Mauricio Ancalmo: Artist Makes Old Machines Dance
by Kimberly Chun
Mash-ups and remixes have struck a chord with many during the first decade of this century, but when it comes to his kinetic sculpture, San Francisco artist Mauricio Ancalmo is less interested in those hybrids and retweaks than staging new interplays, partnerships and interactions between, say, a film projector and a turntable.
In "A Lover's Discourse," for instance, Ancalmo hangs a 16mm projector from the ceiling by a rope, while beneath it, a turntable spins, winding the projector's binds until it tangles and swings in the other direction. Amid the push and pull between the two machines, the projector's image is visible whereas the turntable is inaudible - likewise the turntable is audible when the image is hidden from view. You get sight or sound in this multimedia tango.
"The piece touches on other pieces I've done using 16mm projectors - they fall in the realm of kinetic sculpture, film installation and sound installation," Ancalmo says by phone while setting up his current show at Baer Ridgway Exhibitions. "I just set them up in a sort of arena and make them interact with each other, forcing them to do stuff they're not meant to do. Not to break them - this isn't a battle of machines. They create more of a poetry."
Consider Ancalmo's pairings akin to strange, marvelous duets, somewhere where the Brothers Quay meet a junkyard of rapidly obsolescing machines that are busily finding new uses, new ways to work together.
The artist is fascinated by technology otherwise consigned to the scrap heap of 20th century technology: sewing machines, word processors, machines that have diligently spun their wheels in support of human art or craft and have now been discounted. In "1871," he sets them up to make camera-less films: A sewing machine punches holes in black leader that is then run through a projector, making violent, minimalist abstractions that last only as long as the film holds.
"Each installation took on a life and presence," says Ancalmo, who earned his MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute and continues to work as a studio coordinator in the new genres and film department. "There certain installations can go on forever, while other installations were a little more finicky or destructive to film or records. I started thinking of these as performances - all these things started falling into own realm. I just let these things take over."
These installations are a giant step beyond Ancalmo's earliest creations: musical instruments like a bass shovel or a combined didgeridoo and tuba, pieces he put together before deciding to go the way of conceptual art. He grew up in both El Salvador and the States, admiring the resourceful ways the people around him would, for example, repair transmissions with discarded spark plugs, working with what they have.
"It's sort of this Third World way of building things, which I like to put in the work," he says. "Here's a nut and bolt that don't match, but this is what I've got."
His current pieces, however, seem to "echo humanness," he says. "You know they're machines and they're plastic and metal and inhuman, but they're made with human hands, so I think there's an interesting dialogue created there. Somehow they mirror the human predicament, this sort of daily grind, performing tasks day in and day out - make coffee, get on a bike, ride to work, do work, go home - that's the machine inside the human, and we're sort of like machines."