Thursday, 29 April 1999

The Nature of the Machine: Jeff Mann, Mike O'Brien, Victoria Scott, and Norman White

"We are surrounded by a society which has become so ingrained in its technology, so steeped in it, that it is almost an inescapable death hold . . . So what we are doing is we are taking technology and using it . . . hoping this will pull us out."1

Jeff Mann, Mike O'Brien, Victoria Scott, and Norman White make artworks that are individual and idiosyncratic the result of personal explorations that are equal parts technological experimentation and philosophical inquiry. These artists are united not by thematic or formal similarities in their work, but rather by their approach to art making. They share a common enthusiasm in solving the problems of engineering their complex work and they share a common faith in the transcendent and revelatory experience of invention. These artists have an intimate relationship with the technologies that they use: they are engaged in all aspects of the problems of design, engineering and fabrication out of curiosity and out of conviction.

"By making the machines, by going through the technological process of working through the technology, learning how to build this thing that you have in your head, it is almost like reverse engineering. And in making it real, the machine starts to make you. You see everything that you have been trying to work through. You have made errors. You see those errors . . . [I think that] if I learn how to make this machine and understand the machine, I'll learn something about myself."2

Process is important to these artists, and making errors of design and engineering is a part of the internal dialogue in which they are involved. In contrast to those who make art conceptually or incorporate advanced computer systems and software, these artists insist on having a more intimate relationship with their technology, on getting their hands dirty, and getting inside it to know how it works. Taking apart an old machine, salvaging its parts, adapting it for other purposes, and just plain misusing the technology results in missteps but also in discoveries - important rites of passage. Moreover, these artists see the cannibalization of obsolete technology and its attendant reincarnation in the form of pathetic machines as a meaningful drama. Victoria Scott sees this as re-imagining technology, "in a way that speaks more to the human."3 Norman White refers to this process as being like the Uroboros, the ancient symbol of time represented by a snake eating its tail, "devouring the engineering, making something that is almost irrelevant to the engineering, [where] utility is no longer the quest."4

Devouring technology today, however, is a tall order. The accelerated pace of development in the field of micro-processing makes it all but impossible for anyone but a specialist to have a deep understanding of contemporary technology. Because these artists insist on having a profound understanding of the machines with which they work, they revert to simpler technologies. Norman White, for example, has adapted and programmed a 15-year-old computer design, the 8086, to create The Helpless Robot (1987-1999). Jeff Mann programmed a seven-year-old Macintosh computer, running Max language and Quick Time, to produce Adult Contemporary, (1999).
Victoria Scott takes the technology challenge in the opposite direction, rejecting baroque complexity and championing a reductionist mechanical aesthetic. She sees meaning and eloquence in stripped down and simplified mechanics, which in their essential functionality may become, in her words, " . . . a visual metaphor for the larger piece." Scott also rejects high gloss or industrial finishes, preferring a rougher, home-built feeling a "technology that looks like somebody has been touching it."5Michael O'Brien prizes simplicity of design as well. He de-emphasizes the mechanical nature of the work, preferring instead that the viewer focus on the content of the work and not the form, ". . . so that the action is the pure centre of interest."6

Motion, it goes without saying, is fundamental to kinetic art, but it has also played a significant role in the development of the more traditional media arts. The power and dynamism of machines influenced early twentieth-century visual artists such as the Italian Futurists, who attempted to communicate kinetic power in their paintings.7 Much of the popular appeal of the comedic actor Charlie Chaplin may have come from his mechanical mannerisms. His movie Modern Times, (1936), expressed Chaplin's pessimistic, dystopic and tragic-comic view of the human consequences of technology.8 As well, popular dance in the last quarter of the twentieth century has been significantly influenced by mechanical rhythms and movement.9

Kinetic artists in turn see the movements they are able to create with their machines as expressive and eloquent. Norman White's Sim-2, 1993, was a device that addressed this parallel directly. Together with dancer Bettel Liota he created a mechanism that both recorded and played back human gestural movement a sort of gramophone for dance. Mechanical movement can also suggest deeper realities. Victoria Scott is interested in motion as a way to create a field of resonant, sympathetic vibration that may recall sexual energy or life-force. The movement in Michael O'Brien's work may suggest deeper cycles in nature such as the shifting of tectonic plates. But it's motion's illusions that enchant, and it is kinetic sculpture's sense of aliveness of being "like life," like technologically inspired Pygmalions, that is a source of fascination for the artist and viewer. "Machines are a lot like people," says Jeff Mann. "They are more like people than anything else."10

As much as the machines may resemble humans, they are resolutely alien, and their alien qualities resonate in us as well. Kinetic art may simply bring into relief the oddness of mechanical behaviour. Victoria Scott likens the function of the artist to that of a counsellor who gives the machine open space, permission as it were, to be what it essentially is: a machine, simultaneously a human reflection and human ersatz, a clue to the physical and emotional world we inhabit, and at the same time, a vibrating question mark.

The result of these artists' engagement with technology is a commentary on our contemporary mechanised environment. Implied in this work is a critique of the modernist ideology of personal, social, and political technological mastery. The construction of these complex and enigmatic objects, proposes a creative, interactive and open alternative to the meccano/technological ideology of control. Searching for a balance, these four artists are inventing alternative technologies: technologies that don't alter the world, but describe it. They are giving physical form to the universe of mechanisms both real and imagined, and reflecting on the nature of the machine.

Gordon Hatt

  1. Norman White, Interview with the artist, April 19, 1999.
  2. Victoria Scott, Interview with the artist, April 19, 1999.
  3. Victoria Scott, idem.
  4. Norman White, ibid.
  5. Victoria Scott, ibid.
  6. Michael O'Brien, Interview with the artist, April 19, 1999.
  7. The Futurists saw in modern industrial society a radical break with the tradition-bound past, and hailed a future promising unbridled personal and cultural freedom through technology. Many artists around the turn of the century were concerned with the representation of movement as a reflection of the social psychological impact of the automobile, train, air travel and telecommunication. In addition to the Futurists, artists such as Robert Delaunay, Robert del la Fresnaye, and the early Marcel Duchamp in Paris, in Russia Kasimir Malevich, combined the aspects of Cubism with an interest mechanical dynamics.
  8. In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin plays a factory worker consumed by the machine of modern industry. He plays a victim of automation, who goes from a dehumanizing assembly line to a mental institution, where he ends up much happier.
  9. Michael Jackson seems to have popularized the dance called The Robot around 1974, when he performed it on television to the Jackson Five's hit, Dancin' Machine. The Robot is a mechanical dance style that involves moving the limbs at constant speed from one position to the other, ending up with a snap or Tick' of the body, just as a mechanical device would. Usually only one part of the body moves at a time, which makes it look as if the body is under the control of a program, and systematically doing the moves.
  10. Jeff Mann, Interview with the artist, April 19, 1999.

List of Works in the Exhibition
  1. Norman T. White, Facing Out Laying Low, Version 2, Plexiglas, custom-programmed microcomputer, electronics,servo-motors, 1998-99, 69cm h. x 46cm x 46cm.
    Description: A microcomputer-controlled, interactive robot, Facing Out Laying Low, Version 2 surveys its surroundings from a fixed point, and responds to activity it finds "interesting" with a variety of audio responses (the first version employed coded brownian trills, while later versions used synthesized voice). It has gone through six major hardware/software revisions, and is still to realize its intended perceptual subtlety: educated guesses, etc.
  2. Norman T. White, The Helpless Robot, plywood, steel, custom-programmed microcomputer, electronics,optical position encoder, 1987-1999, 190cm h. x 100cm x 178cm.
    Description: A free-standing kinetic sculpture, free to rotate upon itsbase. The work is essentially passive, depending on its electronic voice to enlist the muscles of human beings.
  3. Michael O'Brien, Untitled,
    Description: A box of stones with a series of valves underneath the surface. The lifting of the valves makes the stones appear to lift/displace in random sections at different times.
  4. Michael O'Brien, Untitled,
    Description: An articulated bronzed tree branch, slowly moved by a housed motor that is attached to it.
  5. Victoria Scott, Coil Room, 1995, steel coils, electric motors, switches, each coil 4 ft. w x 8 - 10 ft. high, installation 500 - 1500 sq. ft.
    Description: Fifteen vibrating, inverted steel coils, are suspended from the ceiling almost to the floor. They are spaced apart so that viewers may walk among them like an exotic/erotic garden, powered by sexual energy. The spirals movement is controlled by a slowly rotating 3 foot round disk imprinted with a colour image of a vulva, which acts as a switch.
  6. Jeff Mann, Source Follower, 1996, mixed media.
    Desciption: Source Follower, is a plastic sheet suspended in an updraft produced by a fan. Its undulating movements create changes in electric fields which are detected by several antennae. Small speakers emit sounds that vary in pitch according to the movements.
  7. Jeff Mann, Adult Contemporary, 1999, mixed media.
    Description: Adult Contemporary is an interactive video installation recently completed as a result of the Tactile Video workshop at InterAccess. The hyper-repetition of short music video segments creates vibrating moments of fluid time. "An intense experience of the minutiae of human expression, the music within the music, the performance within the performance."

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