An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Constructed of maple, steel, and plastic tubing, the computer-controlled kinetic sculpture Whale largely fills one upstairs gallery at the MIT Museum. As its 14 rotors spin, the 20-foot-long piece emits an eerie song intended to last for 225 years—roughly the lifespan of a bowhead whale.

“The thing that I really wanted was for people to simply be drawn into this other sense of time and for it to be rewarding, for it to feel good, for it to feel beautiful, even if you don’t know why. So that’s the hope,” says Whale’s creator, Brooklyn, New York–based artist and engineer Andy Cavatorta SM ’10. “I think it’s my first piece that 100 percent feels the way I wanted it to feel, and it’s because it feels like it has this life inside of it.”

Cavatorta, who has exhibited work at such landmarks as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and London’s Royal Opera House, got his big break while pursuing his master’s degree at the MIT Media Lab. Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk came by the lab to see what the students were working on; she liked his work and ended up commissioning Cavatorta to create sound sculptures for her.

“I felt like I had barely even started playing the lottery and I just won,” says Cavatorta, who went on to develop several pieces for Björk—including Gravity Harps, which featured harps at the end of long pendulums that swung in synchrony to play during her concerts. “After that project, I had a lot of visibility and I started to get a lot of commissions just sort of out of the blue, and that started a snowball that’s continuing to roll to this day,” he says.

Raised in Hingham, Massachusetts, Cavatorta studied math and physics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, before starting his career as a software engineer. Back then, he built robots and art projects in his free time—and that interest led him to join Ensemble Robot, an organization focused on creating visually and sonically attractive robotic instruments and music. Still, he wasn’t sure he could make a living from his creations. “I didn’t really see a future for doing all of this work with machinery and technology and sound and music,” he says.

MIT’s reputation helped make his career possible, he says. “Having graduated from MIT transforms me in other people’s eyes from being this excitable weirdo with a lot of ideas and skills into an excitable weirdo with a lot of ideas and skills who went to MIT, which actually makes people believe, rightly so, that you can execute these plans that you’re sort of wildly gesticulating about,” he says.

While at the Institute, Cavatorta became an expert in control systems (the subject of his thesis), learned a lot about field programmable gate arrays, and gained experience with fast prototyping. “My time at MIT set me up for this kind of work pretty well,” he says, “because we could fail and then find another way forward and fail again, but also that so many things seemed possible.”

Today, Cavatorta’s artwork combines durable materials with a wide variety of sensors, motors, actuators, and sometimes unexpected elements such as fire—all supported by huge amounts of code that he writes himself.

The path between vision and final piece can be a “huge slog,” he says—he often works 70 or 80 hours a week for weeks or months on end without a day off—but he enjoys the rewards. “Sometimes it all comes together, and it’s such a nice feeling,” he says. “At the end there’s always a piece that is kind of wondrous, and I just feel very grateful to keep getting opportunities out of the blue to keep doing this over and over again.”

If you’re visiting Kendall Square, you can see Whale at the MIT Museum.