Deus Ex Machina lite

“when they don’t know what to say
and have completely given up on the play
just like a finger they lift the machine
and the spectators are satisfied”

(Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae, 411 BC)

File 11-07-2016, 13 51 24 File 11-07-2016, 13 51 56

The mecane of ancient Greek theatre and the rehabilitation exercises for Functional Neurological Deficit are the progenitors of this  machine. The images above come from the machine’s integral camera and screen which presents the raising and lowering of an index finger to the soundtrack of mechanical strain. The machine as a whole is a larger assembly of motors, cams and levers cannibalised from previous works. Like the Deus Ex Machina of Ancient Greece the expected focus of the piece is on the ‘miraculous’ raising of a finger. The machine itself is complicit in this as the viewer is inevitably drawn to the video screen. The screen presents what might be assumed to be  the synthesised, encoded “result” of the actions of the machine – the god finger. However if the viewer breaks their gaze from the screen there is more to behold. tbc….File 11-07-2016, 13 52 24

Machines for the Object Liberation Front – Just for info

A recent project for FACT, Metal and Google necessitated the manufacture of a number of small machines that were intended to attract public interest while carrying IOT beacons. In the narrative of the project the machines were to act as autonomous operatives for a shadowy (and fictional) organisation called the Object Liberation Front. Each of these operatives contained either simple proximity sensors or manually operated buttons that invited or responded to human presence.


The Mecane Seizes (a paramorphic event)

[Paramorphism is the property of changing from one mineral species to another by a change in internal structure and physical characteristics but not in chemical composition. This idea of structural rearrangement might be useful in understanding anthropomorphism. Rather than seeing anthropomorphism as a purely ascriptive process it can be understood as part of the constant restructuring of connections between humans and machines.]

imageBlondin’s Apparatus, 2016 is a film made from documentary footage of an installation which explored the experience of high wire walking. The installation contained two machines. One made from meccano and broken furniture tracked a video projection of a tightrope walker along the gallery wall. A second machine presented a live image of a piece of thread stretching into the distance, swaying gently in response to movement in the gallery space. The installation presented a sort of mundane peril as the momentary jumps and seizes in the mechanism threatened to bring the illusion to a halt.

What happens if the mecane breaks down? – What happens to the Deus ex Machina machine-human-god-becoming then? Many different things, “breakdown” is not one sealed (blackboxed) event. Once opened up breakdown reveals a huge range of specific and unique machinic communications. Being more specific then, what happens if the the machine-human-God-becoming seizes in its winch mechanism at the base of the mecane? (X marks the spot).


In a machine, a seize is a form of stoppage due to its parts jamming. The symptoms can include: sound, heat, smell, cessation and sluggish or sporadic movement. These symptoms occur when the forces in the machine, rather than being transferred by linkage from power source to output are turned in on themselves. The causes of machine seize can often be traced to a misalignment of parts due to wear or deformation. This misalignment is usually caused by friction, heat and lack of lubrication which are, in turn, often the results of the machine’s normal function.

The mecane seizes
The actor is left swinging in space. He stops his soliloquy and cries out. No doubt, as the actor is playing a god, he is imparting some vital information to the hero of the play. The audience exclaims and falls silent, the rope creaks and new sounds of activity emerge from backstage as the stage crew try to free the mechanism. The play stops, the actor stops, the god disappears. There is certainly stoppage here, but more than this there is a paramorphic change. The components of the machine-human-god-becoming are the same, but their relationship has been altered by the seize. A new body is formed. This reconfigured body causes stresses for the audience, the theatre company, the narrative. There is a breakdown of the anthropomorphic image. The god-human-machine becomes an imperiled actor, a jammed machine and a ruined play. The mecane’s own inertia and creaks become part of the experience of the change in status of the machine–human-god. In this way the language of the play (the linguistic turn) is displaced by a language of mechanical forces, and action


Returning to Face Puppetry, is it presenting a Deus ex Machina with a seized mechanism? The film presents the rehabilitation of seized unconscious locomotion. By performing an imaginary mecane there is an attempt to bypass a neural seize and reconstitute the subject’s original form.

Inspace, 2016, digital video, 5’14”

Inspace is a provisional title for one of two new films intended as part of an evolving multiscreen installation. They were made between my studio and the FACT lab space in Liverpool. The making of Inspace was a particularly unusual experience as it was put together in the dark and silence enclosed in a locked space within the Kurokawa installation at FACT. Kurokawa had made a series of works responding to data relating to the birth and death of stars. The soundscape of Inspace is largely formed by Kurokawa’ soundtrack for his piece Constrained Surface. To avoid disturbing visitors to the exhibition my own piece had to be made in almost total silence with any noise restricted to the more cacophonic moments of Kurokawa’s piece. I felt like a bank robber blasting a safe in time with the roar of a football crowd.

Inspace was filmed on multiple devices including low resolution digital cameras, and an iphone. The cameras were left running throughout filming and were pushed about in much the same way as the simple machines. The qualities of the filmed image are in part a product of the low frame rate and ‘poor’ exposure control of these cameras. In a continuing break from earlier work the hand has become a  prominent feature of these new films. It is more than an activator in the filming process. There is also a quality of close magic in the film with some of the passages appearing to deal with the creation of illusory imagery. However unlike the magic trick the film lacks a sense of narrative or closure.


Moments of breakdown in the film have largely shifted to the camera and include :

Shake and haphazard angles – the product of working closely and filming and making simultaneously.

Low frame rate causing a form of fluid distortion to fast moving objects.

Poor focus and exposure control leading to sudden shifts and breaks in the image.

Horizontal scan lines as the camera fails to keep up with the speed of movement.

What is it like to be a robot? the ramblings of a mad artist.

Narrator: Is there a special feeling that you have towards people once you’re inside that outfit – you start taking on a feeling of a robot.
Cheryl Sparks: You do kinda, yeah
The Making of Silent Running, 1979
Donna Haraway: The machine is not an it to be animated worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment
Cyborg Manifesto, 1991



I am very aware of my breathing inside the head, It interferes with the muffled vibrations I receive as sounds contact the outer shell. I only have one visual sensor. This monocular vision is projected directly onto my retina via a low resolution digital camera. Unable to cope with anything but the slowest movement, the image jumps and blurs. A single plastic pincer enters my visual field and attempts to pick up a pencil. I control it, but it feels as if someone else does. Depth perception is not good and several attempts are needed before the pencil is slowly and deliberately held and rotated into position. I begin to write my name. The pencil slips.


When Donna Haraway said “the machine is us” she wasn’t being quite as literal as I am here. However, in response to her and many other writers who have noted that we (humans) are creatures intimately bound up with technology, I have decided to spend a day in a robot costume. I have a spherical polystyrene head sporting a single lens eye (video camera) and a movement activated flashing blue light. My single arm is fashioned from a tumble dryer outlet hose, hemispherical lamp fitting and litter picking pincer. My casing is a large cardboard box, I move on casters. Like many robots before me, my experience is highly constrained.

head arm
The word ‘robot’, first used by Karel Capek in his 1920 play Rossum’s Universal Robots meant ‘slave’. These organic machines (they weren’t made from metal) only broke from their servitude after undergoing some sort of epileptic fit. Later (I Robot, 1950) Asimov’s robots had laws imprinted in their positronic brains, telling them what they could and could not do.


My own limitations are caused by the material of my manufacture and the poor interface between my mechanical and organic parts. Also I can’t wear my glasses inside the head casing. In fact, I suppose I am not a robot at all but a cyborg.


John Connor: No, you can’t. I can do anything I want. I’m a human being, not some god-damn robot.
T-850: (correcting him) Cybernetic organism.
John Connor: Whatever!
Terminator 2, 1991


There is obviously a bit of free-will snobbery going on here. John Connor seems to be subscribing to a sort of sliding scale: God-human-cyborg-robot-washing machine. At one end of the spectrum one can do whatever one likes. The other end washes clothes.

All robots in films are really cyborgs in that they are people pretending to be robots, dressed up as robots, operating puppets, programming cgi, or scripting robot actions. But then if “the machine is us”, machines are humans and humans are machines. Then it follows that cyborgs are robots and humans are robots and robots are humans. There is a lot of time for circular thinking in my spherical head.

Some of the people that might know better than most what it is like to be a robot are:


Mark Persons – Drone 1 (Dewey), Cheryl Sparks and Steven Brown – Drone 2 (Huey), Larry Whisenhunt – Drone 3 (Louie)


Anthony Daniels – C3PO, Kenny Baker/Don Bies – R2D2

When interviewed, all of these actors talk about about their robot experience in terms of the way in which their interactions with the world, and each other, are reconfigured by the physical limitations of their robot bodies. The Drones of Silent Running (1971) were forced to develop communication techniques based on physical touch (tapping and nudging). These actions were subsequently included in the film. The droids of Star Wars (1977) didn’t even bother:

C3PO: We were both in our droids; there was no interconnection at all. We couldn’t hear or see each other.


C3PO/Daniels talks about the Christ-like suffering of the robot in the Tunisian desert. Like the other cyborg actors he concentrates on feelings of isolation, truncated sensory information and of being transformed into a technical object.

C3PO/Daniels: You can imagine what it felt, and sounded like, for me. It was just like being inside a Rubik’s cube with people on the outside arguing over the instructions.


I feel similarly isolated in my machine and more than a little sweaty. Admittedly the camera in my robot head could be better quality, then the sense of separation might not seem as great. Perhaps my myopic eyes are the problem and I need to take the leap Stellarc-like and replace them directly with electronic sensors wired into my brain. But I am not sure that higher technology would solve this problem of isolation entirely. My limited experience of even virtual reality is that I do not feel part of the environment presented to me but isolated from it.


The third edition of Cinemagic (1979) gives detailed instructions on how to build and behave like a robot. It includes a suggestion that malfunctioning is an excellent way to convince humans of your robotic nature and suggests spending time talking with cigarette machines, vacuum cleaners etc. This illustration shows the interior of a robot’s head.


Note the script taped at eye level, a sort of primitive programming for the neophyte robot. There is a suggestion here that if one sticks to the script, one will be a robot but that any deviation could lead to being recognised as a rather sad individual wearing a colander on one’s head. Of course we humans have scripts too, anyone who has had conversations with ppi call centre operatives will know this.

Returning to Asimov’s I Robot (1950) the reader is never really given a clue as to what it is like to be a robot. Their positronic brains are so complex that no one knows how they work. So robot psychologists are brought in to tease out the problems that Asimov’s robots have. Nearly always their breakdowns are caused by conflicts between the laws of robotics, environmental change and interaction with humans. Basically they find that the script doesn’t hold all the answers. Sometimes the robopsychologists employ talking cures, at other times physical lab rat tests are used and mind games.

This robot costume feels like a bit of a mind game, it’s all about being inside yourself and being uncertain about the outside world. What it makes me realise is how much our identity is formed by: our physical limitations, our ability to interact with our environment and how much I rely on my glasses.

The machine is us



Breakdown=, 2016

Paramorphism is the property of changing from one mineral species to another by a change in internal structure and physical characteristics but not in chemical composition. This idea of structural rearrangement might be useful in understanding anthropomorphism. Rather than seeing anthropomorphism as a purely ascriptive process it can be understood as part of the constant restructuring of connections between humans and machines. Breakdown= employs an open flow between human and machine actionMany of the machines use motion sensors to respond to the movement during filming. These seemingly aleatory actions of flow and change give a highly mechanised process an organic, human, emotional feel.

Ob_ject & O_bserve

Ob_ject & Ob_serve
Small View Gallery, Gostins Arcade, Liverpool

Is the first exhibition of work of a group of artists who are, at least nominally, members of the Object Liberation Front. The OLF was born out of a number of clandestine meetings in and around FACTLAB Liverpool. As Such it is an emerging organisation of artists technologists and theorists interested in the non anthropocentric life of machines. Beyond that our views and approaches are quite different. So, here, I speak only for myself.


Machine 14, 2016, Lamp, electronics, ear wax remover, tables.
Machine 14 shamelessly deploys a number of anthropomorphic devices. The foetal shape of the earwax remover with its steady, but faint, heartbeat is ‘watched’ by the tenderly curving lamp. Humans easily understand these patterns produced by the anthropomorphic screen as they have been repeatedly deployed throughout our childhoods. There are all to obvious echoes here of Pixar animations, brave toasters and feisty cars called Herbie.


Visitors to the opening of the exhibition undoubtably gathered round the stricken object in response to its anthropomorphic call but also, perhaps, for other reasons. In the context of the show Machine 14 lay on two sub-domestically scaled tables. To the left were works by Thiago Hersan and Radames Anja. Mobile phones with robotic prostheses were ‘intelligently’ trying to take selfies. One wiggled, danced and shivered in front of a mirror as it sought to recognise itself and post the resulting image online. In the circle surrounding Machine 14 the question came: “what does it do?”


Machine 14 barely does anything. A broken circuit board periodically allows a tiny pulse of electricity to enter the Ear wax remover. This causes a barely audible ticking, the occasional almost imperceptible twitch and a tiny intake of air. In the crowded private view only the twitch was caught by observers. It isn’t quite a machine freed from production but its apparent breakdown drew concern and interest from the audience which was distinct from its anthropomorphic call.

In another part of the gallery, near Machine 12 was a small piece of text.

The Deus ex Machina was a theatrical apparatus first used by Aeschlus and Euripides. Although it has become a literary device it originally had an entirely mechanical form. It usually took the shape of a crane (mecane) or other mechanical device used to bring a god onto stage. Deployed to dig the story out of a plot hole, it made a conscious break in the narrative and, In order to create a god, a sort of theatrical cyborg was enacted. This cyborg both creates and breaks illusion, it lays bare the mechanics of the play. To use Barad’s theory of Agential Realism the Deus Ex Machina is an apparatus that reveals a phenomenon of human machine intra-action. It is a sort of machine-human-god becoming.

Machine 15 does parapoetics

AS we are about to discuss parapoetics in our Reading and Thinging group at FACT, I decided to make an experimental machine in order to experience its language (I probably shouldn’t use that word). It is an inelegant thing put together while its various elements were powered up. This included (apart from myself) three competing (co-operating?) motors and a series of easily tangled arms and wires. The process meant that the machine itself had an amount of influence over its final makeup.

Working with the machine, it has a proximity sensor which reacts to my presence I realised that although I detect its language through my senses (primarily sight, sound, touch and even smell) it expresses via movement.

List of the signs of mechanical function and breakdown during my interaction with Machine 15

Free spinning
Grinding noise
High pitch whining
Burning components
Metal – over powered motor

Machine 14

Machine 14 teeters on the brink. Under the light it twitches very slightly with each inhalation of air. The air is drawn in by a simple pulsing fan mechanism which is in turn activated by a small board of electronics attached to a phone charger. The electronic board is damaged and no longer functions as it once did. Now it can only emit a small charge of electricity at more or less regular intervals. For me the scene is medical, recalling memories of a baby in an incubator. The ‘baby’ is an earwax remover.


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