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.