I first encountered Chris Eckert’s surreal, robotic sculptures at the Institute of Contemporary Art San José while on assignment for my university’s newspaper. Three years later, I still remember sitting on the floor between the two main works in the show: a set of camera-touting, hyper-realistic eyes that seemed to track my every movement and a set of machines programed to write with pen in English, French, and German on scrolls of paper that unspooled endlessly onto the floor.
As I sat surrounded by the mechanical squeaks, beeps, and grinds in the SJICA’s relatively small gallery space, both works created the sense I was connected to a greater maze of audiences and participants—which I was. Eckert’s writing machines were sourcing their words from the internet and the eyes were wirelessly streaming a live feed to a screen just around the corner from where I sat.
In February 2021, Chris and I discussed the digital concerns behind his work and the impact of Silicon Valley, Catholicism, and the impermanence of modern technology. —Ethan Beberness
Ethan: You got your start doing mechanical design for factories after college?
Chris: Yeah, I went to Santa Clara University and studied mechanical engineering and came out looking for a career. Hard automation was a big thing, so I started working for places that were doing equipment. They designed and built custom equipment to handle hard disk drives. And that transitioned into a career doing that for a variety of different companies.
It’s an interesting industry. You get these really big companies and they have some type of process that they want to automate and it requires something custom. So, there is a whole other tier of businesses that take care of those guys, designing and building the part. They call it hard automation—automation that’s dedicated to [the company’s] specific process and the designers wind up being these small mom and pop shops.
While I was doing that, the industry changed and stuff started dying down and we worked more and more in biotech. There’s this company in the Bay Area that has a little testing tool that can test for any substance. Back when we were developing the equipment for the test, their big customer was going to be the US Postal Service. It was not too long after September 11th and they were anxious about testing for anthrax.
Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff I was doing back then. The funny thing is, I was pretty good at it and got promoted—rapidly. The problem was that I got promoted out of the stuff I loved.
Another thing I realized is that the life cycle for most stuff in the Bay Area—well, anywhere—is so short. I was in my twenties and started finding that equipment we’d designed was for a company that went out of business or moved on to something else. Working on stuff that was already scrapped was sort of disheartening, and I guess I had this epiphany that I really enjoyed creating those machines, but I didn’t really care about them.
I wanted something that was more meaningful, and I had been doing a bit of soul searching and knew, even coming out of school, that something wasn’t quite lining up for me. I went back to De Anza Community College and took some drawing, painting, and sculpture classes in my off hours.
After that, I went to graduate school and started studying art full time. At some point, my two fields of expertise came together and got me to a place where I was using equipment for art. It wasn’t an explicit goal. I didn’t go into art with a thought about doing this. It was just sort of latent in the back of my brain.
Ethan: That could be said for many artists, I’m sure. The thing that consumes your life will show up in your art. If your life up to that point was consumed with the design of these machines, it makes sense that your art would take the shape of machines.
Chris: It does now, in hindsight. But at the moment it wasn’t clear.
Ethan: Absolutely. I wanted to take a little turn here and talk about the art itself. I wanted to know: were you raised Catholic?
Chris: Yeah, and I still am. My wife and I are. I always feel like I have to qualify that because if people find out you’re Catholic, they assume a lot of things about what you believe in and what you support. We’re a pretty progressive Catholic family.
Ethan: I see the Catholic influence popping up in a couple of different ways in your work. First, there’s the overt symbols in works like “Auto Acolyte,” but there’s also a Catholic-ness to your process—those repetitive tasks that bring a sculpture into existence. There’s a ritual to that work.
Chris: It’s funny you say that. I remember when I was first starting out, in the very first class I took when I went to school, my teacher at one point chuckled and said there was something penitent about everything I did. That really stuck in my head. And I thought: there is! There’s a pain that happened with all these pieces and, if there wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to do it. I don’t think I’m a real masochist, but the fact that somehow I routinely seek out processes that are tedious and excruciating can’t be an accident.
Ethan: It reminds me of when you finish Confession and the priest tells you to go say fifteen Hail Marys. It’s the same as saying “go put these fifteen seams on your sculpture.”
Chris: Right, yes. I actually have a sculpture that prays the rosary!
Ethan: You’ve said that you don’t necessarily bring those Catholic influences in intentionally, but do you feel that when you’re making these “penitent” works, you’re obligated to include Catholic imagery?
Chris: Sure, sometimes it’s very intentional. All the work that I do is really about what is on my mind at the moment—sometimes I’m thinking about being a Catholic, sometimes I’m thinking about, I don’t know, Donald Trump or whatever is going on, something that is really digging into my head. There is something sort of narcissistic about being an artist in that you want to make something about what you’re thinking and feeling. You do that with the assumption that if you’re honest about it, other people have those thoughts and feelings and in some way that makes the art more powerful and makes it more possible for people to connect to the art.
So, in other words, you can look out or you can look in. I’ve always resisted trying to look out. I don’t want to make art about global warming because I don’t know if that’s something I can really speak to, but I could make art about how global warming affects me personally; it has to be a personal thing that I’m struggling with.
For instance, you said you were familiar with the show for Blink (2018), which was about surveillance, and it’s easy to look at that piece and say that it is a negative interpretation—and that aspect is there, for sure—but the thing that I’m struggling with there is that I’m participating in the surveillance. I own an Alexa, I have an Apple watch, I have a phone with a GPS and I use the internet all the time. I’m not trying to hide from any of it. I have a credit card and what not, but there is a level of intrusion into your life that you’re welcoming when you go down that path.
I don’t really have an answer for how to solve that. I’m not going to unwind all of this. I’m not going to stop using email and text messages, and I’m certainly not going to not have a cell phone, but I don’t think any of us fully realize how much we’ve given up, I guess.
And, you know, there’s something interesting here that [former CIA director} General David Petraeus was talking about. He had a quote about how he thought that the internet of things was wonderful because at some point he’d have a dishwasher that would spy on you, which is unsettling. He’s a textbook case as the first person who was retroactively surveilled and when they started digging through electronic records about him they discovered things about him that they never intended to discover.
There’s a certain irony there and the whole story is a rabbit hole if we dive into it, but I struggle with how we are supposed to function in that environment, you know? I don’t have any real insight into how to manage it any better, but I wanted to make an artwork that was about that conundrum.
Ethan: Does that lack of an answer make the art feel futile?
Chris: No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s an opportunity to think through things.
Ethan: The theme that I think I’m hearing from you is that there is an obsession and a joy that you find in your process. It’s where you live and work and think, and it’s nice that the art is there in the end but it doesn’t seem like the end product is the most important thing to you.
Chris: I would agree with that, but, you know, the end result is really important too. There are a lot of people who have a process that is really more about that process and they’re not worried about the end product. And a lot of the time that shows in the end product. Somehow I want a thing at the end to be, you know, pretty. I have very particular opinions and standards about what it is that I’m making and the finished product really needs to cross that threshold somehow. What I’m making is, at one point, sort of a by-product, but it’s also critically important.
Ethan: Aesthetically speaking, or is there just a pride in having a clean finished product?
Chris: No, that’s not it. I mean, I have goals for things when I put them out into the world. I think a lot about a piece like Blink and how it’s installed and how people will look at it and how people will interact with it.
At the San José Institute of Contemporary Art, it was very intentional that you would walk in and see this wall of eyes, but all the wiring had to be hidden. I knew that, when people see the eyes, the first thing they realize is that the eyes are moving. Then, they realize that the eyes are following them or at least they think the eyes are following them, but they’re not sure so they start playing with them to test that theory. This kind of play would happen where the viewers would kind of jump back and forth and they look around—they get the eyes to watch them. They’re playing with the eyes and they’re in control. Then you come around the corner and see the wall showing the footage from the eyes and the whole thing switches.
There was maybe a darker aspect to it. Like we just talked about, I was thinking about being tracked and how we’ve got all these wonderful things and wonderful tools but there is also this more subversive or darker side to it. I like being able to see the underbelly, if that makes sense.
In the long term, I start to think about how to maintain these things. I want these pieces to last. Maybe it’s a response to how I didn’t like the equipment I was building at the start of my career and how it was very temporary. I want to make something that is art. I think there is an assumption that art will have a life that goes beyond your hopes when you send these things out into the world. And, in an ideal situation, someone would care enough to keep it around for generations. I would like to have that opportunity. We’ll see.