Toy Story/Exposing Himself | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Toy Story/Exposing Himself

The Museum of Science and Industry's new exhibit, an assembly line designed to churn out souvenir tops, is supposed to exemplify "man's ability to streamline production." Now if they could only get the damn thing to work.


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Toy Story

Ed McDonald, who's in charge of new exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, is downright cheery under the circumstances. Three months after the scheduled opening of the museum's new permanent exhibit "ToyMaker 3000"--an automated assembly line touted as "the culmination of man's ability to streamline production"--he still can't get his workforce of a dozen robot arms to put a plastic toy together with any degree of reliability. It sounds like a job for the Terminator: at press time, the "state of the art" exhibit, which took four years to plan and cost $4.5 million, was open only 15 hours a week while a small army of human experts--programmers, technicians--tried to keep the robots from holding a work stoppage every other minute. "We have 25 computers that have to work in sync," McDonald says. "If one little station is out of whack, it will bring the line down."

ToyMaker is set up to manufacture souvenir tops with gyroscopes inside. "The main idea was for you to walk away with a personalized Gravitron--with your name on it, the color you want [orange, green, or purple], and today's date," McDonald says. The tops are assembled behind glass at 14 stations connected by conveyor belts. Visitors pay $3, log in with a name and color choice, and are assigned a numbered pallet they can follow as the parts are fetched, joined, and welded and the finished product is laser engraved, quality tested, and packaged. The process is supposed take less than five minutes from start to finish, and the line should produce 300 tops an hour. But so far it seems the only thing in motion most of the time is one or another of the "Christmas tree" lights atop the stations, flashing red to signal a shutdown.

"With over 30,000 moving parts, we had a couple of snags getting everything to work perfectly," McDonald says. That's 30,000 assembly-line parts; the toy has 13 parts. The Gravitron is a simple product that looks like it could be assembled in China for a nickel. McDonald says that's part of the problem: the toy was designed to be put together by humans, which makes it hard to adapt for robots. "There's thousands upon thousands of lines of computer code that have been written to try and get this thing to sync properly. We run it three or four hours a day, then take a look at the list of the challenges we had and go back and try and fix those." He says after extensive analysis the main problem, which revealed itself just before the April 4 opening, turned out to be an improperly crimped flywheel hub. "We had to machine something and switch to another material, which threw off the engineering. We thought we'd have a substitute in two weeks, and it turned out to be six."

The periphery of the line is ringed with sideshows where visitors can play with computers and robot arms even if production is down. One robot takes your photograph and does a dance while holding it, another draws a cartoon, a third plays a shell game. These metal arms are endearingly anthropomorphic--some even have names, like Max and Lisa--but the exercise is a lot like a visit to an ATM and about as complex as a multiple-choice exam on your favorite color. Max and Lisa can put together a simple model of the museum out of blocks, but you wouldn't want them to take out your appendix. McDonald says a major goal for the exhibit is to inspire kids to become maintenance technicians: "In our world today we don't have enough people to service robotic facilities. We need people to fix the machines." On that level, ToyMaker may already be working. The need's been made obvious, and there are lots of role models around--darting from station to station while muttering into cell phones, taking direction from programmers at the mother ship before starting up the line one more time. Meanwhile, museum employees forage in a big cardboard box for premade Gravitrons to give visitors whose pallets are stranded somewhere between the flywheel subassembly and sonic welder. "We're working out the bugs," McDonald says. He expects to be operating on a full schedule by the end of the month.

Exposing Himself

With a couple of exceptions, says photographer and filmmaker Tom Palazzolo, "nobody's documented the city more than I." Since he came here from Saint Louis in 1960 to study at the School of the Art Institute, Palazzolo's made 50 independent films and shot thousands of still pictures on Chicago's streets. He's also taught photography, film, and art at Columbia College, SAIC, and, for 35 years, at the City Colleges. In the last decade, though, he hasn't been finding much of what used to fascinate him out there. But when the Chicago in the Year 2000 project--better known as CITY 2000--came along, with its mission to capture the city's millennial year in photographs, video, and sound, he got reenergized. The project's video editor, Bill Stamets, suggested that Palazzolo show director Rich Cahan his portfolio. He was invited to submit work on spec, and one of his photographs was included in the project's opening exhibit.

"I was optimistic, and I did a lot of shooting," Palazzolo says. "But they weren't impressed with it." Although he videotaped two events and kept bringing in stills, he says nothing after that first photo was accepted. CITY 2000 amassed a half-million images but only printed one by him. "It made me paranoid," he says. "And it made me more self-critical. After all these years I felt like a fish out of water."

Now he's taken the work he shot (and some of his previous stuff) and made his own 40-minute video, I Was a Zero in CITY 2000. It includes scenes from the events he was sent to cover: the Minneapolis-to-Chicago AIDS ride (featuring footage of a serial hugger enjoying the same peak moment with a succession of people) and Taste of Chicago on the Fourth of July (teenage boys yelling "faggot" at a transvestite; lingering shots of trash on the street). "My work isn't cynical, but it doesn't want to back away from what's out there," Palazzolo says. "I think they weren't looking for the downside. Nobody wanted my eccentrics." Says Stamets: "Every second of video I commissioned him to shoot and paid him to shoot is in the CITY 2000 archive," which is housed at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Palazzolo will premiere I Was a Zero at 7:30 PM Wednesday, July 16, as part of the Reeltime series at Evanston's Block Museum; at Palazzolo's request Stamets will also be there with Moving Pictures, his anthology of video from the project.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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