for art machine fans: The Way Things Go

For those unfamiliar with the 1987 film The Way Things Go by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, you might want to get better acquainted with a film that is essentially the documentation of what might be one of the largest contemporary art machines ever constructed. Encompassing a 100-foot long warehouse, the mechanism is actually a Rube Goldberg machine — a deliberately overdesigned or overengineered apparatus designed to perform a simple task. In The Way Things Go the task is simple: “go.”
The idea here is that motion (or carrying forward momentum) could be accomplished simply — but where’s the fun in that? Fischli and Weiss combine the right amounts of absurdity, logic-defying feats of gravity, split-second timing and lots of fire and dangerous looking chemistry experiments to make things “go” for almost half an hour. I just got a DVD copy of The Way Things Go ($14.99) as a thoughtful holiday gift. I originally saw it on a big screen while working on a robotics art show in Berlin in 1997 and no one knew the name in English so it took me a while to re-connect with it. The whole thing is 30 minutes of amazingness, and while there may be a few spots that look edited together, it doesn’t take away from the fun (or astonishment) one bit. The DVD is remastered in terrific quality, and has artist bios, a bibliography and individual scene access for extra nerdiness.

Object from The Way Things Go: Aluminium water-jug mounted with wires on roller skates, rope, bundles of wire, pokey knife and coal. (via

For The Way Things Go, Fischli and Weiss used household items, junkyard finds, balloons, chemical reactions, gasoline, tires, tea kettles, slides, fans, garbage bags… and so much more, in the most whimsical manners imaginable. Apparently in May 2003, Honda’s advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy thought it was really cool too — and after Fischli and Weiss repeatedly refused requests for use of The Way Things Go for a Honda commercial, the car company made an ad called Cog. While impressive as an ad *and* a Goldberg machine, it was a pretty blatant takeaway from Fischli and Weiss’ film — and Wieden+Kennedy eventually admitted to copying a sequence of weighted tires rolling uphill, costing Cog a Grand Prix prize at the 2004 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.
Here is four lovely minutes from The Way Things Go:

Here is Honda’s copycat Cog — one success after a reported 605 failures:

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One Response to for art machine fans: The Way Things Go

  1. art machines says:

    as a side note, here is a funny human-powered spoof of Honda’s “Cog”:

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