Denis ex Machina

First edit of a documentary video of a solo show at CANAL Project Space Haggerston


Visual documentation

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

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