On Function, Breakdown and Anthropomorphism

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This is a common sight and one I experienced recently sitting in a hospital car park waiting for visiting time. Before me, glimpsed through the diffraction of a rain covered windscreen were a pair of Belisha Beacons, one was flashing brightly in the gloom the other dead. It is a scene which invites anthropomorphism: two figures, human in proportion, associated with safety, one calling the other silent, guarding a point of multiple machine-human interaction. One could map onto it any number of human tales of relationships, miscommunication and loss. Both Trentmann and Latour have suggested that mechanical breakdown is a form of communication calling for action from humans but this is not perhaps the whole story. Why had the Belisha Beacon stopped flashing? The most likely reason is that a bulb had blown. Each flash of electricity forces the filament to heat and then cool rapidly causing the material to degrade over time and eventually break. The machine brings materials into crisis and the result is breakdown.

In the Musée d’art moderne et d’art contemporain, Nice (MAMAC)  in an exhibition of the work of Keith Sonnier, one piece is thrown into stark relief by its breakdown. It is the largest in the room of gaily lit assemblages combining found objects and crudely formed neon tubes. The neon component having failed, it slumps unlit against the wall looking more like a collection of parts than a coherent whole. It seems dead. In the context of its functioning counterparts the gallery visitor experiences this breakdown in terms of both loss and its difference to function.

osnnier

There can be a similar experience encountering Tinguely’s machines as they are often displayed as non functioning objects. MAMAC has a number of Tinguely’s in its collection, some still function, and one large work can be activated at the press of a button. This takes an act of bravery on the part of the visitor as the button is not labelled and appears similar to an emergency stop for heavy machinery. If one summons the courage to press the button the gallery goer is recruited into a performance, a collusion between human and machine, to set the work in motion. Tinguely invites the human-machine interface in many of his works, especially the 1959 MetaMatic drawing machines and the most exciting images of his work show this tactile relationship in action.

ting metamatic

Once activated MAMAC’s machine sings a plaintive refrain which belies its crude and frankly dangerous looking mechanics. Meanwhile, in the same gallery sits another Tinguely machine, its power cable severed. It cannot be set in motion and in contrast to the functioning machine it appears trapped in the world of the “look don’t touch” museum. This is a role which recalls the feelings of Bruce Chatwin’s porcelain collector Utz

“An object in a museum case…must suffer the denatured existence of an animal in the zoo.  In any museum the object dies – of suffocation and the public gaze.”

(Chatwin,1998, p.17)

In all these cases there is a sense in which function/life and breakdown/death are separated, highlighted by their difference and that this schism is caused by the human gaze. The anthropomorphic responses deployed above are unidirectional, imposing an anthropocentric approach to understanding anthropomorphism. The binary idea of function and breakdown itself is essentially a piece of anthropocentric anthropomorphism. A non-anthropocentric view of breakdown has to accept that it may not be the flipside of function but rather one of many modes of being. For the machine perhaps breakdown is still a form of function but of another order, or perhaps function is better understood as one of many forms of breakdown.

(this is beginning to sound like a machinic dead parrot sketch)

 

Tinguely at the ICA

Script for Tinguely’s 1959 happening Art, Machines and Motion, at the ICA London.

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This script appears in a 1971 catalogue Machines de Tinguely, Centre National D’Art Contemporain. The catalogue was designed by Tinguely himself and includes photographs of his machines in action often with human partners as well as a number of ink drawings. The script is not transcribed but rather it is presented as an object recorded in photographic form. In fact it is a reproduction of a reproduction, a carbon copy or photocopy (Xerox introduced office photocopiers in 1959) of two sheets of typewritten text bearing the artefacts of the reproductive process. On the first sheet its damaged edges and creases are recorded as inked marks and there are some linear marks which appear to be the result of either a dirty cylinder or marks on the glass of the copy machine. Both sheets fade a little towards the bottom. There is a hand written note in french which appears to comment on the text “letter encore suit”. The original script was written on a typewriter and some letters pop up or drop down below the line of text.

Not wanting to go through the laborious process of mechanically transcribing its contents I decided to put the jpg into some optical character recognition software. This software scans an image and turns it into editable text.

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The results created a sort of linguistic static, interfering and expanding upon the original text. Interestingly they also to some extent resonated with the original happening itself. There is a detailed record of the 1959 happening written soon after the event by Terry Hamilton. It is published in full in Tinguely, Tate Gallery, 1982. He describes the playing of a recording of Tinguely reading the script in halting English while his pronunciation was constantly corrected by an assistant. This performance was simultaneously interfered with by the transmission of an earlier recording of the same script played slightly out of sync. With this in mind it seems unlikely that the content of the speech was as important as the interference set up by its performance. Indeed Hamilton describes the event as being “gloriously funny” and almost completely incomprehensible” and, in a way, Tinguely seems to be prefiguring Barad’s use of diffraction waves as a tool for investigation.

Both the style and content of the text also carry on the theme of interference and movement. There is constant change and contradiction in the language used as Tinguely employs the erratic repetition and mechanical play of one of his machines. Like the structure the content is relentlessly in motion.

“Static! static! static! Be static, Be Static, Movement is static! Movement is static! Movement is static because it is the only immutable thing – the only certainty, the only changeable”

What does this breakdown this mechanical play do? Further reading of Hamilton’s description suggests that there was a feeling that the audience immersed in Tinguely’s machine revealing, as has been suggested in my reading of Barad, Trentmann et al that there is a blurring again of the boundaries of human and machine. For Tinguely breakdown seems to be an immersive tool which makes the machine more human and brings the human literally into the body of the machine. His is a breakdown without rest, even rest is movement for Tinguely. Everything moves.

The mood of the second page is different, it is laid out in three paragraphs which give it more of a sense of structure that the rather relentless first page. There is a call to rethink time, to throw away watches and to link movement to freedom of expression, which seems to prefigure Tim Leary’s counter culture phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out”, 1966. This rather conscious call for social change is less successful than the mechanical message embodied in the happening itself.

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Tinguely’s Happening at the ICA 1959

Slippery Concepts

On Methodology

 

My process of making involves a simple additive mechanism. Working with whatever is within reach and making do rather than sourcing the perfect material I tend to construct as I go rather than planning. If I plan my work it rarely succeeds or seems stale and pictorial. My contingent materials are less “lucky find” (objet trouvé) and more “that will do”, an aesthetic born of practicality, things snapped rather than sawn, tied rather than dovetailed, a button standing in for a washer. The results can be funny, haphazard or completely non-functional.

 

This process of addition goes on, often I overwork the machines I make and they collapse under the wear and tear of their  own manufacture. I am left with nothing except broken parts to be used again. Even successful pieces are broken down if their parts are needed for something new.

 

Talking in the bath my wife explained another way of understanding her Functional Neurological Deficit. She said that searching for words was like grasping at objects under water. 

 

There are two processes at work in her simile the first is perceptual the second a matter of fluid dynamics. Objects in water always appear closer than their actual position making them difficult to grasp using vision alone. 

 

This phenomenon is due to the process of refraction as a wave moves from one transmission medium to another. Returning to Annabel’s aphasia, when she fishes for a word she knows it is there and reaches for it but often comes up with nothing, a silence, or another word. The silence is the most obvious sign of the breakdown in her  language as it fractures her sentences. I always want to fill those gaps. When she finds the wrong word the effect is slightly different, even humorous. There is usually some relationship between the word and its replacement and, because her vocabulary is large, she is often able to access an appropriate substitution leaving her aphasia unnoticed. A recent transposition was “chicken” for “kitchen”, a half rhyme, almost an anagram and associated in meaning but not quite right. In my layman’s imagination I see this visual simile as an example of the fisher being overly conscious in her search for a fish, trying too hard.

 

The other half of the simile is more physical, more to do with touch and acting within a medium. Water, the medium, is a Newtonian fluid which simply means that it will flow the same when a force is applied as when it is left alone. You can see a Newtonian fluid at work when you squeeze a balloon filled with water and watch its deformation. Squeeze it harder and this deformation will be faster and more extreme. Release the pressure and the water and balloon will regain its shape.  Because of this phenomenon trying to catch a small object in the water can be both amusing and frustrating. Just as your hand closes it displaces the medium and the object slips, is propelled, through your fingers. The act of trying to achieve forces the object further away. The harder you try, the more force you apply and the faster the water (and the object) flows away from you. Although you rarely feel the object itself (if it is small) you will always feel the water escaping you. 

 

Laughter and frustration seem to be the main products of this sort of aphasic and slippery breakdown both ideas which recall Deleuze and Guattari’s Desiring Machines and Bergson’s writing on laughter and the truth to be found in breakdown. 

 

In searching for a research methodology for this phd I am drawn to the idea of using the processes of my practice and the slippery breakdown illustrated above. Is it possible to haphazardly gather material to add to my machine, to grasp the wrong thing and use it anyway, to push things to collapse and reuse their parts, to not exactly get what I was aiming for?