Artists and the Literature Review

I have to place my work in the context of contemporary practice. This seems to mean, choose some artists and show how their work covers similar ground but also how mine is significantly different. Rather than do precisely this, I want to choose specific moments where my experience of the work of other artists intersect with this research. An apparatus built up of personal experience, academic research and particular works of art. To this end I have chosen to look in detail at Tinguely’s ICA performance and presentation of the Metamatics in 1956; the moment Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, 1990 didn’t work at Tate Modern and Roman Signer holding a rocket in Nicht Loslassen, 1983, mixed with the memory of Challenger’s first flight in 1983 and its last in 1986. In addition to these case studies there are a number of related contemporary phenomena that need mention.

Mika Rottenberg’s Dough 2006, I secretly recorded a video of this on a trip to Berlin in the same year. Rottenberg’s camera travels in a seemingly endless repetitive loop around a bizarrely constructed machine in which the bodies of women are an integral part. At first sight they seems to be workers in a factory, an idea that is backed up by their workwear and slavish attention to the dough. However, they are more than this. the spaces they inhabit appear to be built around their bodies, their sweat is collected and becomes part of the process.


Felix Gonzales-Torres, Untitled (March 5th) #2, 1991, stumbled across in Liverpool this year while avoiding Shia LaBeouf’s appearance at FACT. LaBeouf part of the monstrous “Transformers” engine was part of a work called #Follow. Fans were queuing to see him interact online. Several large bodyguards ensured that they did nothing but look and take selfies. Like the robots that can become cars or buildings or fighter planes the LaBeouf was continuing his transformation between actor and artist. Torres’ piece is far quieter. Though untitled the piece is dated to match the death of his lover. We are invited to see the bulbs as representative of the life of a couple and accept that one will cease to shine before the other. While looking at the work I wonder if anyone has ever been lucky enough to witness the moment of breakdown.


Francis Alys
The Collector, 1991-2006
The machine is made up of the magnetised object, the walker and the camera person, who also provides light at night – Its collection includes metal detritus but also the sights and sounds of the journey through the city. I saw this years ago and remembered it wrongly, thinking Alys was driving a magnetised remote control car.

VW Beetle, Wolfsburg Germany, 2003
Alys pushes a VW Beetle through the streets of Wolfsburg in a slow film which evokes Christ’s journey to Golgotha. It is raining and he has to stop periodically to adjust the steering. The car-human is perhaps the most ubiquitous cyborg in the contemporary world and there is an interesting tension between the Alys-Beetle and the more modern human-cars which patiently maneouver around him.  He is a pitiful cyborg in his halting journey.


Karl Heinz Jeron, Sim Gishel,  a story told to me by Sam Skinner when I first mentioned the subject of my research.

Sim Gishel is a busking robot which performs in various venues, on the street and has entered competitions usually reserved for humans. His rendition of Mad World is both funny and moving as is his awkward dancing which is no less original than say Ian Curtis. The story told to me by Sam involves Sim’s appearance at RichMix, London, 2014. During the set it began to sway so enthusiastically that it fell to the ground and lay twitching on the floor still singing. Although already highly anthropomorphic in character this moment of machinic breakdown seemed to add to the audience’s attachment to it.


Marvin Minsky’s, Ultimate Machine, 1952 – Also called the Useless Machine. Many versions of this machine can be found on YouTube. It is a machine whose sole function is to turn itself off. While it does not breakdown, its function is to cease functioning an act which frustrates the machine human relationship.

Ken Goldberg – A Robot in the Garden blended with Silent Running – Telepresence.

2 jetlagged days in San Francisco with Alan Currall’s, Word Processing, 1995 – forced anthropomorphism and hallucinations


Demers, Shawcross and Stellarc – big things possibly to be avoided.


Two new machines and a tale from the office.


Some weeks ago I made a very simple machine and placed it in FACT’s kitchen. Made from a small box of Pringles (tasty), a push-to-make button, motor and battery, it merely shakes when the button is depressed. At least this is the experience on the outside. A few people did enjoy the highly tactile experience of activating the machine and after time it was taken to a safer home on the desk of the office reception. When I returned a week or so later I was told another story. Radames, one of the artists in charge of FACTlab had been called to the office and asked to repair the machine as it had ceased to function. He described to me the surgical care with which he cut the tape and fixed its wiring. What the users had not realised (although really this is true of all machines) was that with each push of the button this machine twisted its insides tighter and tighter until it tore its wiring apart in a process that blurs function and breakdown.

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This pair are made from a charity shop suitcase, a clockwork Fisher Price television, dansette legs, chopsticks and dowel. The robot dances in front of the case while it plays a melancholic tune. Mechanical melancholia is created through breakdown. This is an idea which again returns to Adorno sitting in the dark listening to his record player wind down, perhaps there is something inherently melancholic in the act of slow return and repeat and the loosening of the clockwork spring. Originally the Fisher Price Television scrolled fairy tale images from left to right while a music box played a well known nursery rhyme. I decided to take it apart and put it back together, a process common in my childhood by which many toys were modified or more likely broken. This time, perhaps in a more knowing way than in my boyhood, I reassembled the ‘television’ with its scroll inside out so that the viewer only sees slowly moving blank paper, a sort of static equivalent. Also, in the process of experimenting with the music box, I loosened and snapped some of the teeth of the metal comb that plays the tune. Now, because of the gaps and dissonance in the tune, a feeling of loss and uncertainty is created. The original nursery rhyme is completely disappeared, in its place a sort of fugue.

The dancer is made from the card cut from the suitcase, some stepped motors and chopsticks taken from my train-journey-dinner. The dancer has a sort of sad insouciance a product of slowly turning legs bowing under the weight of its fading batteries. It dances only when I watch, the phenomenon is born from the apparatus (me-machines) which find moments of connection between the halting music and its movements.


A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past

Made from twice fired porcelain, dowel, Mdf, plastic tube, wing nuts, washers and a Dremel polishing head this machine yet again functions far better than expected. Indeed, once an equilibrium was found, it ground away for several hours and only ceased to work when I finally cut the power. Admittedly several hours is not long in terms of the usual expectation for the longevity of a machine but it did seem that it would go on for a considerable time. In making this piece I was hoping to explore its function in terms of difference to what might be seen as a “proper” machine.


Proper seems an appropriate word as it suggests behaviour fitting to status. A proper machine performs a function, it repeats accurately, and its parts work together with relative harmony. This of course doesn’t last forever, even a proper machine, like any faithful retainer, will wear out eventually. It may become temperamental with age or throw a part of itself out of true.

Ways in which the Porcelain Machine is not “proper”

  1. It is dry. “Proper” mechanical engines are grease filled things, the lubrication prevents wear as parts push against each other. Friction and the heat it creates can lead the machine to seize. Porcelain Machine expresses its dryness through a series of scrapings and jarrings.
  2. It lacks precision in the relation of its parts. a “proper” machine will be well made in that its various cogs and levers will fit together precisely and so move smoothly through a series of regular motions. The Porcelain Machine performs similar, but not identical, repeated actions as a result of the imprecision of its parts. Here its material does not help, which is uneven in thickness and surface, and bears fingerprint evidence of its inept manufacture.
  3. Porcelain Machine has no  practical function. It produces nothing beyond the sounds and movements of its existence, it is a faineant.


Rebecca Horn & Baudrillard

Hayward, Rebecca Horn, Bodylandscapes, 2005 

Guggenheim Museum, Rebecca Horn, 1993

Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1993

Rebecca Horn, Concert for Anarchy, 1990

Rebecca Horn, Untitled (Brush Machine), 1993


In the 1960s and 70s Horn started to use small motors in her sculptures and it is these motorised works that this post will concentrate upon.  In her catalogue essay “Ten observations about the race of feelings and drawing in post mechanical times” (Hayward, 2005, p23-27) Amin Zweite places Horn’s work in an age of “machinic pessimism” and identifies her as a direct descendent of Tinguely. However, there are a number of ways in which Horn’s machinic works differ from Tinguely’s, especially in their relationship to the human body and in Horn’s personal relationship with her sculpture. Horn herself foregrounds her personal bodily experience as being essential to an understanding of her work. She cites a long period of incarceration in a sanatorium with lung damage as being highly influential in the development of her ideas. This is perhaps not surprising as her early performative works highlight the strong connection between her own body and various extensions and additions. As Germano Celant notes in the first of two Bastille Interviews published in Horn’s 1992 Guggenheim catalogue:


In the early work, you were the human body becoming the machine and then, slowly, this body disappears and a machine comes in, replacing it.

(Guggenheim Museum, 1992, p17)


Indeed from the early 70s on much of her work seems to deal with the body or rather its absence and often there is a feeling that the body itself has been pared away from her machines leaving just the essential mechanism behind. 


Zweite continues this interpretation by evoking a sexualised interpretation of Horn’s work, citing Diderot’s Les Bijoux Indiscrets 1748 (in which female genitalia are made to speak by means of a magic ring) and the way in which Horn’s machines repeat “rhythmical tasks” (Hayward, 2005, p26) and are seen to “flirt, quiver and sigh” (Hayward, 2005, p27). 

The autoerotic caress implied in Horn’s feather and paintbrush mechanisms as they inch and shiver through simple motions are subtly different in their relationship to the human especially when compared to Tinguely’s MetamMatics. The MetaMatics are outward looking, interactive, attention seeking even. They rely on human interaction to complete their purpose. Horn’s machines on the other hand are self contained, they function or not on their own terms they are posthuman in a way that recalls Baudrillard’s explanation of the difference between automata and robots in Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1993. An automaton he states is a counterfeit, a mechanical courtier, a flatterer, whose only destiny is to be compared with man whereas, for Baudrillard, the robot has the upper hand:

there is nothing like this with the robot. The robot no longer needs appearances, it’s only truth is its mechanical efficiency. It no longer needs to resemble man, to whom it is inevitably compared

(Baudrillard, 1993, p.54)

Baudrillard’s view is bleak, and filled with similar anxiety as seen in the writing of Virilio and Stiegler. He uses the language of takeover and replacement which evokes the worlds of Terminator, 1985 and Matrix, 1999. The talk is of replacing reality and man, of reproducing, proliferation and of men becoming like machines, Baudrillard is foretelling:


 a hegemony of the robot, of the machine, of dead labour over living labour. 

(Baudrillard, 1993, p.54)


Baudrillard’s views here again highlight the common science fiction trope of the robot as rebellious slave and the merging of the human and mechanical worlds. 

The private worlds of Horn’s machines is illustrated eloquently by her Tate piece, Concert for Anarchy, 1990 which can be treated as a parallel text to Baudrillard’s in that while it agrees with his sense of robotic autonomy it rejects the connection of machine to labour and also perhaps replaces his anxiety with melancholy.  In a sense it is a machine gone mad, a rebellious machine which defies gravity and its original purpose. Unplayable it hangs from the ceiling and occasionally and slowly and gently spews out its keys. More often than not, when I have visited it, it has broken down. The anthropomorphic response is that it is somehow refusing to perform, it doesn’t feel like it today and that I will have to go away and hope to catch it in a more cooperative mood next time. Horn also characterises her work with human traits, especially when it breaks down. She refers to this in both Bastille interviews.


RH: Have you ever seen a car run forever? Like us they have a lifespan. They are human when they faint and then die.

 (Guggenheim Museum, 1993, p17)


RH:  for me, all of these machines have a soul because they act, shake, tremble, faint, almost fall apart, and then come back to life again. They are not perfect machines.

 (Guggenheim Museum, 1993, p18)


RH: They react as we react. My machines are not washing machines or cars. They have a human quality and must change. They get nervous and must stop sometimes. If a machine stops it doesn’t mean it is broken. It’s just tired. I don’t want them to run forever. It’s part of their life that they stop and faint. 

(Guggenheim Museum, 1993, p27)


For Horn humanity is evoked in breakdown but also in autonomy. They are not cars or washing machines, tied to labour in service of the human, they break from the repetitive in their desire for change. They lack perfection, but unlike the more boisterous “play” of Tinguely’s machines, she suggests a nervy delicate disposition. Horn keeps returning to the word “faint” which may have special resonance for her given her history of respiratory illness. Fainting or Syncope, meaning a thorough cutting off, is caused by a lack of oxygen getting to the brain and a miscommunication between brain and the autonomic nervous system. 


Under certain circumstances, a decrease in the amount of blood returning to the heart via the veins causes a drop in blood pressure. The autonomic nervous system compensates by making the heart beat faster and harder. Sometimes the brain responds inappropriately, however, resulting in a further drop in blood pressure and slowing of the heart rate. This causes a type of fainting known as neurocardiogenic syncope.



Fainting can be caused by a range of physical and emotional responses including stress and overcrowding and its mechanical equivalent could be seizing, a process by which moving parts might jam due to excessive temperature, pressure or friction. The fictional robotic faint, the short circuit, forms a further bridge between the human and the mechanical. It is a process that is continually returned to in Asimov’s I Robot, 1950 in which the positronic brain is constantly breaking down because of conflicts in its programming. The same event, and possibly the first robot faint, is played out in Forbidden Planet, 1956. When Robbie is ordered to shoot a human the robot’s internal conflicts are made visible through an electrical lightshow in his glass domed brain. The idea of mechanical breakdown and human breakdown is conflated in Horn’s work but it doesn’t identify her machines as copies of humans but rather as being “like human”.Nor are they perhaps free in the way Tinguely hoped for. 


RH: I see them as melancholic actors performing in solitude.

(Guggenheim, 1993, p27)