Matthew Bowman has written this insightful review of my show at The Minories Colchester. Many thanks to Kaavous Clayton for inviting me to exhibit.
Clusters of machines that probe our relationship with mechanical objects when they break down.
Friday 16 June 6-9pm
Saturday 17 June to Saturday 27 August 2017
Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm
Alex Pearl is interested in the way we relate to machines, particularly in the way we relate to them when they break down. This area of research feels increasingly relevant as our interaction with machines increases on a daily basis.
We rely on machines for many of our daily tasks – from drying hair to toasting bread, moving us around to documenting thoughts, capturing images to sharing almost everything, we probably engage more with machines than we do with other human-beings. We are so continuously contiguous with our phones that we are virtually cyborgs, and with the development of technological implants, that science fiction is very close to becoming a reality.
Our exchanges with machines are usually off-hand and casual – if we are familiar with them we use them almost without thinking. But what happens when machines break down? How does our relationship with them alter? This question is at the crux of Alex’s work, and the machines he makes often do break down as he builds in a tendency to failure, whether through bad workmanship (deliberate or otherwise) or by constructing something that only just works, thereby increasing the likelihood of it not working.
When a machine breaks down we pay a lot more attention to it – feelings of frustration or anger are sometimes vented on it, and we often act as if the machine is sentient and has chosen to break down in some kind of malicious attempt to stop us doing from what we were trying to do. This anthropomorphism of machines can induce us to shout or swear at them, call them names, or perhaps (in the famous scene in Fawlty Towers where Basil’s car breaks down) thrash them with a branch.
The humorous aspect of this behavior has not gone unnoticed by Alex, and he exploits the ridiculousness of our relationship with, and attitude towards these amalgemations of dumb materials to produce works that highlight some of these emotions and reactions. He produces works that build towards collapse, and teeter on the edge of failure, drawing us in with the thrill of anticipation as we wait for something momentous to occur, until we begin to understand that maybe nothing will take place, and walk away bemused but maybe also amused.
The machines and videos displayed in Love Machines have largely been conceived and constructed in FACTLab, an open facility developed by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology in Liverpool) to allow artists and technologists to explore their technoerotic fascinations. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to approach the machines consciously and cautiously, and consider their relationship to them. The machines will also develop their own relationship with the space they inhabit and any body that approaches them. As they approach breakdown they will be repaired, reconfigured and replaced. This act will be a performative element of the exhibition but not quite a performance.
Alex says about his work: “Even in 1932, mechanologists like Jacques Lafitte were seeking to break down the perceived barrier between what was considered human and what was considered machine. Of course, robots had already been invented and were often (like Fritz Lang’s Maria in Metropolis) running amok, tearing down the human world. Now, while we continue to be anxious about the machine, our intimacies with metal and silicon have never been greater. We love (and hate) machines. The relationships explored in Love Machines are a little less violent than much Science Fiction but no less intimate. Hopefully in this exhibition there is a level of (self)love in the material exchanges experienced by the viewer, the artist and the machines.”
About the artist
Alex Pearl’s practice encompasses video, sculpture, photography, and occasionally even performance. It plays with ideas of chance, quotidian struggles, loss of control and failure. Currently he is working on a practice led PhD in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and FACT, for which he is making a number of machines and films investigating the relationship between mechanical breakdown and anthropomorphism. His title is Breakdown: Mechanical Dysfunction and Anthropomorphism.
Pearl’s work displays a boyish fascination with the structures and images of Science Fiction. His machines often resemble the productions of a crackpot hobbyist, an ersatz Rotwang without the funding or genius. He has exhibited nationally and internationally in venues such as: The Sydney Opera House, Tate Britain, the Whitstable Biennale and a small hut in Siberia. He has also been unsuccessful in more than one grant application. These have included Arts Council funding to slaughter rival artists, a British Antarctic Survey application not to go to the Antarctic and planning permission to build a rocket launch pad in a gallery in Bristol.
First edit of a documentary video of a solo show at CANAL Project Space Haggerston
Denis ex Machina
Machines? Extension of man, integrating into himself, extension of social structures and integrating into them, they are, at all times, identical to ourselves. They are us; they are, like us, beautiful, and ugly, like us. To develop them, to construct them, is to construct ourselves.
(Lafitte, 1932/1972, p. 101)
In Reflections on the Science of Machines Jacques Lafitte anticipates McLuhan and Haraway, among others, in declaring a relationship between human and machine that is more than connection between discrete bodies. Rather there is the suggestion that what we might call ‘humans’ and what we might call ‘machines’ are parts of fully integrated linkages touching, changing and transmitting.
The Deus ex Machina was a theatrical device that epitomised this idea. First used by Aeschlus and Euripides it originally had an entirely mechanical form. A crane (mecane) was used to transform an actor into a god by flying him in over the Skene. The machina was deployed to dig the story out of a plot hole. It made a conscious break in the narrative and, to create a god, a sort of theatrical cyborg was enacted. The Deus ex Machina relied upon the smooth operation of its component parts: beam, winch, rope, theatre, play, audience, actor. But what happens when things break down?
Denis ex Machina presents practice led research as part of an Industry based PHD studentship with MIRIAD and FACT exploring mechanical dysfunction and anthropomorphism. For this exhibition CANAL Project Space will become part theatre, part playground, part test site for a series of machines which exist on the cusp of function and breakdown. An important aspect of these machines is that they are, to some extent, self-regarding. Video cameras and other sensor devices are integral parts of their mechanisms presenting a live feed of, and responding to, both their own inner workings and immediate surroundings. Throughout the exhibition I will also be present to tinker with, repair and observe the machines. During this time, like any visitor to the exhibition, I will be ‘seen’ by the machines becoming a part of the mechanism.
ISSUE 1-4 can be downloaded here
“Machines? Extension of man, integrating into himself, extension of social structures and integrating into them, they are, at all times, identical to ourselves. They are us; they are, like us, beautiful, and ugly, like us. To develop them, to construct them, is to construct ourselves.”
(Lafitte, 1932/1972, p. 101)
This statement by the first? Mechanologist Jacques Lafitte prefigures McLuhan and Haraway among others in declaring a relationship between human and machine that is more than connection between discrete bodies. Rather there is the suggestion that what we might call ‘humans’ and what we might call ‘machines’ are parts of fully integrated linkages touching, changing and transmitting.
ISSUE is an ongoing series of limited edition bound publications which, both in form and content explore the integrated understanding described above. They have been assembled, much like the machines of Breakdown, from available material and much (though not all) of their content relates to my current research. The processes involved in making these books/zines, binding, printing and pagination, create new relationships and juxtapositions of the material as do the inevitable breakdowns of mis-pagination, inversion, poor registration and machine failure that plague my efforts. Each ISSUE is produced in small editions of 5-7 with each individual displaying small to significant variation.
There follows a run down of ISSUE 1-7 in term’s of their form, content and variation.
Cover: Scrapbook paper taken from an album assembled by my family following a trip to America in 1976. My brother and I, finding the tales too onerous, soon gave up leaving many pages blank. The cover is printed using an inkjet printer and depicts the reactions of visitors to Jean Tinguely’s Metamatics in the 1950s and 60s.
Interior: Printed, typed and drawn on a discarded batch of thin sugar paper. Each sheet had to be taped to stronger paper to avoid the inkjet printer chewing it up. Some creasing and tearing still occurred as well as damage from the masking tape. Inkjet printing also tended to bleed though onto the reverse of each page causing visual interference. Multiple copies were achieved using blue carbon paper. There is evidence of smudging.
Binding: Sewn using waxed thread – a traditional bookbinding method.
Content: Being the first issue ISSUE 1 is filled as if there might not be any future issues, it is the only issue so far to contain a contents list, adjusted in each copy to cover the vagaries of my pagination. It contains amongst other things:
1. Images of the machines of Breakdown.
2. A manifesto written by Tinguely but then rendered even more unintelligible by optical character recognition software.
3. Three pieces of writing in which I discuss Functional Neurological Deficit, the mechanical seize and what it is like to be a robot.
4. Quotes by science fiction writer Brian Aldiss and ancient Greek poet Antiphanes.
This content is occasionally printed upside down, mis-paginated and interrupted by typographical mistakes. In one case the following Victor Frankenstein’s final words by Aldiss from his 1973 novel Frankenstein Unbound appears opposite a video still taken by a machine of its own inner workings.
“A purpose must be found, invented if necessary, a human purpose, human, putting us in control, fighting the itness of the great wheeling world.” (Aldiss, 1990, p.190)
It is clear in Aldiss’ narrative that Frankenstein is fighting the inevitable, and as perhaps the image opposite suggests in railing against the wheeling world, he is angry at himself. One thing that the book format (and its breakdowns) highlights is the connectedness of things.
As the paper stock was not depleted in the production of ISSUE 1 this issue is almost identical in format and production.
The content of ISSUE 2 mixes several narratives as well as references to the writing of Italo Calvino and J.G. Ballard. Passages describing a childhood trip to America are intertwined with the story of finding a box of 1970s slides (also from America) as well as a memory of an art teacher who painted science fiction book covers. The issue has a post apocalyptic feel as it links distant memory with recovered artefacts.
At this stage the original paper stock was running low requiring the addition of exercise book paper and a record sleeve. This edition moves away from narrative and juxtaposes a number of human-machine assemblages including in no particular order: Adorno and his record player, chains/Houdini/locks, Blondin/rope, aeroplane/Exupery. Other perhaps more mundane assemblages are represented by the chairlift, belisha beacons, and the inkjet printer which makes itself known by running low on ink and producing a broken image. In each case breakdown or the potential of breakdown are vital to the way in which the human and machine elements are connected.
Coming soon… ISSUES 4-7
This clip has encouraged me to make a more careful film using the mecane. I plan to extend the machine by adding more cameras and microphones to its mechanism.
(Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae, 411 BC)
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….
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.