Meet the Kiwi making the world's best Rube Goldberg machines
Fifty pairs of eyes were trained on Alex the parrot as he fluffed his feathers and settled in for a snooze, obstinately ignoring the grape dangling from a string at the corner of his cage.
If he would only shift along his perch to reach the grape, he would trigger a hairdryer to switch on, powering a trolley that would roll towards a rubber glove that would inflate, thereby tipping a wonky shelf to set a ball rolling… that would eventuate in a light switching on. It had worked brilliantly several times, but Alex had grown tired of grapes.
Fifty people silently begged, "Please eat the grape, please eat the grape," remembers New York-based kinetic artist Joseph Herscher, whose flash of brilliance had created this wonderfully absurd situation. "We're running out of time, we're running out of money, we can't afford to hire this fancy camera tomorrow for the same shot. We either have to get it tonight or not all…"
It was a moment of extreme tension and stress towards the end of an 18-month project marked by many moments of tension and stress for Herscher, 30, probably the world's leading maker of Rube Goldberg machines. The over-engineered devices (also known as Heath Robinson machines) make complicated work of simple tasks, such as turning the page of a newspaper, and famously feature in Wallace and Gromit and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
"What makes them exciting and compelling, I think, is that sense that they could fail at any moment and are just managing to succeed," says Herscher, a quiet and deliberate talker. "And the truth is they could fail at any moment and they are just managing to succeed."
Finally, Alex went for the grape, they got the shot, and now the comedic four-part series Jiwi's Machines is online. In it Herscher plays Jiwi (for Jewish Kiwi), an inventor who lives with his sister June (Olivia Tennet) in an inherited house, creating gentle mayhem with his fantastical machines.
A bright spark
Remembering the shoot a few months later as he recovers in the Auckland apartment of a friend, Herscher is obviously exhausted, a combination of his workload and a just-completed fast. There is also the sense that even thinking about a second series of Jiwi's Machines — which he wants to do next year, with more characters, longer episodes and more back story — is taxing. He rolls a blue and white teacup from side to side on the tabletop, testing its possibilities, as he describes his niche career. "I couldn't have had this job 20 years ago because no-one could find me," he says, "but now in this globalised world, if you are really good at this one little ridiculous thing, sometimes you can make a living at it. If someone needs a Rube Goldberg machine, they will inevitably find me online and get in touch."
Herscher has been commissioned for ads, consulted on a children's book, has appeared in Sesame Street and is a judge of the official American Rube Goldberg competition — "all kinds of odd things". He has been approached by producers wanting to make reality TV shows in which contestants are given a selection of objects and must race to make the best machine, or Herscher himself turns up in town squares across America to build machines with the help of locals. "I thought it sounded naff."
Growing up in Grey Lynn, Herscher was one of those kids who was good at everything he tried. He excelled at mathematics, physics, poetry, playing the clarinet and friendship. "He was such a bright light," says his mother, the singer Linn Lorkin. "We didn't buy him toys, he had to make his own. Children enjoy the creative process." She and husband Hershal Herscher, who formed The Jews Brothers Band over 20 years ago, took pictures documenting their only child's creative development: dressed as an elephant in a costume made from tubing; using the wire device he rigged above his bed to hold heavy reading books; sitting with his Lolly Machine, a long tube attached to a cardboard box for the collection of sweets.
Lorkin's favourite machine was designed to give her a surprise when she got home late after performing at a club. She walked through the door and set off a chain reaction that ended with a tape player switching on and her seven-year-old son's voice filling the room: "Welcome home, Mum. I hope the gig went well."
The toy he stole
The young Herscher was great fun and unusually disciplined, says Lorkin. He still is both of those things with his Charlie Chaplinesque performances as Jiwi, for which he studied mime for most of last year. He got so good at it that his tutor asked him to join mime trio The Funnybones and they performed at New York's storied Lincoln Centre. Herscher says, "I thought, this wasn't really what I had planned, becoming a mime and performing at Lincoln Centre — but why not, just for now?" As a teen at Western Springs College he would encourage his friends into pointless acts of silliness, says his mother. Walk backwards through the street! Ride a bus blindfolded and try to figure out where you are! "Quite stupid things," says Lorkin. "Fun ideas."
As a 22-year-old, he watched an inspiring video of a Rube Goldberg machine in action on Japanese television. When he and his flatmates decided to build one of their own, Lorkin told him: "There's still a Making Box in the wash house," referring to the box of odds and ends the family collected for him to use in his machines as a child. While his friends soon tired of the project, Herscher kept at it for seven months, in weekends and evenings, squeezing it around his software development job, until he had completed a machine he called Creme That Egg! which smashed a Creme Egg against a wall.
"It re-sparked this passion in me and suddenly I was back into my favourite mode as a kid but I was bigger so I had more brain power," he explains. On the strength of the YouTube clip, Herscher was offered a software development job with a New York company, and he moved to his birthplace. "It seemed inevitable," he says. "I always planned to live there."
He saved money and kept making machines in his bedroom/studio, still using familiar objects such as egg cups, billiard balls, plastic cups, clocks and vases, and the occasional "found" object. "At this raging party I found this amazing toy and I was playing with it and I ended up taking it, and it's been in five machines and it's the best thing ever," he says of the small trolley sent rolling by Alex the parrot.
A full-time gig
Three years ago he quit his job to focus on the machines full-time. It was around this time that another Kiwi in New York, Gemma Gracewood, met him for coffee, thinking he would make a good profile for a publication back home. "Within five minutes of meeting him I knew it wasn't going to be some magazine feature, it was going to be a documentary," she says. "He delights in surprising people. I thought, you're one of my tribe." Gracewood followed Herscher for a year, producing the short film Joseph Gets Dressed, about The Dresser, built for a show at the McColl Centre for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2013. It the first time Herscher had been an integral part of one of his machine's workings, adding a performance element to his work that he wants to build on.
"He's extremely disciplined in his personal life," says Gracewood, who also produced Jiwi's Machines, which was filmed at the Auckland museum, Motat. "He gets enough sleep, he has an exercise routine he follows every day, he is careful in what he eats. He knows just what he has to do to have enough energy to work. He'll get home at night and you think he's going to rest and there'll be all these emails for two hours, suggesting improvements to the work, and I love that. Things can always be tweaked."
With the childlike Jiwi now an established character, there is opportunity for Herscher to do more work with children, which he would welcome. He led kids' workshops at Motat during filming and found his students quickly took to machine-building and picked up all sorts of scientific principles without realising it. To that end, he created extra videos to accompany the series explaining the science behind the machines.
"If children learn to think creatively from an early age, this isn't just a cup, it can be a pirate's stump," he says, bending his arm and popping one of the tea cups on his elbow. "That kind of thinking translates into innovation and great science."
And the occasional unexpectedly bizarre and magical career.