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.
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.
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.”
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)