Conversation Piece: “Electric Ball Circus” by George Rhoads

This piece of art is a must see if you’re at the Telus World of Science Edmonton.

Photography Paul Swanson

If you’ve been to the Telus World of Science Edmonton (TWOSE), perhaps you’ve stopped to see “Electric Ball Circus,” located smack dab in the middle of the Science Garage.

It’s hypnotic. You watch balls of various sizes go down the white tracks, drop into baskets and get catapulted against drums. Then, they go up elevators and begin their descents again. Some balls run down a series of blocks, making a series of distinct “knock-knock” sounds like a Neil Peart drum solo; you wait to see if the next ball will make a turn left on a ramp leading downward, or turn right and snake its way across the top of the sculpture.

I can watch this for hours. Really.

Crafted by George Rhoads, who makes “audiokinetic” sculptures that have been displayed around the world, the “Electric Ball Circus” was first displayed at West Edmonton Mall. The TWOSE acquired it in the late 1990s. According to Christina Weichel, TWOSE’s Coordinator of Marketing and Communications, the piece was then refurbished by staff.

When it was fixed, it was placed outside, where it greeted visitors as they walked in from the parking lot. In 2015 it was moved inside to become the inspiration for the Science Garage, a place where kids can participate in interactive science projects – like building a catapult out of popsicle sticks, and getting their shadows “frozen” against a special wall.

“Now that ‘Electric Ball Circus’ lives indoors, it requires much less maintenance than when it was kept outside,” says Weichel. “In the past, it would often require seasonal repairs, due to expansion and contraction of the metal and other materials. Today, we can control the temperature inside the Science Garage and aren’t dealing with the moisture and potential for parts and pieces to corrode in the weather. This has contributed a great deal to the longevity of ‘Electric Ball Circus’ and, while pieces still wear out eventually, it is running much more smoothly.”

Rhoads has made smaller-scale ball machines that can fit on a desk, and large contraptions that can fill large rooms. In the early 1980s, he was commissioned to do a massive ball sculpture for the New York/New Jersey Port Authority Bus Terminal. After a $125,000 US renovation in 2015, the piece is back in working order.

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