advantage with Zoom is that you can click into a global audience, which is great for numbers and adds interest with such a worldwide range of people attending. The Cabaret Zoom workshops have shown that a friendly chatty atmosphere between the various participants does develop. That was a surprise. I’m a big fan now of Cabaret Zoom workshops and keen to continue with them.
Thinking about it, there’s another benefit from the Zoom workshops which is that I can bring people into my studio and share the atmosphere of my working environment, see the kind of automata I like to make, see those boxes full of categorised old toys. It works the other way round too, I can have a nose into participants’ screen backgrounds; I’m fascinated to see their workshops, studios and kitchen tables, tools and artworks. It gives you an insight into peoples’ backgrounds you wouldn’t otherwise get with a real in-person workshop.
Interview by Lisa Finch. CMT Development Director
Find out more
The next workshops with Stephen Guy are in May. Go to our events page to book a spot.