Did you know that exposure to the arts - whether in school or at home - has been said to broaden children's perspectives, challenge preconceived notions and potentially increase tolerance and empathy? At a time when arts education is at an ongoing risk of losing funding, it is important to take advantage of the multidisciplinary art happening all around us everyday.
To help you do so, meet Aaron Taylor Kuffner, a Mindr dad to son Sebby (age 2) and conceptual artist based here in New York City. Aaron’s awe-inspiring Gamelatron installations are kinetic sculptures that marry Indonesian ritual and sonic tradition with robotics and modernist features. If you’re based here in the city, you can catch the final weekend of his exhibition at the 11th Annual Governor's Island Art Fair. He was also recently featured at Refinery 29’s 29Rooms. We spoke with Aaron about his journey to create the Gamelatron, how becoming a father has changed his artistic point of view, and how art can help us be present with our children.
Aaron, your kinetic sculptures are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Can you talk us through what led you down this path to pursue the Gamelatron project?
I have always been a musician - I played saxophone from a young age and taught myself guitar in high school. As a student in the Visual and Performing Arts School at Syracuse University, I started to explore other forms of conceptual and performance art. I eventually dropped out of school and moved to Brooklyn in 1996. There, I became involved in a number of projects - I founded an arts collective, a multi-media performance troupe, and started DJing/producing electronic music, among other things. In 2002, I brought my performance troupe to Berlin and co-organized a multimedia art festival there. I ended up in Indonesia in an effort to escape the Berlin winter - and that one winter turned into several years.
Some time later, I became an artist in residency with the League of Electronic Musical Urban Robots headed by Eric Singer, one of the foremost experts in robotizing musical instruments. I started augmenting Eric's xylophone robots to play Indonesian gongs, and the concept of the Gamelatron was born. Eric and I worked together to build the first Gamelatron in 2008. I soon took over the Gamelatron Project and over the last decade it has become my main form of artistic expression.
How has becoming a parent changed or impacted the way that you approach your work? Has becoming a parent changed your point of view/inspiration for your art?
Being a parent has impacted how I approach my work in a lot of practical ways. Prior to having children, I was a workaholic who would obsess over what I was making - sometimes to the detriment of my well-being. Becoming a parent has helped me set better boundaries with my work-life and I am better at balancing my time. I have become less obsessive about my work and have been able to relax about getting done what I can in the time that I have.
My point of view about my art has also changed since becoming a father. Without consciously deciding to, most of my adult life has been spent around people close to my age without kids. Over the last couple years, as I have become a father and have had a lot more contact with young people, I have learned a lot from watching the way they see the world. In doing so, I feel they influence me as to what is interesting. I don't think the inspiration behind why I make art has changed, but my perspective on its potential impact and how it is perceived has widened since becoming a parent.
Your Gamelatron installations are an inspirational blend of ancient musical traditions with modern technology. Has this balance of respecting cultural traditions while embracing technological advancements in society affected your parenting?
I am not totally sure if it has in a literal sense. I believe technology is never static. When we talk about technology, it has a connotation that we are always talking about something new. In my work, I am constantly reminded that humans incorporate technology from a multitude of generations and geographic locations into our daily lives. Just looking around my kitchen I ask, who started using knives and then developed the steel I have here? Who/when did they begin to make glass mason jars? Digital timers in a variety of machines? A sono speaker? Modern life is not a collection of new things, but rather a multi-generational global collection of technologies that hopefully work harmoniously together (or on the backs of each other). In that context, it makes natural sense to me that I would blend ancient musical traditions with modern technology - because both exist in my world.
The lesson that I might take into parenting from my work is not to be hierarchical. Pounding bronze in ways that makes it produce beautiful resonance might be an ancient technology compared to the computers we use - but it is not about one being better than the other, they are different and both brilliant in their own way. It is about respecting all the different processes and talents and traditions that go into making the world around us.
Across the country, we've seen cuts to arts education in public schools. In your opinion, what can parents do to ensure that their children are exposed to multidisciplinary arts fields and how important is this to a child's development?
Art for me is inseparable from anything else - and though I understand that schools need to create line items on budgets and draw distinctions between different curricula - I feel that art should be part of all subjects. It should be incorporated into how we practice at learning everything, from math to history and beyond. I see art as an approach to learning rather than a subject to be learned and mastered. Under this rationale, I think it is about reforming how we teach/learn and intentionalize art making to be part of that process. That way, if the budget for art as a subject is cut, art as a tool and a concept can still thrive.
I think art is very important to a child's development - it teaches the conceptual tools of creation - the beginning of combining elements to juxtapose each other, the shaping of form to create a thing. Even if you do not become an artist, it plants the seed that you can take materials, put them together, change them around and create a unique thing. These are building-block concepts for being a healthy and successful person.
Are there ways that your profession as an artist has made you a better parent? Do you have any great pieces of advice or life hacks to share?
I feel really fortunate that my profession is one that encourages me to stay open minded and push boundaries, allowing me to have a more inclusive and expansive concept of the world. My best advice (noting that I do not always follow it), is to just be present - as deeply and as diligently as you can to your child. Allow yourself to inhabit their perspective - value how they perceive the world - let yourself be where they are.
Tell us a little more about your exhibition at the Governor’s Island Art Fair this month. What are you hoping to achieve through these new pieces and how can our Mindr community check out your work?
At the Governor’s Island Art Fair, I have set up a live sound lounge in an old abandoned row house featuring Gamelatron red birds, with rugs and bean bag chairs. This coming weekend is the exhibition’s last, so I encourage everybody to check it out. Always with my work, I hope to offer a respite from your life where you can have an experience of beauty and the sublime. An experience that will hopefully feed your spirit and let you connect with yourself and others around you in a harmonious way.