interviews studio visits

The Mechanics of Christopher Conte

Christopher Conte’s artwork is full of surprises. While many of the elements in his sculptures are machined, cast or carved by him, he also incorporates parts of familiar machinery that, if you’re paying close enough attention, you will recognize. Antique watch movements, sewing machine feet and other old cogs and gears give his sculptures a retro steampunk flavor, while other elements like iPod cameras push his work into the future evoking some of the greatest of scifi stories.

Dermabot (Skin Crawler) steel, bronze, and brass with working onboard miniature tattoo machine

Christopher’s sculptures indeed capture the attention of a steampunk audience, but also the Transhumanist movement, which revels in the power of biomechanics for promoting human advancement and explores the dangers that such enhancements might cause, has taken a great liking to his work. Wired Magazine, a publication which has some of its tentacles entwined in the movement, has published multiple interviews and articles on him, and many Maker Faire enthusiasts, scientists and medical professionals who support it collect his work.

In a seemingly ironic twist, Christopher is an avid collector of antique machinery and craftwork.  His curio collection includes old cartes de visite, typewriters, watches (and watch parts), scales and a myriad other relics. He is familiar with the antiques dealer crowd and often deals in antiques himself.  He is fascinated with clockwork and mechanics, especially that which shows a love for beauty and that which was built to last.

The Curse of Timeless Existence | stainless steel, aluminum, and handmade polyurethane skull (1/2 scale)

The antique elements in Christopher’s work seem to belie their futuristic qualities, but rather this is where the deeper meanings in his works lie.  While he looks positively into the future, his work reminds us of the high-quality craft-works of the past , how they have lasted for decades or even centuries, and will likely outlive much of what is created for our use today.  It’s a nod to the Transhumanist desire for immortality and enhanced life: The better the machine is made, the longer it will last.

Scarlett | cast bronze with stainless steel, 925 silver, and garnet

Recently Christopher and I talked a little about his past work in the prosthetics industry, how photographers love playing with his art, his antiques collection and the Transhumanist movement.  Take a peek below:

Samantha Levin: Many people have talked about your past as a maker of prosthetics, but few know about your love of antiques and old craftsmanship. You have an extensive collection. How do these old relics influence your futuristic artwork?

Christopher Conte: They do, on many levels. The first thing you can’t help but notice when observing an antique is the workmanship and quality compared to the products of today. These objects were constructed to last a lifetime, and in many cases outlived their original owners. That aspect alone begins to tell a story. And much like a good wine, better quality materials simply age better. I continuously think about this in reference to my own work. How will this material look in 100 years? – or a thousand? – What story will it tell about it’s past life?

The idea of making something as utilitarian as a sewing machine into an object of beauty was a common way of thinking back in the 1890’s. Today’s sewing machines are made of white injection-molded plastic. Cheap to produce, yes, but not exactly inspiring design, nor do they last.

Robots, on the other hand, need to be designed (and built) to last – so the connection there is fairly obvious, but attraction also plays a key roll in survival. A beautiful object will be cherished and better cared for by a human. This increases the lifespan of the object. It can then stand a somewhat better chance at surviving to inspire future generations.

SL: Have you come across any new antiques that you’re particularly enamored with lately?

CC: Yes. My newest typewriter, a Hammond Multiplex. I’ll share a photo with your readers….

I found this baby sitting in a window of an antique shop in Beacon, NY. It’s in nearly perfect condition.

SL: Tell me more; are there any special details about it you are particularly attracted to?

CC: What’s so interesting about the Hammond Multiplex is not only it’s unique shape, and great design, but also it’s innovative mechanism. Take a look at the photo, you’ll notice a cylindrical silver hub at the top center of the machine which is called the “turret”. That’s the key to the difference [no pun intended -SL]. Hammonds do not use type-bars (those are the arms that swings up and strike the ribbon on a conventional typewriter). Rather, all the characters are on a C-shaped type-shuttle, which sits inside that turret. When a key is struck, the type-shuttle rotates so that the desired letter is positioned in front of the paper. A hammer located behind the paper then swings forward and, from the rear, drives the paper against the ribbon and the type. The Multiplex was the first typewriter that allowed the operator to easily change fonts and languages, including italic and script typefaces with the simple twist of the turret. Variations of this concept existed well into the computer age, into the 1970s.

SL:  It’s a beautiful instrument – the colors, materials and the shape are wonderful to look at.  I love how the keys seem almost like lace, and the shape of the entire thing is insect-like.  But this talk of your antiques collection brings up a curious question. The Transhumanist movement seems to have taken a strong liking to your work. Your love of old machinery seems to contradict this a little. What is your opinion of their views of the future?

CC:  I’m a big supporter of the Transhumanist movement and happy to see them embrace my work. While my artwork might, at times, suggest a fear of technological advancements, I personally have no concern whatsoever regarding the path of technology. Better design and more intelligent systems will always prevail in serving mankind in more useful and productive ways. Just look at the way Apple has surpassed Microsoft in the past few years – better design and engineering finally won. I watched this natural selection process take place in the prosthetics field for 16 years. I look forward to a day where I can trade a perfectly healthy limb for a prosthesis and have it be an upgrade to what I currently have.

SL: I see your work as being both a warning and a celebration of the future potential of biomechanics.  A warning because of what you mentioned earlier, that too many products are made without highly skilled craftsmanship and attention.  Can you imagine getting fitted with a mechanical leg that goes wrong just when the warranty runs out?  Such objects should be constructed to last a lifetime. Does this ring true to you?

CC:  Well luckily for amputees, prosthetic components are not mass produced in China. The product testing and safeguards built into prosthetic parts are extensive compared to everyday products found in Walmart. As an example, a foot bolt (the single bolt that holds a prosthetic foot to the ankle- shank component) needed for a patient who weighed 300 lbs would need to be rated to 3000 lbs in a certified laboratory in order to be used in a prosthetic limb. Ten times the patient’s weight, just to be safe. That thinking lives within the DNA of my sculptures.

SL:  Ironically, if things keep going as they have been, China may become the best place to get the most well-manufactured anything.  But moving on, you’ve worked with a lot of photographers who love shooting your work, which, with all the reflective material, is no easy task.  What are some of your favorite or noteworthy experiences you’ve had?

CC:  Working with photographer Dennis Blachut has drastically transformed the quality of the photographs. He once worked as the in-house photographer for Tiffany Studios, so this guy knows a thing about shooting metal surfaces and extreme detail. And having successfully worked for Steve Jobs back in the 80’s (shooting the entire NeXT computer line) he also knows how to deal with an overly controlling client – unlike me of course ;)

It’s been a wonderful experience to be around someone so skilled at his craft. For any challenge I bring him, he calmly figures a solution. I’m very lucky to have crossed paths with him.

SL:  So, what are you working on currently?

CC:  I’m currently building the third, and final, arm mic stand which I originally created for Adam Gontier, lead singer of Three Days Grace. This last piece in the series is being constructed for a well known recording studio in Sweden called Maratone Studios.

I used the lost wax process to create the components for the arm. The process starts with wax models which are poured from silicone molds that had been made from my original prototype with the help of a company called Creative Models and Prototypes in Hicksville, NY.  The wax copies are then cleaned up and prepared to be set inside an investment cast (a mix of silicone and plaster). After hardening, this investment cast (a negative mold which captures the wax) is then fired in an oven to burn out the wax.

While still hot, molten stainless steel is then poured into the cavities left behind by the burned out wax. After cooling, the last step in the casting process is to chisel away the investment material.

(Below are a few photos to give you a glimpse of what’s involved in the process.  Click on them to enlarge.)


After this project, I have several more commissioned pieces lined up for private collectors.

SL: I’m excited, as always, to see what you come up with!  Thanks so much for the chat!

You can see more of Christopher’s work on his site here.

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