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Myths, Rumours, Legends – Machine Art in the Twentieth Century

Given the elaborate assembly and complexity of many of the installations that we feature on CAN we were particularly interested in Machine Art in the Twentieth Century, a book recently published by the MIT Press. In it, Andreas Broeckmann (currently at the Centre for Digital Cultures at Lüneburg University, a former curator of transmediale) surveys the twentieth century (and beyond) in search of the linkages between the ‘machinic’ and ‘machine-like,’ in art. From the enthusiastic embrace of automation by the Futurists that preceded the First World War, to Nam June Paik’s mid-century meditations on video, through the ‘broken’ websites of JODI, and contemporary interactive art, Broeckmann leaves very few stones unturned in his search for confirmation of (and contradiction to) the thesis that a ‘machine art’ that has influenced various genres, styles, modes of working across the artistic spectrum.

Broeckmann begins with the uncontroversial assertion that the romantic fixation on the sublime in the natural world was supplanted by “analogous antagonistic struggle with industry and technology,” a development that set the agenda for art in the twentieth century and onward. The majesty of waterfalls was old news – assembly lines were where it was at from about 1915 onward. He muses that machine art is not just art involving machines, but that addresses machines more generally; he looks to early computer science and Cybernetics, treatises by Lewis Mumford and even Descartes, and in conducting this scan he (most productively) invokes Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘the machinic’ – assemblies of things that create processes – when considering how exactly a machine art might work. He doesn’t assume his invented genre is a foregone conclusion, and coyly treats it as if it may not have even existed at all. “This book is an investigation into a rumour,” he writes in the conclusion of the first chapter. “[Of] something that is probably neither a particular genre nor a well-defined field of artistic practice. I attempt an explication of the rumour, rather than offering proof of its truthfulness.”


↑ Emulating the human digestive system by turning food into shit, Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca was a feat of engineering and cynical commentary. This photo captures its original configuration at Museum Kunst Palast, Düsseldorf in 2000 – the Belgian artist produced several evolved versions of the work over the following decade.

Machine Art in the Twentieth Century starts out as kind of a lit review of the formative exhibitions dealing with art and technology. For this, NYC looms large with “Machine-Age Exposition” (1927), and MoMA’s “Machine Art” (1934) and “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” (1968) receiving careful scrutiny. Broeckmann identifies roots for mid-century figures like kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely and cyberneticist Gordon Pask in the earlier experiments of El Lissitzky, Duchamp, and Moholy-Nagy and in thinking through those trajectories he sets up a schema for considering machine art. Machine aesthetics can be: associative (and ponder the meaning of technology), symbolic (deploying its iconography or evoking machines via metaphor), formalist (compositions or assemblies capitalizing on “functional technical forms”), kinetic (setting assemblies in motion), and automatic (exploring machines’ generative potential). In the second and third chapter the author draws a line that starts with Tatlin and ends with David Rokeby – spanning the most optimistic visions of what a machine age might yield and early and influential interactive artworks – which is just intoxicating to read. For better and worse, this is Broeckmann at his clearest and most convincing, and each remaining chapter zooms out from the precisely and most literally ‘machinic’ to increasingly broad zones of inquiry.

↑ Credit where it’s due: Broeckmann identifies precedents aplenty, including Jean Tinguely’s 1950s series Méta-matic (left) and Steina’s Allvision II (1978)

Broekmann’s reading of ‘algorithmic’ machines is novel (and sits nicely alongside Grant D. Taylor’s When the Machine Made Art) and his chapter addressing ‘image machines’ (Harun Farocki, Jim Cambell, Julien Maire, etc.) is great. The last two chapters (body machine and ecology machine) are problematic though, or at least troubling. While Stelarc is crucially important, it feels kind of ‘off’ to be reading about his work with his body in a book about machine art. It provokes a big question: where do we draw the line exactly, between when instrumental thinking ends and our sovereign (and decidedly organic, thank you very much) corporeality begins? Perhaps that is the point though; Broekmann would have us believe the Australian artist is a modern day Vitruvian man, getting yanked in all directions by nonhuman forces rather than delineating some idealized proportional relationship. Likewise, the discussion about projects that speak to ecology further abstracts the machinic baseline, as devices become ciphers for and activators of the natural world.

These concerns are not so much the results of an ineffective argument, but one that alters the perception of the reader. And this book will do that, as well as offer a buffet of niche artist practices (that might not be so familiar to those born in the 1980s and ’90s) to feast on. It’s easy to view systems-centric art involving computers and electronics from a classical cybernetics perspective of closed system and control, but maybe the takeaway here is that these modes of instrumental thinking eventually expand and consume everything (and maybe this has already happened). Fittingly, and somewhat cynically, Machine Art in the Twentieth Century ends with an epilogue on the accident. While our co-dependent relationship with technology serves disaster alongside serendipity, perhaps it was the invocation of the machine — that malevolent daemon — rather than our imagination that made all subsequent art production seem boundless.

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Machine Art in the Twentieth Century | Andreas Broeckmann
Photos: Alexander Scholz