“Ingrid, get your hat!”
With those words from a crowd gathered a little after 1 p.m. Friday in the courtyard at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, Ingrid Menken broke into a short sprint to a spot just a few feet away. There, a colorful hat was perched on the head of an old baby doll.
Menken grabbed the hat off the doll’s head, and the doll — after some human coaxing — started to crawl. A string attached to the doll tripped an old iron, which slid down a ramp, triggering a mousetrap.
Thus began Chain Reaction 2009, a project between almost 20 high school students, their teachers, several community members, and Massachusetts-based kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson, who was brought to the area by the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, also in Deer Isle.
Ganson, who has organized chain reactions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in Iceland, spent a week working with Deer Isle-Stonington students from the classes of art teacher Katy Helman and industrial arts teacher Dennis Saindon. The students built independent components, and Ganson organized the parts into what eventually would become the chain reaction.
Discarded items from a dump, donated pieces from the community, and even a dog resulted in a multimedia piece that lasted three minutes and 10 seconds. Was it art? Engineering? Sculpture? A little of everything?
Whatever its definition, Ganson considered the chain reaction a success.
“It’s all a matter of perspective,” he said as the crowd dispersed and students disassembled the chain reaction components. “It’s nice to get things to work, but the real essence of it is getting everyone to work together and create the moment. So in that sense, it did work perfectly. Of course, we would all like everything to function. That’s the goal.”
Ganson said last week’s project was one of the most collaborative chain reactions he has done in his career. At MIT, people in the community make components on their own and bring them to Ganson the morning of the chain reaction. He then fits the components together with a standard system of strings that can be linked between any device.
The Deer Isle-Stonington students, however, worked with Ganson from start to finish.
“It’s been really wonderful to work with them as a group and one-on-one, thinking about the group, just looking at the overall picture … with the impulse to want to create something together,” said Ganson, who was brought to Maine thanks to grants from the Maine Arts Commission and Maine Community Foundation.
The group started Monday, May 4, with a pile of, well, junk. The students were allowed to take the pieces that they wanted to work with to form component parts of the chain reaction. Some students worked in groups, but each group was independent from the others.
The students seemed to respond to the collaboration, too.
“It’s just really different,” said sophomore Billy Billings, who worked with classmates Eben Powers and Andy Mitchell on a segment of the chain reaction in which a toy car rolled down a ramp that was leaning against the school’s roof. “It’s a chance to come outside, work with your hands. It’s different than normal school. It’s pretty much all problem solving.”
Sophomore Brett Gagne picked a waterwheel out of the pile of junk. He thought about attaching a motor to the wheel, and experimented with different motors before finding one that would make the wheel turn. He also added friction to the chain to reduce the speed.
“When I heard we were doing something like this, that caught my eye,” said Gagne, who sat quietly near his wheel during Friday morning’s setup to make sure no one touched the wiring. “I like making machines work.”
Other chain reaction components were made from items such as empty helium tanks, Lego blocks, coffee cans, a seesaw, dolls, an iron, mousetraps, a child’s chair, plastic toy rats, a doll cradle, a water wheel, an ax, a mallet, a balloon and one shaggy black dog.
Ganson has used animals in his work, and once he found out about Mariner, a trained Portuguese water dog belonging to science teacher Carl Simmons, Ganson just knew he had to include the dog. Mariner’s job was to walk up a seesaw to reach a dog treat.
Once the students fashioned the parts, Ganson figured out the order in which the parts would make sense, and designed a flow chart to show how the parts would move in a chain reaction.
Early Friday morning the group started to lay out the parts in the school’s courtyard. Each part had been tested and seemed to be working, although the entire chain reaction wasn’t tested before the 1 p.m. start time.
Just before the start, a gust of wind started one section in motion. Quick action by Haystack Director Stu Kestenbaum and others standing nearby stopped the entire chain reaction from going off.
Just after 1 p.m., the crowd of around 200 students, staff, faculty and community members shouted the starting phrase and Ingrid Menken, who works in the Haystack office, set off the reaction.
There were some glitches during the chain reaction. After Menken picked up her hat, which covered a light-sensitive mechanism on the doll’s head, the baby doll should have started to crawl. Menken had to push it along a little, although the baby finally got going. Some parts, which had worked perfectly on their own, went off track or didn’t provide enough force to set off the next section. A human hand or two kept things rolling along.
Eventually, Gagne’s water wheel caused a baby cradle to rock, which caused another baby doll — this one with a mustache painted on its upper lip — to bow and a window shade to roll down with the word “Finis” written on it. The audience burst into applause.
A few minutes later, the crowd dispersed and the students took apart the components. They loaded most of it into pickup trucks to go back to the dump.
“It’s nice to make stuff that’s not precious,” Ganson said. “It’s precious in the moment, but it’s all the aspects of theater. Now we’re ripping it apart, but it did its job. I love the fact that every one of these elements became the center of focus.”
Some students took home pieces of their chain reaction components, but industrial arts teacher Saindon believes their experience with Ganson will last much longer.
“These kids are involved in the actual thinking of how to solve the problem, executing their theories, [and] after they build it, they evaluate how to improve their project, so they’re constantly thinking and constantly seeing their results,” Saindon said.
“That’s the best way to learn.”