Kinetic artist explores machine bodies and musical instruments

The original Rescue Anne or CPR Annie was a dummy or mannequin used in training for emergency rescue situations. Developed with realistic lung chambers and airways by Norwegian toy maker Asmund Laerdal it had a face modelled after an unidentified woman who drowned in the Seine River in the 1880s.

Robot maker Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe how strange we feel when inanimate objects like CPR Annie puppets robots toys and mannequins act or look like normal human beings. Searching that valley is kinetic artist Joseph Kohnke who uses moving objects to examine the processes of disease and death that have affected him and his friends. He deals with ideas surrounding the ailing body loss and death. His creations of anthropomorphic machinery reflect what our own bodies can and cannot do and proposes that machines and objects may have a life of their own.

In his haunting Stride Gallery installation Hollow Kohnke uses motors blowing mechanisms and the mouth-pieces from 16 CPR dummies to “breathe” air into harmonicas. What results is a room resounding with the slow rise and fall of a musical scale with the weezy but deep sound of harmonicas. Human presence is felt and evoked through the sound but remains absent. The ghostly feel created by this aural sculpture calls to mind Janet Cardiff’s famous The Forty Part Motet where 40 speakers arranged in choir formation each emit a different recorded voice. It tricks us into feeling like the singers are trapped inside the speakers. Unlike Cardiff’s piece Hollow also mimics presence with its moving metallic arms — motorized mechanisms with carefully paced kinetics that move the harmonicas over the mouths of the CPR masks.

Kohnke’s affection for animating objects was instilled when he was young. His grandfather would deconstruct player pianos record players and “beautiful antique machines” and work on them around the house. Kohnke’s fascination with the “spirit” of machines was sparked while sitting in front of a toy piano where the keys magically moved by themselves and soulful sounds were produced by its gears and levers. That magic remains at the heart of Kohnke’s ongoing practice. “To get the properties of everyday objects to ascend to the role of being a vehicle for a type of spiritual communication” he says in an interview.

In an earlier piece Lorelei made while studying at the San Jose State University Kohnke engineered a simple machine with a water-filled wine glass an oscillating pump and a moistened neoprene tone arm to produce a high-pitched operatic note. Sustained like the voice of a supernatural soprano the sound seemed to emanate from a ceaseless stream of air supply — an eternal breath. In another student piece Kohnke explored the lung-like capacities of chip bags which were inflated and deflated by a series of pumps made from gears turkey basters and pressurized hoses. Inspired by nostalgic feelings associated with “eating a bag of chips in the sunlight” this piece also explored the artist’s personal battle with asthma his fixation on lungs and the intolerable struggle to get air during an attack.

Asthma sufferers and people with pulmonary diseases rely on technology — respirators oxygen tanks and iron lungs. It is a matter of extending life or of reassurance and rescue. Kohnke mines this interesting territory of human life and technology and proposes an empathetic relationship between the two.

Doctors have recently been experimenting with harmonicas as a therapeutic device for sufferers of pulmonary disease. The musical sound signals to patients the capacities of their lungs and patterns of their breath which helps them regulate their needs throughout the day. Musical instruments and medical appendages are both extensions of organic life and come together in Hollow through associations of vulnerability death and the promise of extended life through artificial bodies.