All posts by Annie

Performing Machines

Using machines to produce artwork is an easy concept to grasp – since Andy Warhol’s Factory we are used to the idea of art as a commodity, and artist as facilitator, not necessary the single-handed producer. But what about when it is the machines that are the artwork, and no longer work to produce, but work as a performance. It is not the artist doing the physical work (or even their assistants) but the machine. In physics the concept of work can be interpreted as the measurement of the accomplishment of a task. To do work, effort (force) is required. However effort does not necessarily mean that work is done. The effort must accomplish something… a displacement must accompany the effort. But when a machine does not accomplish anything, as is the case in the examples I’m exploring, the act of working then becomes the work. There is no end commodity except work itself. With no end goal the ‘work’ is exposed.

Architect Helena Mattsson discusses this exposure of work in terms of the relationship between public space and work space. Work is turned into a commodity: “By introducing a public space into what is normally a closed structure, the organisation is opened up and the internal parts of its machinery are laid out for public inspection. This exhibitionistic display aestheticises everyday life, as well as work, by making it into entertainment”. In Manchester, our rich industrial heritage often seeps into our art. The once private cotton industry has become aesthetised by museums, and reinterpreted by artists. The cotton industry was famously dangerous and unethical; factories were tucked away, just outside cities, with the workers housed together, also hidden. By making machines perform, artists (like museums) are exposing the beauty of industry whilst also dismissing the pressure of production (a pressure felt by both factory workers and artists alike). In this blog I have found examples of artworks that involve machines as artworks, working to no end other than to perform.

The Reversing Machine (A Theatre of Kairos and Chronos) 2012Sam Belinfante and Simon Lewandowski

The Reversing Machine is a time-setting mechanism which can be connected up to different machines, acting as a drive shaft to power them to run forwards, then backwards. First shown at Art Laboratory Berlin at part of the exhibition ‘Fantastic Time Machines’ 2012, where it powered machines such as a turntable, a drawing machine and a slide projector. The work will be shown at the new Project Space Leeds (soon to be the ‘The Tetley‘) in December 2013, for which the artists are looking for musicians to submit palindromic or bi-directional compositions.

Almost Certified (grade A noise for non-discerning consumers), 2004, Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree

This bizarre sound machine consists of a series of eggs of various unconventional varieties and sizes. The eggs are tapped by an aluminium mallet, and amplified. The process is operated by an obsolete 1993 Mac LC III. The piece was first displayed in 2004 at Machine Project Guide to Cultural History and the Natural Sciences, Pomona College Museum of Art, California.

Interesting blog article here

Physical Echoes, 2013, James Medd

This drawing machine makes marks responding to real-time sound. It initially produces drawings that echo the ambience of whatever space the machine is in, but over time these drawings become a scribbled block as the pens move back and forth over the same space. The more the machines work, the less meaning their output has. First displayed at Digital Performance Lab at the University of Salford.

video: Blog about the project here:

Homage to New York, 1960Jean Tinguely

Sometimes the most iconic artworks are the ones that fail. In 1960 Jean Tinguely undertook the hugely ambitious Homage to New York, a self-destructing artwork constructed in the sculpture garden of MOMA. The piece was enormous (27 ft wide and 23 ft high) and consisted of many intricate mechanical elements including a weather balloon which inflated until it burst, a painting machine, a player piano, a bottle smashing machine, and a recording of the artist explaining the work. It whirled, smoked, smashed and burned, performing for 27 minutes but failed to completely self-destruct.

Here’s an excerpt from D.A. Pennebaker’s film documenting the event:

Audio lecture about Homage to New York here. There’s a Tinguely museum in Basel:

When Robots Rule : The Two Minute Airplane Factory, 1999Chris Burden
Another famous mechanical failure. The Two Minute Airplane Factory was on display in Tate Britain in 1999. The machine was supposed to make a paper airplane every two minutes, launching it 20 m high so that it circled the Duveen galleries, before gently coming to rest on the floor. The planes would then be for sale in the Tate shop. The machine failed to produce one paper airplane. The viewers, instead of watching the beautiful efficiency of a completely mechanised factory line, could watch the Tate gallery technicians trying in vain to get the machine to work. The only plane on display was the one made by Burden – by hand. Many think the mechanical failure was part of the piece; it may have never meant to be a performing machine, but rather performing management. Also see David Barrett article:

The Work of the Non-Professional

Essay for Dead Data – Orreries and Other Objects, Rogue Project Space, Manchester, 2013

Amateur astronomers, like artists, do their work for the love of it, not financial gain. Within the field of astronomy the word ‘amateur’ is not derogatory, as it can be in other fields. Amateurs are recognised as vitally important. In astronomy, new professional research relies on the work of amateurs to provide data. With their multitude of beady eyes and instruments, it is often amateurs who make first discoveries. They are experts in their field, despite being generally self-taught.

In the field of art, even ‘professional’ artists would likely have worked unpaid for a good proportion of their career. Many of the most groundbreaking, history-making artists of recent years, have produced their best work whilst being nonprofessional (Duchamp made Large Glass whilst working as a librarian). The thing that really gives artists the raw deal is that they are not amateurs in the traditional meaning of the word, as the majority have had years of formal training. They are qualified, yet still nonprofessional.

But maybe this is the way it needs to be. Both artists and amateur astronomers need the complete freedom that only comes with work not caught up in financial gain. Getting money for making art generally requires a great deal of hoop jumping, application filling, and concept tweaking. Likewise professional scientists are restrained by the strand of research they are paid to do (Einstein devised special relativity whilst working as a clerk in a patent office). But when left free to explore, both artists and amateur astronomers develop unique reflections on their observations of the world, both pushing their disciplines forward in what is perhaps not so distinct ways.

Antony Hall’s ‘Tabletop Experiments’ involve fearlessly acting on the childlike curiosity that professional scientists have to suppress to get the job done. Hall has cleverly used the funding and opportunities available to artists to allow him the freedom to work as a kind of amateur scientist. He has found his place in the boundless sphere of art to play in a way he could never do as a professional scientist. He says: ‘Through presenting active investigative processes, the work is a continuous play on potential failure and possible solution, where failure is as important as resolution.’ Indeed, failure is an important learning tool, allowed to the amateur but rarely to the professional.

Amateur astronomers can do whatever they want – time, weather, and equipment permitting – and they do. Like art, this freedom often leads to explorations of very niche subjects. At the Godlee Observatory Kevin Kilburn andTony Cross spend a few hours almost every day observing the sun in the specific wavelength of hydrogen-alpha (very deep red). This time donated to such regular solar observations, makes them as familiar with its surface as any professional scientist. The Godlee astronomers also study the lunar surface colour, a little-explored subject in over 200 years of amateur astronomy. Mapping the surface colour of the Moon will lead to new data on its surface mineralogy, providing vital clues to the early development of the solar system.

The work of amateur astronomers can easily be related to the work of Dave Griffiths, something he is clearly fully aware of given the titles of his pieces. For instance, Griffiths Cue-Dot Observatory involved a five year ‘detection period’, where Griffiths found and catalogued 1,900 cue-dot pairs (the barely visible markers used in film to alert the projectionist to change the reel). Like the astronomers at Manchester Astronomical Society, Griffiths has spent hours simply observing, documenting and archiving. Like Kilburn and Cross, through a unique inquiry Griffiths has become a leading practitioner in a very specific field.

Безымень, by Tom Railton, highlights a tension between the professional and nonprofessional. As is often the case in science, an amateur’s discovery can be overlooked by history in favour of a more publicised professional scientist’s. The race for recognition, as employed by the professional, is another factor adding to the restraint of the professional. Railton first exhibited his piece a mere two months before Katie Paterson unveiled Campo del Cielo, Field of Sky, a work which also involved a meteorite being moulded, cast, melted and remade into a copy of its original form. Railton was a student at the time, with no professional validation. Безымень, despite being done first, is in danger of being lost in history to the bigger, shinier meteorite of Paterson.

Dead Data: Orreries and Other Objects celebrates the nonprofessional, by bringing the labour of artists and amateur astronomers together, and highlighting the job satisfaction achieved when the work of one is free to be influenced by the other.

Trying to Hit the Video Camera With a Ping Pong Ball

Trying to Hit the Video Camera with a Ping Pong Ball is a one-shot, ten minute long looped film of a white wall. The white wall is regularly interceded by a number of ping pong balls which sometimes fly straight through the shot and sometimes bounce off the lens of the camera. Intermittently there is the sound of someone walking around the large echoey space picking up the balls, only to re-start the unavailing activity of once again throwing them at the camera.

Work Done

Work Done explores the concept of ‘work’. 160 joules of work was put into this piece to overcome gravity and lift the ‘block of art’ from the floor to its current position.

Defying Entropy Attempt #3

In July 2012 I was artist in residence at Leamington Spa Oxfam bookshop for one week. For every day that I was there I attempted to learn a new skill based on the books available in the shop.

Day one: ‘How to do Calligraphy’
Day two: ‘How to Make and Fly Paper Aircraft’
Day three: ‘How to Solve Cryptic Crosswords’
Day four: ‘How to make a Matchstick Model’
Day five: ‘How to Deal with Difficult People’

Defying Entropy Attempt #3 is a video piece I made on day four: