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YouTube sensation Joseph Herscher creates a contraption to help him get dressed

By Barbara Schreiber
Correspondent
CAJA
The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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  • See ‘The Dresser’

    Live performances run between 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday at McColl Center for Visual Art, 721 N. Tryon St. Timed entry tickets will be issued on a first-come first-served basis.

    Details: www.mccollcenter.org; 704-332-5535; www.josephherscher.com.


Joseph Herscher’s work is tough to categorize, but you might say it’s half R&D and half recess.

A self-taught kinetic artist, Herscher, of New York, uses everyday objects to make comical chain-reaction constructions.

His most ambitious project, “The Dresser,” will get the world premiere treatment Saturday at the McColl Center for Visual Art in Charlotte. This sprawling contraption-installation-live performance is a product of Herscher’s mathematical mind and his mischievous spirit.

Herscher’s work is inspired by Rube Goldberg machines. Goldberg (1882-1970) parodied mindless bureaucracy with his cartoons of elaborate devices that executed simple tasks such as swatting flies or putting stamps on envelopes.

“Machines usually accomplish a goal as efficiently as possible,” Herscher says. “But my machines are as inefficient as possible.”

Inefficient, but playful. And that playfulness resonates with a wide range of people, from art cognoscenti at the Venice Biennale to kids watching “Sesame Street.”

In an 80-step, five-minute sequence, it will rouse the artist from his bed and prepare him for his day, fully clothed and hat on head.

“He is a rising star combining the best of engineering, ingenuity and performance for a truly unique live experience,” says Brad Thomas, McColl’s residencies and exhibitions director.

Herscher, 28, was born in New York and grew up in New Zealand.

His parents are professional musicians; their Klezmer music often winds up in his videos. An only child, Herscher had a knack for entertaining himself; at age 5, he built the “The Lolly Machine,” a device that sent his candy down a chute and into a box.

He would be in his early 20s before he made another foray into the world of contraptions.

“I was working full time as a software developer,” says Herscher, who has a mathematics degree from Victoria University of Wellington. “But creative projects kept bubbling out of me. I couldn’t hold them in.”

In 2008, he was living in Auckland. One day, he and his roommates found some Japanese Rube Goldberg machines on YouTube and decided to make one in their living room.

The roommates lost interest, but for Herscher, the project rekindled a childhood passion. Seven months later, he completed “ Creme That Egg!,” a candy smasher that has garnered more than 2.6 million YouTube views.

Taking advantage of his dual citizenship, Herscher returned to New York in 2009. Living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and working part time, he made “ The Page Turner,” featuring Chester the hamster. (He will use animals in videos only, never in a live performance.)

His best-known work, “The Page Turner,” was featured in a Jan. 6, 2012, New York Times story and is closing in on 8 million YouTube views.

Herscher’s process is intense, engaging and a little harrowing. He makes preliminary sketches but works mostly by trial and error. He must account for mundane things like changes in room temperature or uneven spots on the floor.

He compares his careers in art and software development. “If you make software and you put one comma in the wrong place, it won’t work. Here, if one piece of tape is slightly too stiff or not sticky enough, the whole chain reaction is interrupted and stops.”

Herscher tests every step until it can be completed successfully 50 times in a row, then tests the entire machine 50 times.

“Every single point is critical. Crucial. Equally. At the same time.”

“Joseph Herscher is an extraordinary talent, not just in the world of kinetic art, but to humorists who satirize the human condition,” says Jennifer George, Rube Goldberg's granddaughter and legacy director of Rube Goldberg Inc.

“The last time I saw Joseph, he had a large gash on his forehead, the result of a chandelier mishap while attempting to doff his hat. (Such are the travails of professional Rube Goldberg Machine builders!)”

Herscher and George met after she read the Times story. “She called me when I was in New Zealand. Actually, I was getting on a roller coaster. Now we’re friends and have dinner together often.” She’ll be at McColl on Saturday.

Although Herscher is at McColl for only 10 weeks, he has been working on “The Dresser” for a year.

He built the bed frame in his tiny Brooklyn apartment and brought most of the other props and materials with him to Charlotte. It was his first opportunity to lay everything out.

Step by step

In early October, he demonstrated part of “The Dresser” for a few onlookers. A phantasmagoria of stuff, it includes books flying off shelves and a chandelier swinging across the room.

It begins with Herscher in bed, awakened by an alarm clock that he drops into a glass of water.

At one point, a metal pipe clatters down the headboard; this demonstration was the first time Herscher tested it while lying in the bed.

“This wakes me up properly,” he said, a look of amusement and apprehension on his face. “It’s really scary, actually.”

The residency has been an extraordinary opportunity for both Herscher and McColl. The center has never before hosted an artist like him, and he has never had so much space and so many people supporting him.

Herscher first heard from McColl after the Times article but wasn’t available. But then he took a leap of faith and quit his job. “I was working on some projects and thought, ‘My God, there are so many distractions around here, and I have no space.’

“And suddenly, ding! I remembered I had an offer here. So I rang them back and asked if I could still have the space.”

Playing with the world

McColl is providing him the opportunity to stretch his live performances in scale and complexity at an important juncture in his career.

“Joseph’s residency ... is serving as a powerful connector with a varied audience,” says McColl President Suzanne Fetscher. “By mixing science, engineering, humor and live performance, ‘The Dresser’ is not only relatable but demonstrates how contemporary art continues to evolve and challenge our perceptions of what it is, what it can do and why it’s relevant.”

Herscher gets a lot of ideas simply from observing the world around him, whether it’s the way a knocked-over ketchup bottle rolls across a supermarket floor or a dropped toothpaste tube careens across a sink and lands in a tub.

“I intentionally use familiar objects, but in unfamiliar ways. I want people to see things that they take for granted in a new light ... to see the potential for play, fun and magic in these things.”

So does Herscher consider the world a lab? “No,” he replies. “The world is a playground.”

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.

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