On the roof of a small row house in Brooklyn, a black powder fuse flared brightly against the gray sky. Hissing and sparking, it burned through a platform installed inside a repurposed Ikea bookshelf, sending four colored balls into action, lighting camp stoves, swinging fly swatters and knocking over books in a frenetic burst of organized chaos. In less than a minute, the final ball had dropped to the ground and was pocketed by Joseph Herscher, 26, the kinetic artist behind this real-world Rube Goldberg machine.
“That’s it for now,” Mr. Herscher, a slim, dark-haired New Zealand native, said. Highly energetic, he resembled one of his own devices as he ran around grabbing the other balls before they bounced into the construction site next door. The wind was picking up, and he wanted to get everything inside before the November storm hit. Since his workroom doubles as his kitchen, he also hoped to get things put away before his roommates returned with groceries. Mr. Herscher shares his small apartment/laboratory with two friends and a hamster named Chester, who is in training for a lead role in Mr. Herscher’s latest creation.
“I’m trying to make it as absurd and useless as possible,” Mr. Herscher said of the contraption, which will turn off the lights behind him when he leaves the room. It is the first in a series he calls Ecomachines, which will perform simple, energy-saving tasks in elaborately wasteful ways.
“You hear that it’s good to recycle everything,” Mr. Herscher said, “and then you hear it takes more energy to recycle paper than it does to cut it down. It’s really hard to know what the right thing to do is. This is a way to express my own frustrations.”
The project is also an attempt to inject larger meaning into a form he already loves. Four years ago, with no particular training in sculpture or mechanical engineering, Mr. Herscher built his first Rube Goldberg machine in the living room of the large house in Auckland, New Zealand, where he lived. Like his current projects, it was constructed mainly out of recycled materials and dollar-store finds, like Solo cups and paper-towel tubes. The result was a massively complex installation with an elementary school mad-genius aesthetic: balls rolled through tubes, bounced and dropped from one platform to another. A teakettle filled a plastic cup with water until it tripped a lever. Whirling sledgehammers slapped the balls forward until a final hammer swung down and smashed a Cadbury Creme Egg into a satisfying splat of chocolate ooze.
“I spent seven months on the thing,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t know why. I didn’t have a plan. In the back of my head, I was thinking it would be really cool when my friends came over.”
Indeed, his friends were amazed — as were the more than 2.3 million YouTube viewers who watched the resulting video, “Creme That Egg.” His landlords, however, were not. Two weeks after the machine was completed, Mr. Herscher and his roommates were evicted.
“We pulled it all down and left about 500 pinholes in the wall,” he said, laughing. But the video had already become popular. Soon Mr. Herscher was appearing on talk shows, leading workshops for children and designing machines for corporate functions. Much of that ended, however, when he moved to New York in 2009.
“I wanted to save some money for a change,” he said. He spent his first two years here working full time as a computer programmer (which he still continues part time today) while living in a crowded duplex apartment that sometimes boasted upward of 15 roommates. “My parents are musicians,” he said, “so I really avoided going down the path of the struggling artist. That’s my biggest fear in life.”
At first, he tried to create a machine that would peck out Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano piece “The Entertainer” in rudimentary percussion, but space constraints made it impossible. He continued leading occasional youth workshops around the world. During the 2011 Venice Biennale, he organized 40 children to create a Goldbergian plant-watering device in the shade of the Greenhouse at the Venice Giardini. He had been invited by the Italian arts organization Microclima, whose members had seen his work on YouTube. Mr. Herscher, however, had to find private investors to finance the event, which he did by appealing to the national pride of his fellow New Zealanders. While these workshops were fun, he said, he missed having the freedom to create things by himself and on his own time. So he decided to find an apartment that would let him build again. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t an easy search.
“Joseph had quite specific requirements,” said Mr. Herscher’s roommate Olivia Lynch, 25, a communications coordinator at the British Broadcasting Corporation who is an old friend from New Zealand. These included private roof access, ample common space and — perhaps most important — roommates who would put up with an inventor’s workbench next to the kitchen sink and the possibility of something out of the children’s game Mouse Trap taking over the living room.
After looking at more than 20 apartments, Mr. Herscher called Ms. Lynch at work to explain that he’d found the perfect place. There was just one small problem: two other people had already put down deposits, and if they didn’t sign the lease in the next 20 minutes, the apartment would be gone.
“I said, ‘Joseph, tell them we’ll pay six months in advance,’ ” Ms. Lynch recalled. “So he jumped on his bike and wrote a check for $17,000.” By June, they had moved in. After a few trips to Ikea (where most of Mr. Herscher’s supplies came from), he was back in the Rube Goldberg business. But one issue remains: what to do with the machines when they are finished. As of now, Mr. Herscher has no idea; he has no gallery representation and has never sold a machine.
“It’s going to be hard to find a place that will show them,” he said, looking down at a ceramic bowl that had shattered in two during a test of the fuses. His planned devices will incorporate things like hot irons, chemical reactions and live animals, and he worries they will be a difficult sell. But he’s not letting that stop him. “I hope that New York’s such a complicated place that there might be somewhere that’s interested.”