Simple Machine

The Simple Machine is an intimate object whose parts can be cradled in the palm of one’s hand. It consists of a nine volt battery, a small motor, and a small object attached to the motor’s spindle.


When assembled the machine will spin and twitch until its power runs out. The assembler must take responsibility for the amount of time it remains assembled as once the power is gone the machine will no longer function. Changing the battery will make a new machine but it will not be the same. In some ways this machine is like a hamster in the hands of a child.

Simple machine

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Annabel’s Stroke – a bystander’s view

In February of 2015 my wife suffered what was later diagnosed as a minor stroke. She experienced loss of feeling, weakness, a drooping eye, loss of fine motor skills, and she forgot many words. She was still going but had definitely experienced some sort of breakdown. After time, even though the physical effects of the stroke had supposedly subsided Annabel was still unable to walk or write well. Consultants came and went, each with slightly different diagnoses. The one that stuck, or at least that we found most interesting, was Functional Neurological Deficit. 

Functional Neurological Deficit or Functional Neurological Disorder is an umbrella term for a series of symptoms which despite their appearance are hard to define psychologically or physically. They are often linked with stress or earlier trauma. The professor who diagnosed Annabel described it as a difficulty of communication between brain and body. He used the analogy of the spinning ball on the computer when a piece of software hangs, the brain was working fine but it wasn’t yet able to execute its commands. He also used a much less technical example. Most of us can walk along a line a few inches wide if it is drawn on the ground but if it is 100 feet in the air, things are very different. Our focus is suddenly so acute, we are so aware of walking, that we can’t do it.  This idea fascinated me as I had been recently making a number of works related to tightrope walking. I was interested in the fear that the high wire brought out in me but also the mundanity of the act. Blondin, once he had crossed the Niagara falls once, spent the rest of his life doing it again and again in one form or another: making an omelette, carrying his manager, pushing his daughter in a wheelbarrow. He died from diabetes at the age of 72 at his home “Niagara House”  in Ealing. The professor’s comments made me think that daring is all about context. 

Annabel’s treatment consisted of a form of physiotherapy which would help her brain remake its connections and stop her thinking too hard about locomotion. She was instructed to walk backwards (she reminded me that Yul Bryner, Westworld’s robot gunslinger, used to run backwards), to carry awkward objects and to imagine strings held her up. This was all intended to engage her conscious mind and to allow her unconscious to get on with the job. 
Often I would hold Annabel’s strings for her, she would walk down a corridor, me behind her, holding her head by an invisible thread. If I was feeling particularly annoying I would hum a song from Pinocchio. Humans, puppets and robots are closely connected. Often in films puppetry is one of the methods used to bring a robot to life. Within science fiction narratives the severing of connections, the cutting of strings, is one of the main ways in which the robot is defeated. 
In Stepford Wives, 1975 one such robot is damaged, stabbed with a knife. It continues to function, making a cup of coffee, but it’s movements become awkward, repetitive, it drops cups and tips coffee on the floor. Part of the horror of the scene comes from our realisation that we are looking at a machine not a woman but there is still something very human about its/her breakdown.
Still today, if tired or under stress, the string slackens and Annabel performs a little automatic curtsy, she occasionally drops a cup. 

Face Puppetry
One of the physiotherapy exercises Annabel performs is a form of face puppetry. She has to imagine an invisible thread running from the tip of her finger to the corner of her lips or cheek or eyebrow. She lifts a finger and her lip curls. 


Face Puppetry

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The End of Machine Number 2

Machine Number 2 has finally expired only hours before its exhibition was due to come to an end. In terms of exhibiting something that is intended to break down this can be seen as something of a success. The news of its collapse came in an email from Matt Burrows:

“I am happy to report that Machine no.2 performed admirably, coincidentally only giving up the ghost just last Friday – the penultimate day of the show – when a paperclip (I think?) gave up and the wiper collapsed over sideways.

It generated a pleasing little pile of MDF/cardboard dust as it slowly ground away, and an ongoing collection of greasy fingerprints at the point where it tapped the glass, but otherwise was remarkably resilient.”


In the end it seems that the machine started to grind itself into its most basic of materials, dust and grease.



Machine number 8, pictured above, can be seen in action in the Instagram feed on this blog.

Another experiment at #FACTLAB

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It has taken the form of a plain cardboard box which houses sensors and motors which effect a rather elegant dance whenever a change in light is detected. At the moment this is usually a passing human but I intend to make more of these machines that will, in various ways, activate each other.


In The Reproductive System, 1968, John Sladek presents a farcical machine of a novel made up of a huge array of parts, both human and machine, which grind together as they head towards mutual destruction. The eponymous protagonist is an endlessly replicating artificial intelligence made up of varying sized metal boxes. Each box deploys tools and sensors from its otherwise inscrutable body as need arises.




FactLab Machines #7

It was chaos in FactLab yesterday. It felt like there were 40 school kids and attendant staff running a workshop in the main space (there may have been only 30). The lab itself was full of bags and coats and sandwiches in tupperware. The invasion of personal and mental space had some effect on the way Machine 7 was put together. The original idea was to drill a hole in the a glass dome and to make a machine that drew in thread until it jammed. Aware of the need not to interrupt the workshop with unnecessary noise, I drilled a little hastily and, applying too much pressure, cracked the dome. Any attempt to continue the process merely elongated the crack a little further. I put the dome to one side and began to work on a piece in which a camera repeatedly headbutted a pingpong ball. It was soon clear that:

a. This would not work at all.


b. It was more connected to my mental state than the project in hand.

I am already struggling to keep on track and I am easily distracted from my mission to make machines that break down. Infact, as far as I know, Machine 2 is still functioning perfectly, it has failed to fail. With this in mind I decided to make a second version of Machine 2, Machine 7. Pictured below Machine 7 uses a toy mechanism to repeatedly tap a camera on the glass of an enclosing dome (see above for genesis of said dome). As the film on the left demonstrates, by chance the pinhole lens of the camera lines up perfectly with my abortive drill hole. The machine is powered through a transformer turned so low that it is held on the point of non-function. It hovers at the point of breakdown much like Rossetti’s, Beata Beatrix, 1864. I am not sure if this a solution to the idea of presenting breakdown over time, but I shall explore further.

File 24-06-2015 15 59 11

Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889
Beata Beatrix c.1864-70 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Presented by Georgiana, Baroness Mount-Temple in memory of her husband, Francis, Baron Mount-Temple 1889

FACTLab Machines #4

Just the facts. Machine 4 consists of a single servo with a polystyrene sphere mounted on it. The servo is connected to a sensor which detects nearby movement and responds to it. The sensor is in fact a long piece of dowel clamped onto a volume controller. Passers-by bump into it. The film is made in FACTLab. At first the camera mounted inside the sphere was somewhat underpowered and could only record a grey, blurred world.

The FACTLab Machines #6

Machine 6 is one of four video pieces made at FACTLab in the last week. It features, and is made by, a simple robot which spins itself until it can do no more. Its breakdown is usually caused by entanglement with the wire from which it hangs, battery failure or impact trauma. Its construction is vary basic as its parts are held together by surgical tape.

The parts include: 2x9v Batteries, a CMOS Mini wireless camera, a small motor and electrical wire (blue). The film is made using two mini dv video cameras and a wireless receiver. In a departure from my usual practice I have left myself in the video (I usually delete myself). This seems to highlight my relationship with the machine, I find it interesting to see myself crouching and touching as we work together.

machine6-1Another association that immediately sprang to mind as I was editing the video was its similarity to a passage in Powell and Pressburger’s Red Shoes, 1948. As the dancer spins we are given a shot of her viewpoint, the theatre lights. Martin Scorsese uses the same shot in Raging Bull, 1980. In both cases it is a moment in which we are placed in the bodies of the otherwise superhuman, it is a disturbing and exhilarating experience.

machine6-2 redshooes machine6-13  Cameraman15raging bull

Fact Lab

 The lab at FACT is now open until August with a busy program of workshops and residencies. I am hoping to use it regularly to make a series of machines. The lab is laid out like an electronics workshop, or at least how I imagine an electronics workshop to be. For me it is an unusual environment which delivers a number of jolts to my system. The first shock is that I am able to find tools instantly without the usual rummaging in boxes. The second shock is that they work. Thirdly its other inhabitants have a knowledge of electronics and programming throws my productions into interesting relief. Physically it is also quite a different environment to the usual spaces in which I work. In the past these have been much more obviously loaded with history. Mostly artist run spaces they have been sited in disused buildings which have included: deconsecrated churches, victorian textile mills converted into multiuse creative spaces, galleries in railway sidings, factory buildings, a costume museum sited in an abandoned medieval house. Here Fact lab is located into Gallery 2′ a space for showing digital media. The room is divided by temporary walls of scaffold and grey fiberboard. Tools are neatly set out and I find myself working on the purpose built benches rather than the floor. The lab is open to the public who appear a little challenged by the idea that they are encountering art in progress rather than finished artworks. I spend a lot of time explaining myself and demonstrating.  
The table-top machine above is the first that is influenced by my surroundings. It uses a single servo and a dowel enhanced lever to move a polystyrene sphere. The servo occasionally shorts causing it to twitch spasmodically. Below is Machine 3 . This consists of a camera and projector mounted on a motorised scrubbing brush. The machine travels around the room projecting what it sees. It tends to end up running in circles seeing and projecting in an almost closed loop. 

Critical Contemporary Culture – Play

Work from my Automatic Filmmaking project, was selected for issue 4 of Critical Contemporary CultureThis work forms the basis of the practice component of my research at MIRIAD. I was also invited to take part in a panel discussion with other contributors: Shen Xin, Laura Eldred and Ximena Galdames. The event was chaired by Dr Helen Kim.



I based my presentation on a discussion of the playground as a site for human/nonhuman intra-action and the abrogation of responsibility.

The Making of Machine 2

Machine 2 was conceived through a number of rough sketches made in blue fountain pen. The drawings represented an idea of a machine rather than a plan for its construction. The machine itself was made in my attic studio from a variety of materials, some recycled. The process used for making this machine is similar to that used previously. It is more akin to dry stone walling than engineering.

A glossary of materials

Windscreen wiper
Found in the gutter, the windscreen wiper represents an upgrade from the original wooden arm. Having pre-drilled holes it was much easier to dismantle for transport to Exeter.

Surgical tape
I had broken my toe only a few weeks earlier and this leftover padded tape was lying around my studio.

Clip on bells
These were dug up from the garden, although a little rusty they still jingled. I attached them to the machine in order to weight the bottom of the arm. The bells improved the swing and made the camera tap on the glass a little more insistently.

Packing tape
This tape has “fragile” printed on it. It is usually used for wrapping sculptures. It was within reach at a vital moment.

Shipped from Hong Kong this is a simple digital camera (find out more), it is tapped against the glass once every 20 seconds. The image it produces is soft and tinged with green. As it repeated hits the glass there are small interferences in the image it transmits to the screen hung on the wall behind it. This image is upside down and as the camera moves it swings in and out of focus. Opposite are a pair of glass automatic doors which open for people to enter the gallery.

Crudely formed with a coping saw to form a base and a cam. The cam is not smoothly cut leading to a juddering motion. There is nothing true about the construction, joints are loose leading to a great deal of play in the workings. This makes the movement of the camera extremely eccentric, tentative even.
Dansette legs
Broken down from a piece of bedroom furniture. The legs can be unscrewed for transport.

Cotton reel
This is used as a linkage for the cam. It is secured with a screw which occasionally slips out. This is the most common breakdown of the machine. The result of this breakdown is that the camera stops tapping on the glass and twitches.

This is a mirror ball motor, it turns at a rate of one revolution every twenty seconds. If over stressed it will grind and can reverse direction. Over time the plastic cogs will lose their teeth, the motor will skip and eventually lose all motion besides a slight judder.