No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” — Aaron Taylor Kuffner

  • Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s Gamelatron is a fully robotic gamelan orchestra featuring traditional bronze-forged instruments that he has retrofitted with mechanical mallets.

    AARON TAYLOR KUFFNER: My name is Aaron Taylor Kuffner. I make sonic kinetic sculptures. Over the last decade, I’ve been working on a project called “The Gamelatron.” “The Gamelatron” is the world’s first fully robotic Indonesian gamelan orchestra, but I think of them more as these immersive sculpture and sound experiences.

    The name Gamelatron comes from the Indonesian word “gamelan,” which is kind of synonymous with orchestra, but it’s an orchestra of usually bronze-forged instruments with large gongs and keys and things like that. I’ve been making hybrid forms of these gongs and then retrofitting them with mechanical mallets, and then placing several gongs and mallets together inside of a sculpture. Using physical computing technology, I write compositions that then can be played back, kind of like a player piano, except with these gongs and robotic mallets inside of a visual art experience as well.

    I lived in Indonesia for several years. I studied karawitan, which is the study of Indonesian gamelan, at the Institut Seni Indonesia in Yogyakarta, which is an art school devoted to both traditional and contemporary art forms.

    Every time I make a new piece, I think about, “What role does this play in someone’s life and how can that help improve their quality of existence?” The series of pieces that I’ve made for the Smithsonian is thinking about that idea and saying, “Okay, we’re in a museum right now, but could this museum be a sanctuary? Could this be a respite for your life? Could this be part of your diet in order to help make you feel whole and balanced?” This lends to the bigger reason of why to make art. Rather than something being mercantile or it being made as part of an art history or some kind of lineage, the measure that I gauge success in is how much I can contribute to a community. Is what I make becoming fuel for someone else’s goodness? And it’s my intention for you to be able to walk in and to feel it in an instance, but to feel open to stay for as long or as short as you need or want to, and to come back again and again knowing that this is kind of a companion spirit that’s there for you when you need it, and for you to incorporate it into your life in the way in which it makes the most sense for you.