t looks like an empty storefront with a few funky succulents clinging to the side, as though left over from something cool that used to be there. But something cool is there now, practicing random acts of art, education, and cultural experimentation that both fit with and challenge the mindset of the neighborhood.
On Friday night, Machine Project took on Mercedes-Benz.
Machine Project regular Jason Torchinsky presented the energetic and entertaining lecture Cars Before Cars, A Survey of Automobiles Before 1885, focused on passenger-carrying vehicles that were invented and put into use before Karl Benz, traditionally recognized as the inventor of the modern automobile, came along and claimed the patent.
While a bag of pretzels and cans of Tecate made their way around the 25 or so audience members, Torchinsky, standing behind a Mac laptop at a makeshift podium, started up his presentation on the big screen and announced, “there will be profanity.”
The subject matter moved from a vague 1479 Belgian reference to what could have been the first car, through the long use and experimentation of steam-powered passenger carriers, right up to a test ride taken by Karl’s wife Bertha Benz. It could have been dull, but Torchinsky’s wit and passion raised the roof with curiosity and laughter. Historical tidbits, including an illustration of a revolving, mobile petting zoo and a steam carriage dubbed the “Autopsy,” fed the minds of listener with not only historical accuracy, but fun facts destined for pub night trivia matches.
Well-researched and accurate, Cars Before Cars challenged the idea of what, historically, we consider a car to be, providing references to steam-powered vehicles that so frightened early observers they were considered to be “demons” and were subject to laws requiring their disassembly and hiding behind bushes so as not to frighten passing horses and pedestrians.
Torchinksy brought the inventors of the past to life as well, presenting portraits, diaries, and accounts that enlivened the men as fabulous, eccentric, and often egomaniacal characters. Of particular amusement was American Oliver Evans, a visionary and inventor commissioned by the city of Philadelphia to create a machine to clean the waterways of the port. Evans’ Oruktor Amphibolos delighted Torchinsky.
“It doesn’t steer!” he exclaimed, pointing to the fixed wheels of the 15-ton, 30-foot long vehicle. Torchinsky also noted that the hulking engine broke down on a Philadelphia street, where Evans left it for 16 months, much to the irritation of locals.
“It was the first abandoned car,” Torchinsky point out. “Imagine it.”
By the end of the presentation, the audience was on board with Torchinsky’s proclamation that despite the marketing, Karl Benz should not be credited alone as inventor of the modern automobile. In fact, Benz’s wife, Bertha, according to Torchinsky, was not only hot, but after a 60 mile test drive of her husband’s car, added major design improvements and suggestions, including the invention brake linings, wire insulation with a garter, and a fuel line cleaning with a hairpin.
What could have been a long, yawn-inducing night was instead invigorating and filled with interesting, provocative concepts for many.
“I had no idea what to expect,” said audience member Wesley Boudville. “I didn’t know any of the automobile information. It was neat.”
Torchinsky became involved with Machine Project after participating in Dork Bake, an event that challenged participants to build their own Easy-Bake ovens. A teacher for LAUSD, Torchinsky also leads technology classes at Machine Project.
“I built a giant Atari joystick,” he noted.
Interested in and passionate about cars since he was a kid, Torchinsky is particularly fond of his own ’73 Beetle and British Reliant Scimitar, of which, he said, “there are maybe 10 in the US.”
While he refers to himself as an “amateur scholar”, his attitude, knowledge, and enthusiasm were at the professional level.
Mark Allen, Machine Project’s founder and executive director, describes the nonprofit as a “loose collective” that is “interested in the intersection of different kinds of human culture.” The space sponsors classes, lectures, and workshops that investigate art, technology, and even natural history, including unique performances like the currently running, one-member-audience at a time puppet experience, Lay Science.
Outside of their Echo Park space, Machine Project has been involved in a take-over of LACMA and is currently working with the Hammer Museum, focusing on how visitors participate with the museum’s exhibits.
Cars Before Cars was, as are many of the Project’s events, free. Machine Project is run on membership and donation, including those made through stuffing bills into an incredibly awesome pneumatic cash machine that runs across the space’s ceiling. While you may not receive a receipt for your tax-deductible contribution made this way, you will have fun, see something incredible, and be, at least for a brief moment, part of an amazing, visionary, and provoking neighborhood community.