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Inventor’s kinetic sculptures combine art, technology

When he was a young boy, Ryan Buyssens chopped up his toys. “Then I would do something unusual,” he said.

“I would take them apart and figure out how things work, and put them together in weird ways and have them do something different. I’ve always made machines.”

Until August, Buyssens was the director of the Digital Fabrication and Prototyping Lab at UNC Charlotte. He describes himself as “this weird hybrid inventor-artist-science guy” who’s always pushing new boundaries with his kinetic art creations.

Kinetic sculpture – any art that operates on perceived or actual motion – dates to the late 1800s and was established as a major art movement in the 1950s. But Buyssens, now assistant professor of art at the University of Central Florida, says this field entails many scientific principles and even some philosophy. He’s intrigued not only by the pieces’ motion and mechanics but what they can say to us about time and space.

When many think of kinetic art, they think of three-dimensional hanging mobiles such as those that hover above an infant’s crib. Buyssens’ creations aim higher.

Science inspirations

His works, which often take months or years to complete, advance the 19th-century concept of zoetropes. These “living wheels” featured animated drawings inside that could be viewed through small openings. When the wheel was spun, it made the drawings “move” – a kind of forerunner to motion pictures.

Rather than moving images, Buyssens uses moving objects. His art incorporates a system of materials, kinematics (mechanics involving the motion of objects), electronics and graphics. Not exactly the stuff of easels and color palettes.

“I typically find myself more inspired by the pursuits of scientists, Sir Isaac Newton to Richard Dawkins, and inventors such as Thomas Edison and Charles Babbage than with artists,” said Buyssens, whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally.

“My process of art-making is very much a scientific exploration. A project begins with a question: Can I mechanically simulate the kinematics of a bird’s wings (as he does in his latest creation, “Resistance”), or can I create animation of 3D objects without strobe? Plenty of research is performed and prototypes are created to act as the hypothetical proofs. The pieces either work or they don’t. I either keep pursuing or move on.”

In “Resistance,” three mechanical birds mounted to a wall respond to viewers’ movements with different intensities of flapping their wings. The work, crafted from 3D-printed, CNC-machined and laser-cut parts, consists of anodized aluminum, aircraft plywood, laser-sintered polyamide, carbon-fiber, an electric motor and a sensor. The piece was recently on display at the Projective Eye Gallery at UNC Charlotte Center City; it was made possible by a $10,000 grant Buyssens received as the winner of the 2012-13 N.C. Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award.

His kinetic art operates in different ways. Some exhibits are electronic, some with a spring motor, some 3D-printed, some hand-cranked. He says “Resistance” is his favorite because “the motor can pop off or be hand-cranked.”

“It has a really complex 3D-printed gearing system I designed that when it spins, it connects to the wheel. It spins constantly but makes the wheel move in an intermittent way. Now that I’ve designed this, I realize through other research that I’ve done the same design that other people have made for mass-production moving of conveyor belts.”

‘How things fit and work together’

Asked whether a science background is necessary to conceive and create such simple complexities, Buyssens pauses. “It always helps, but I don’t know how much hard science is necessary for this. You do have to have kind of a scientific, explorative mind. You do have to understand the scientific methods – one thing leads to another, figuring things out.”

His creations don’t require complex calculations: “Everything I’ve designed is very empirical. It makes sense on that very simple level because it has to. I don’t figure this stuff out with hard math. There may be math going on in my head and hands at the time, but I figure it out through understanding how things fit and work together.”

Computer expertise isn’t mandatory, either, though it can facilitate production dramatically. “Some of my first designs, I was cutting out gears by hand. I learned how to draw a gear by hand and then print it out by hand. This used to take hours, but now it takes minutes of production work.

“The things that I do with a computer and with 3D printing, I can’t say they can’t be done by the human hand. They probably can – but not by my hand,” he said with a laugh.

A medium’s message

These new technologies have helped further Buyssens’ emphasis on a persistent theme: time.

“My first stumbling onto this, I didn’t have tools or technology to make mechanical parts but I knew a little bit about programming, controllers,” he said. “I had these robotic motors called Zephyr motors, so I made one electronic – but I wanted it to be able to be timeless and operate on a level where 100 years ago or 100 years from now it would still be pertinent. I wanted it to be entirely mechanical, entirely hand-crankable but still be highly contemporary.”

That’s how he “kind of fell into” using 3D printing and technologies that allow him to make complex, high-tech parts but also make a simplified device that didn’t need electricity.

“My newer ones are becoming more abstract the way the forms move within each other is kind of like this life-cycle motion. So hopefully, anybody who looks at it will see not just the beauty of the movement but will try to make connections with the world around them and understand how interconnected everything is.”

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