Jacob Tonski: Balance From Within, 2012, antique sofa, motor, and robotics

We don’t think about the physical act of balance in our everyday lives because it’s intuitive. We don’t, for the most part, have to remind ourselves to shift our weight and counter the forces that would knock us off-center. We just do it, as naturally as breathing. Artist Jacob Tonski uses balance in his work in much the same way a person would use it to stay upright — through internal forces. For Balance From Within, his installation piece in Currents New Media, Tonski took a 150-year-old sofa and reconfigured its internal structure to allow it to balance on one leg, even when pressure that should send it toppling over is applied. Give it a little shove, and the sofa tends to set itself back to an upright position. But — also like a person — sometimes it comes crashing down.

“I’ve found that exploring balance in a variety of ways, even if they seemed strange and unlikely, I actually learned something pretty profound about how we maintain it in our lives and even with our bodies,” Tonski said. “A lot of this work got inspired by friends who offered to teach me how to ride a unicycle. It’s unbelievably difficult. It’s so difficult that the first time you sit on a unicycle you say to yourself, ‘This is actually physically impossible.’ But there was something in me that made me think, ‘OK. This feels impossible, but people make it look easy. So what’s the learning curve like?’ I have to imagine it’s like learning to walk again. You have to get out of the way of your brain and let your body just learn by doing and failing.”

Balance From Within is a reflection on the harmony in a relationship. A tremendous amount of energy is needed to maintain a relationship, and it is susceptible to external pressures. The sofa is a symbol of social interaction and domesticity. There’s something surreal about seeing a piece of furniture placed in an unusual context. “People use the words magic and illusion with that piece a lot, and I understand why, but it’s important to recognize that it is really balancing. It’s not an illusion of balance. When you feel yourself start to fall, you rotate arms and limbs and torso in a way that creates a counter force and keeps you standing up. We do this without thinking about it all day long. Figuring out how to engineer a system that balances the way a human does, through integral forces, took me two years. In essence there are heavy wheels inside the sofa that try to rotate the sofa about themselves. They spin the sofa in space, causing a slightly sideways twisting about the leg on the floor.” 

Tonski designed the sofa to fracture into a number of easily reassembled parts when it does fall. “It was a lot of trouble to make that happen,” he said. He also had to retrofit a motor and apparatus into the sofa’s interior while keeping its structure and upholstery intact. To see a sofa upended with no apparent cause and watching it teeter precariously creates a kind of tension in the viewer, who knows it could tip over at any moment. “That feeling of upendedness — psychology has a name for it, which is cognitive dissonance,” Tonski said. “There’s what you know and what you expect, and when you see something that breaks from what you know and breaks your expectations, it’s like having a huge question mark light up in your brain. It calls into question your assumptions, and when we effectively question our assumptions we are in the best position possible to grow in how we think about things. That’s a very intentional part of the piece. I think the greatest thing it could do is get people to let go a little bit of their grip on what they think is possible.” 

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