“It’s one thing to maim myself,” says Joseph Herscher. “But maiming someone else? I’m not sure I could live with that. At least I’d have it on tape, but it’d still suck to be killed by one of my machines.”
Herscher, 36, is a chain reaction artist who works out of his bedroom in a Brooklyn flatshare. He builds elaborate contraptions using everyday items in the style of Rube Goldberg, the madcap American cartoonist and inventor.
An initial trigger – a lever being pulled or a marble released – sets off a sequence of unlikely connections climaxing in a daft goal: a stamp being licked, say, or a sandwich hurtling into his mouth. They are breathtakingly ingenious and often very funny.
The Busby Berkeley-ish carrots in Pass the Salt are the most purely glorious thing I watched last year. My young son can’t get enough of Power Tool Dinner Party. But we are not his only fans. The Lunch Feeder (asparagus archery, hotdog swing) has 100m views on YouTube.
Herscher’s latest is a Morning Routine Machine to get you Zoom-ready in 30 seconds. An alarm clock triggers a flannel to be dunked then dragged across your face as you lie in bed. A ladle catapults moisturiser and an automatic mop rubs it in. Makeup is then applied by a huge, pre-painted sponge, strapped to a toy fire engine, which slams down a slope into the skin.
In the video, released last week, it’s introduced by Herscher, then tested by his friend Giselle. She looks worried. She was, he confirms. “She did basically have to push her face into a high-speed drill, which kept malfunctioning. And the car is very efficient, but it is a bit scary because it comes tumbling down at quite the speed. It took a while for her to feel comfortable with the shock.”
No, he says, he doesn’t have insurance. “If this was a TV show, you’d have checks. A stunt coordinator. But I’m just a one-man band. So I have to really have faith in what I’m building.”
Generally, Herscher himself is the man in the machine, forever deadpan as grapes and spatulas dance about him, like some insane yet strangely mundane Disney song-and-dance number. It’s easy to look relaxed if you know the mechanics, he says.
The knives wielded by a spinning chandelier in The Hair Cutter are actually plastic. In The Cake Server (which co-opts a baby, smashes a laptop and is a good place to start), a hidden mirror stops him being decapitated by a wooden cartwheel and tiny bells are attached to the flying flowerpots.
Early prototypes of the Morning Routine Machine involved Nerf guns loaded with foundation and 10 fire bellows shooting makeup at close range. Both were scrapped. “I do have some moral responsibility. A lot of kids watch.”
Herscher grew up in New Zealand, the son of musicians whose larky klezmer music – Franco-Jewish Gypsy music, big on accordions and handclaps – now soundtracks his videos. His mother chucked old junk in a box; he turned it into table football and a hands-free page turner. At university, he studied engineering, then worked as a computer programmer in Auckland.
Inspired by a Japanese TV show called Pythagora Switch, he and his housemates began to make their own chain-reaction machine. The others quit but Herscher plugged on for six months in his spare time, eventually filling a lounge with tubes, marbles, dominoes, kettles and – something of a signature trick – tea-lights that burn through twine, triggering a hammer.
It took Herscher three days to get one full, two-minute take, which ends with the smashing of a Creme Egg. He wept with relief, posted it online and vowed never to put himself under such stress again.
But the video went viral, brand commissions flooded in and Herscher quit his job. Twelve years on and he’s one of a very small handful of full-time chain reaction artists in the world. He funds his work through a mix of client commissions, live events, contributions on crowdfunding platform Patreon and the tiny ad-revenue shares YouTube pays content creators.
That’s how he knows 60% of his audience are male, predominantly from south east Asia and the US, that 90% of his work comes via the YouTube algorithm: ie suggested next videos, rather than organic searches. This is important because his income is dependent on views.
“The internet can be harsh. When a video doesn’t do as well as you hoped a few times in a row it’s like being slapped in the face over and over. Everything you do is immediately judged and quantified. And the system changes all the time.”
A couple of years ago he made a short series back in New Zealand called What’s Your Problem? in which he builds machines to help some characterful schoolchildren variously catch Santa, automatically feed a cat and prank a bully with an exploding lunchbox. Future episodes are not financially viable, after YouTube’s introduction of curbs on data tracking and ads during content aimed at children.
“Often quite arbitrary aspects of it all twist the way you think about the art you want to make. The single most important choice I make is what to put in the thumbnail [the small photo that runs in a YouTube trail]. If there’s not going to be a good image I have to seriously question whether I should make the machine.” Anything showing food heading towards an open mouth tends to be a winner.
Of all the jobs affected by coronavirus, Herscher’s is unusually insulated. He always works from home. Improvising with whatever was in the cupboard was bracing: “Constraint is often what creates innovation.” Amazon helped, too, he admits. Even pre-pandemic, “I’m never going to find 10 fire bellows in the middle of Bushwick”.
And Covid means audiences are perhaps more primed for his work. Cause and effect is suddenly on everyone’s mind. Early reports about the spread of the disease often invoked chain reactions to illustrate how patient zero can infect millions. Interest in this kind of kinetic art has accelerated dramatically over the past year. Fresh examples pop up online every day as amateurs stuck at home fiddle about in their kitchens.
Meanwhile, lockdown may mean we’re also more receptive to the main metaphysical joke: that the puff and palaver completely outweigh any benefits. Right back to the British artist William Heath Robinson, through to Wallace and Gromit, these machines are anti-automaton manifestos in the guise of efficient gizmos. Testament to the sort of resourcefulness we are now having to relearn – even to relish.
And they also seem particularly irresistible at a time of instability. “I think their appeal lies in seeing objects we never really thought had anything to do with one another come together in some kind of unexpected and perfect way,” says Herscher. “It imposes a sense of order on the chaos of the universe. It’s calming because the world is so seemingly confusing and random.”
In fact, his machines can appear to reveal order as much as impose it. Watching the contents of his cupboard miraculously collaborate taps into what Herscher calls a “primal human desire” to read a narrative into the seemingly unlinked. Patterns emerge as if by magic – hiding in plain sight, right there in your fruit bowl.
Increasingly, says Herscher, he’s found the best results come when the objects dictate the design. In The Sandwich Maker, for instance – a recent invention with a superb vote-posting moment – an electric whisk madly scuttles along a board before hitching itself into position to jiggle a bowl of popcorn, from which emerges a ball that tips down a slope. Trying to predict the path the whisk would take was a non-starter. “I just gave in to the beater.”
The other night he spent 15 minutes trying to get a bar of soap to fly in a predictable arc from the basin into the bath. “Everything has kinetic potential. If I drop something and it falls in an interesting way, then I’ll try to repeat it. If it’s consistent, I’ll file that away at my library.”
The process of creation sounds 99% resignation to being a cog, and 1% thrill you might be a god. “I rarely get a take without 100 failures. It’s very dejecting. But when it works, it’s empowering and exhilarating. For that one moment, everything in the universe just hangs together perfectly.”
What for me most distinguishes Herscher’s work is its humour. He studies mime, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Tati and Mr Bean, in the belief that machines that operate in a vacuum, without human interaction, just aren’t as interesting – or as funny.
“I’m designing an experience for a viewer. I’m thinking a lot about what they know at any given point, what will surprise them. I want to make the experience of watching them fun and delightful and not stressful and confusing.”
Herscher’s storytelling control, his expertise with rhythm, tension and pace, means his little videos bear comparison to some of the best scripted films. There are even red herrings. In Pass the Pepper, he trialled a revolutionary new element: the faux accident.
Three times, the machine appears to malfunction. A maze of tomato puree boxes collapses – yet the marble continues to its correct destination. Something awful happens to a MacBook Pro; or does it? A table flips after an overambitious dumbbells trick. It’s a mess! But what lies beneath?
It is impossible to watch these rug-pulls without grinning. “I thought that it would be amazing to have people all round the world laughing at a video of a billiard ball – such a banal little object! It just shows the potential for magic and delight and play in the most boring things around us.”
Herscher isn’t sure how he’ll next push the envelope, only that he must, to keep things interesting for himself, and for YouTube’s all-important algorithm. There are plans for the world’s smallest chain-reaction machine. For one on which you can mount a camera. For one entirely underwater.
He also wants to move out of New York, to a country with sufficient space for his studio not to be wedged between his bed and the door. “I now get really nervous if I have to get up to pee in the middle of the night and navigate all the machinery. That’s not really sustainable.”
Back to New Zealand, presumably? “It’s really isolated from the rest of the world, which is great during a pandemic, but it’s too small. It doesn’t seem like you’re living in the centre of the world, it feels like you’re watching them on TV.”
Instead, he’s thinking of London, probably Peckham, because it has a lot of pound shops and “a big B&Q”. I wonder if he’ll bring the Morning Routine Machine with him. My sense from the video was that Giselle might not be desperate to take it home.
He leaps to the machine’s defence. “It’s the only one out there! And it does legitimately work! Better than I thought it would.” He pauses. “I mean – she doesn’t look great. There were some issues around the lips. But from a distance, she looked beautiful.”
Band of three: the two other full-time chain-reaction artists
Steve Price, 26, San Diego
Herscher’s collaborator on Pass the Salt, Price is best known for The Lemonade Machine and Pool Party: epic, jaw-dropping Airbnb takeovers constructed over a week with half a dozen like-minded builders.
The former involved 117 moving elements and 86 takes over nine hours. The latter had 268 fails, as evidenced by the long shadows in the final version.
As with Herscher, Price became keen on the medium as a child, growing up in the rural midwest. “It’s pretty cold for six months out of the year. So I was inside a lot. I looked at the different toys and objects I had and wanted to combine them to make something cooler than you could make with just one of the toy sets alone.”
He works by instinct as much as planning – “it’s just faster to try things than to calculate” – and believes the key is to “eliminate as many variables as possible so that the object has no choice” but to head in the direction you want.
Price’s designs are staggering in their use of knives, jars of honey, printers, soft-close loo seats, mouse traps, roller skates and even bras. But he retains the most excitement, he says, for the humble mug: “It can roll, but there’s also the handles and the insides for hiding things.”
Lily Hevesh, 22, Boston
Hevesh’s primary medium is dominos: enormous, ingenious and frequently 3D topplings. She’s broken records, launched her own toy set and later this year will be involved in a new domino competition show on US TV.
She frequently works with Price and teamed up with Herscher for an instructional video showing you how to make a cereal pourer. The two men’s work is critically different from her own, she says, not only because they can endlessly reset their machines, which isn’t feasible with 250,000 dominos.
“People just love seeing things get destroyed. But not in a super chaotic way. It’s a controlled environment.” She’s particularly interested in how dominos could be employed in autism centres. “Something about the repetition seems to help people on the spectrum.”
In the early days of the pandemic, James Corden used one of her displays as an explanation of the R-rate; Hevesh feels that the planning involved in her work has given her a considerable head start on such comprehension.
“I’m always thinking: what will happen if I do this? What are the consequences? Sometimes I feel like I live in the future rather than the present.
“I’m a very patient person. I understand that if you have a really big goal it’s going to take time and it should take time. And if you do get it within a day, you should question that.”