A User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines

R2B2-1.1-72ppiThis essay was published as a series of captioned images which were interspersed throughout Useless, an anthology of essays published by the first graduating class in Critical Writing in Art and Design from the Royal College of Art, London.

The Futurists lauded them, artists at the Bauhaus created ballets in their honour and the pioneer of industrial efficiency, Frederick Winslow Taylor, timed their smooth operation down to the one-hundredth of a second. Yet for every engineer or artist who has vaunted the qualities of precision, calculation, flawlessness, simplicity, speed and economy as the hallmarks of the machine, there have been others who have begged to differ.

The present day is no exception. In their attempts to delineate a new role for themselves by shunning what they regard as the dubious motivations and effects of mass-production, many designers are shifting their focus from the object of production to its mechanics. In their re-examination of the machine, they are reconsidering its very nature and investing it with new qualities, giving us machines which are human, social or even funny. By concentrating on the mechanical workings of things, they also offer us a timely reminder that we will never be privy to the dance of electrons which go on inside a microchip.

While fascinating conceptually, the critical effectiveness of these machines , however, is up for debate. Frequently appearing on the design festival circuit and discussed on design blogs, often these machines have been created to perform or to be watched as much as they are there to do or to be productive. Have their designers retreated from the mass-production and consumption of goods only to become complicit in the production and consumption of images? Interspersed in the pages of this publication, the following User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines presents this new economy.

The Ramshackle Machine
The design critic Reyner Banham anointed the second decade of the twentieth century as the first Machine Age, one in which mechanization infiltrated everyday life through the widespread availability of cars, telephones, typewriters and appliances. Enveloping products in the 1930s, the streamline design style quickly followed, formalizing assemblages of constituent parts into new objects and becoming a code for speed and modernity. This marked the beginning of deliberate obsolescence in commodity aesthetics. The Ramshackle Machine, by contrast, such as Christoph Thetard’s r2b2 (2010, see above) seeks to make all mechanical joints, hinges, bolts and screws visible. The kitchen appliance includes a hand blender, coffee grinder and food processor that fit onto a wooden unit containing a pedal-powered drive mechanism. The fly-wheel at the heart of the machine is left exposed which leaves no mystery as to its origins and ensures it is no fetish in the making.


The Erotic Machine
Marcel Duchamp represented the erotic relationship between men and women using analogies drawn from physics and engineering in The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Executing the work on two panes of glass with materials such as lead foil and fuse wire he represented the sexual encounter as a mechanical process.

In the 2011 music video for Electrotechnique, Dutch multimedia artists Lernert and Sander present a series of animated pastel-coloured tableaus comprised of domestic objects. Two suitcases support a pedal system of red stilettos on a mattress; a record player powered by a kettle is mounted with a stick that protrudes and rotates through the bottom of a plastic chair; a champagne bottle strapped to a vibrating exercise machine suggestively wobbles; and an office chair swivels round and round wrapping itself with an extension cord conjuring sado-masochistic associations. As the song progresses to the pounding of an electric drum beat each tableau reaches a climax:  an umbrella springs open, an inflated rubber glove bursts, a white box oozes effluvium and a plastic bag deflates. 


The Solipsistic Machine
Exhibited at the seminal exhibition on technology and art curated by Jasia Reinhardt at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1968 entitled Cybernetic Serendipity, Richard Kriesche’s World Model was comprised of two industrial robots alternately fulfilling identical tasks. Each robot performed a series of movements culminating in the pressing of a button which sent the second robot into the same routine, and so it continued ad infinitum.

The purest form of oxymoron, the Solipsistic Machine is one which, in a display of egotistic self-absorption, exists only to perpetuate itself. The idea has its most extreme incarnation in The Ultimate Machine. Also known as the Leave Me Alone Box, The Ultimate Machine functions only to turn itself off. A plain box with a switch on top, when flipped the lid opens and a hand or lever emerges in order to push the switch back in the other direction.

Ironically this exercise in the fundamentals of mass and energy was invented by the man who defined the third state of matter, that of information. Claude Shannon invented The Ultimate Machine as a gift for executives based on an idea of his colleague, Marvin Minsky, while working at Bell Labs in the USA in 1952. The transmission of information is also responsible for The Ultimate Machine’s recent resurgence in popularity. Do-It-Yourself instructions for making one are rife on the internet. One video alone displays 46 different versions of the machine using everything from Lego, transparent perspex, suitcases and cigarboxes.


The Living Machine
For her installation entitled The Immortal (2012), Revital Cohen has connected a number of life-support machines in order to mimic a complete biological organism. The circuit of electronic medical machinery challenges entrenched oppositions between nature and culture and between the mechanical and the organic. While conventionally diametrically opposed, humans and machines have been elaborated in the other’s terms for centuries, the knowledge of one infusing the conception of the other. The internet, for instance, has often been compared to the workings of the central nervous system.

Cohen’s installation is also an eerie reminder of theorist Paul Virilio’s prediction, made at the end of the last century, that after humans conquer physical and cosmic space, they will turn inwards to colonise the body. The reign of the computer will implode inside us. The emblem of this tendency is the pacemaker, which can change the fundamental rhythm of life. ‘Once this happens,’  Virilio asks, ‘how can we possibly assume that things will remain in working order?’ [1]


The Writing Machine
In ancient times, so sacred was the task of writing the Bible that scribes were required to say each word whilst writing it and wash their bodies before materializing the word of God. The document became invalid if there were any errors or if two letters touched. In 2007, German collective Robotlab delegated the responsibility of writing the Bible to a robotic arm retired from a car factory. Mounted with a nib, the Bible-scriber known as the Bios studiously pours over a roll of paper, methodically reproducing every word of the Bible in a fifteenth-century typeface. Giving the impression of human embodiment, it performs for anyone who wants to watch. The history of the alphabet is one in which the curve of a letter or angle of a serif contains the residue of a past means of inscription, whether of a metal plate, a chisel or a calligraphic nib. The presence of the tool itself, however, is usually a guarantee of the human relationship to the document. This is not the case with the Bios. It merely simulates the trace of the human hand. In its grip then, the pen no longer testifies to the presence of a human being or offers a promise of authenticity.


The Social Machine
Whether or not automation has been of benefit to the human race or has made it redundant is still not certain. Today, a new generation of designers is reconsidering the machine’s goal of economy and efficiency. Austrian duo Mischer Traxler’s Collective Works (2011) is a basket-weaving machine which will only work in the presence of a human being. Four coloured markers attached to the corners of the contraption document the number of people in its company. The machine only functions when sensors in its frame detect an audience. When watched, a spool of wood veneer begins to unwind through glue before coiling back on itself to form a basket. Progressively darker hues are introduced as additional onlookers approach so that each basket becomes a colour-coded record of its own creation. To date, only eight baskets have been made.


The Destructive Machine
Like the inventor of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely learned the hard way that unfettered technological curiosity is not of its own merit constructive and that the realization of the best-made plans are not always within human control. On March 17th 1960 in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, for his Homage to New York, Tinguely orchestrated his junk assemblage of bicycle wheels, piano keys, a roll of paper and a weather balloon, which he designed to destroy itself. Alas, the machine did not self-destruct as it was intended to. Tinguely misattached a belt, everything went dangerously wrong and the fire department was called.

Today, physicists and engineers are hard at work three hundred feet under the outskirts of Geneva on the particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider. By accelerating protons to fantastically high speeds, these scientists hope the resulting collisions will provide the energy to unearth the origin of mass, crack Einstein’s famous formula and find a fourth dimension beyond width, length and depth. The down side is that some believe they may also produce a black hole, which could devour Switzerland and the rest of the planet with it.


The Drawing Machine
A robotic arm hovers as it selects a coloured marker and then, in a sequence of frenetic movements along both a vertical and horizontal axis, it makes a line drawing. When it finishes, if the machine is so disposed, it is capable of erasing the whole composition. In this way, the affectionately titled Rita — along with her two siblings Hektor and Viktor — have been stupefying audiences on the festival and gallery circuit for nearly a decade. The three drawing machines, the latter two which run on two motors and some cable, are the inventions of interactions designer and software developer Jürg Lehni. They operate in conjunction with the software he created called Scriptographer. This is a scripting plug-in for existing drawing applications which aims to empower the user by enabling him/her to create tools beyond the usual limits of the application. With these projects, Lehni tries to operate in the space between standardization and human idiosyncrasy.

Closely related to the Writing Machine, Drawing Machines also have a long history in fine art. They have often been invented to question the origins of the creative act and the originality of the artwork. Past proponents of the drawing machine have included Jean Tinguely, whose mechanical devices were an ironic commentary on the notion of gestural abstraction as artistic expression. More recently, artists Damien Hirst and Oliafur Eliasson have contributed to the canon; the former involving the audience in his artistic ministrations. Even if they admit the audience to the spectacle of the drawing process, it must be said that drawing machines cannot make the observer privy to the embodied or practical knowledge that holding the pencil itself produces.


The Chain-Reaction Machine
Also known as the What-Happens-Next Machine or the Heath Robinson, the Chain-Reaction Machine involves a series of everyday objects organised in sequence, each behaving according to their ‘natural’ tendencies. Once started, each object triggers another, forming a chain of events. Sometimes chain reaction machines are a convoluted means of achieving a simple task; other times they have no purpose at all. Nevertheless, their recent appearance in popular culture, on YouTube, in television commercials and in contemporary design festivals makes their appeal worthy of consideration.

The chain reaction turns the machine into an event or narrative and more often endures in film rather than in concrete reality. Typified by Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s seminal 1987 film, The Way Things Go, in which everyday analogue objects such as tyres, chairs, bottles and ladders fulfil their gravity-dictated destinies, often to comic effect, in a seamless sequence orchestrated by the artists, the gesture was imitated in a Honda commercial of 2003 without any sense of its forerunner’s precarity. Dutch outfit HEY HEY HEY recently created and filmed their own chain reaction machine called Melvin in a warehouse on the outskirts of Eindhoven. The ringing of an alarm clock triggers a chain of events involving balloons, umbrellas, toy-parachutes, a trail of fire and the spilling of paint. The film ends propelling a video camera upwards on a seesaw, the view of which is shown as the final shot of the film, focusing on the camera crew which has been constructing the illusion of a seamless sequence. In its harnessing of everyday objects, the Chain-Reaction Machine can be seen as an existential inquiry gone burlesque. It enacts a sense of destiny counteracted by the possibility of numerous diversions from it. The forces of nature although binding, are also not reliable and the Chain-Reaction Machine presents this existential conundrum in the spirit of play.


The Embodied Machine
The conventional narrative of the relationship between human and machine is that tools like the spoon and spear were invented to assist the body.  Later, machines were invented to first alleviate and then eliminate labour all together. The figure of the cyborg appeared in science fiction to show how mechanical and electronic systems could be designed to extend human functions. This reversal of the conventional subject-object relationship between human and machine is made real with interactions designer, Choy Ka Fai’s Prospectus for a Future Body (2011) which involves the use of an external digital apparatus to invest human beings, particularly dancers, with muscle memory. The implement choreographs the body rather than vice versa, or so it seems.

Elsewhere, Joong Han Lee’s Haptic Intelligentsia is a human 3D printing machine which attempts to reunite computer design technology with the sense of touch. An extruding gun attached to a haptic interface nudges and guides human hands in the making of a pre-designed object such as a bowl.

[1] Virilio, Paul, The Art of the Motor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995) p. 103.


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