This Patriotic Rube-Goldberg Machine Proves Creative Problem Solving Is Possible During Tumultuous Times

If there’s any time our country needs to communicate with one another, it’s now. What with the impending election day results, the I’m With Her camp versus the Make America Great Again camp, and every other crazy thing going on in the news, some good old-fashioned unity seems to be in order.

Which is exactly what Jason Naumoff and AJ White, partners at the bicoastal participatory design firm New Creatures, were thinking when they devised their latest project: a Rube Goldberg machine that wrapped around the country and brought together artists, makers, and students in order to highlight issues relevant to the cities they work in.

“‘Common Ground’ was basically a collective, collaborative installation experiment that we’ve been thinking about for a couple of years,” Naumoff told us. “With the election and everything that’s going on in the country right now, it seemed like a really appropriate time to try it.”

The mechanics of the project came together fairly quickly. Naumoff and White contacted artists in five different locales around the country — Oakland, Phoenix, Atlanta, Detroit, and the state of New Hampshire. Some he’d worked with in the past; some, such as the seventeen-year-old domino artist from New Hampshire, he only knew via online presence.

One group was even composed of high school students. “No one turned us down,” Naumoff said.

If you’re picturing a massive Rube Goldberg machine literally stretching from coast to coast and wondering how you missed something so huge, that’s not quite what Common Ground was. Rather, each artist or team of artists came up with a single Rube Goldberg machine for their city. Each one, said Naumoff, “was really supposed to celebrate some things from their region, but also address some sort of a contemporary issue.” Issues such as the Flint water crisis, the prospect of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, excessive police force affecting African-American communities, and women in STEM.

But in addition to highlighting their chosen issue via Rube Goldberg machine, there was one huge challenge the artists had to face: coordinating the triggers, whether via e-mail, text message, or phone call, so that the machine went off in one continuous take. “It was this overall metaphor of people working together to solve problems and to bring light to some issues in America,” Naumoff explained. “But with a positive message that people can work together and address these things.”

The result was ten minutes of nonstop motion that circled the country, and it went off without so much as a hitch.

“It actually worked. People really can work together!” Naumoff said with a laugh. “The biggest roadblock was the overall communication issue that we knew would occur. It’s something that hasn’t really been done before, so the artists had to figure out how the triggers would work.” But in the end, they did — which lent a positive feeling to the whole project.

Naumoff and White aren’t done with the collaborative Rube Goldberg machines, though.

“We’re actually working toward doing a version of it next year that goes around the entire world — working with different groups in different countries to celebrate really amazing things about their country, whether it’s creativity or art…things that are worth celebrating. And also speaking to what contemporary issues they face in those countries.” The team is hoping to start working on the world project next month, after a much-deserved break from thinking about Rube Goldberg collaborations.

They also hope to integrate more high school students into their world project. “That was a shining part of the project, integrating these young people…connecting high-school aged students so they’re working with each other.”

Check out more photos from the Common Ground project below, and make sure to visit the website for artist statements from each city, and a behind-the-scenes look at the project.