Pre-review: Relational Machine Aesthetics

“MASKIN” [machine] - part of Trondheim Matchmaking

Relational Machine Aesthetics
by Solveig Lønmo, master student of art history, NTNU
Trøndelag Centre for Contemporary Art
13 October - 12 November 2006

Contemporary art creates models for possible universes, says art historian Nicolas Bourriaud. Trondheim Electronic Arts Centre has invited ten artists to show examples of their possible universes. Not utopian universes of the future, but worlds that can exist here and now. One can sense an idea about a world’s contingency here; all these universes have an opportunity to exist and not to exist. These ten artists universes have chosen to exist. Can so many universes exist in the same exhibition space?
The works that constitute the exhibition “MASKIN” can be put into a common theoretical framework: relational aesthetics. In what ways do the art works create, represent or promote relations? We can discuss relations on different levels; what are interesting in the context of an exhibition are the relations between art work and audience and between the visitors themselves. The relations point to possible encounters and to possible experiences. We will see that several of the works in this exhibition require a direct or indirect interaction from our part. Even the works that are not explicitly interactive ask for an active and participating viewer. Contemporary art promotes different kinds of encounters between work and audience than the traditional viewing of works of art (the viewer keeping the hands behind the back, head up and in proper distance from the master’s oil painting). The interpersonal relation, the meeting of viewers, or participants, rather, will automatically take place in the context of an exhibition. Consider the opening. Art and the art space are conditions for encounters.

Mechanical relations

The art exhibit is a venue for exchange. Let us consider possible encounters, possible universes crossing paths in the exhibition “MASKIN”. What relations can emerge? Since all of these works live mechanical lives, we can see that they have to meet each other.

Floating graphics meet floating magnet

“Machine/Process” is part of Gabor Papp’s universe. It is mysterious and intricate, but the visual expression communicates openly with the surrounding world. The artist has programmed algorithms which control how the seemingly random graphics develops. We witness an art work being produced here and now. The dynamic animations are mechanically poetic. We can trace this to early relationships between art and technology; the mechanically produced movements in László Moholy-Nagy’s films and photography have a similar technical poetry.

A similar focus on the present can be seen in Sabrina Raaf’s installation Icelandic Rift, which also is based on algorithms. We see shapes that seem both familiar and strange. Organic islands of aluminium and steel are filled with a floating black magnet - ferrofluid - which is set in motion when the programmed mechanism moves. Hard magnets on the back of the structure also influence the lava-like liquid. The magnets represent some kind of energy source for this mobile sculpture body, which uses a steel arm to draw shapes on the wall behind it. This peculiar machine plays with the viewer’s experience of scale and gravitation.

Contrasts meet

”AutoGene” by Peter W. Holden is perhaps the most “lively” machine in the exhibition. It seems quiet and shy, but in the next moment it explodes in a spectacular show where eight black umbrellas are dancers and actors in the musical “Singing in the Rain”. Inspired by Busby Berkeley’s choreographed dance where the dancers imitate machines, Holden’s machine imitates people. More correctly, the umbrellas imitate the legendary Gene Kelly and his performance in the famous scene in the musical. The umbrellas dance and move to the familiar melody in the film. The mechanical equipment that controls the umbrellas is part of the aesthetic expression, and the cables show how it is done. This is no “magic”, even if it will have a magic effect on the audience, the room, and the other works in the exhibition.

Arthur Ganson’s meditative and quiet works represent a contrast to the brutish Gene. “Thinking Chair” is a personal work, and we see a strangely human, little yellow chair jumping back and forth in paths of thought, circles of thought, on the hard floor. There is something melancholy about its movements, and it is not difficult to attribute human qualities to it. This is Ganson’s self portrait. Will the chair find answers to its problems or big and small questions? We see a related formal language in Ganson’s other work, “Margot’s Cat”. The red chair is Margot, and she is dead - which does not prevent her from playing with her cat. In heaven or somewhere else. The mechanics are no secret in this work either - we see the motor and all of the apparatus. Most of the works in the exhibition show us the machine and the mechanics behind it. The mechanical is to a great extent an important part of the aesthetics. This is how we use the term “machine aesthetics” in relation to this art, which is not particularly futuristic, robbed or functional, strict or polished - or whatever we originally associated with the term.

The Helpless meets The Confident

Norman T. White brings ”The Helpless Robot” to ”MASKIN”. Here he wants to see how helpful the local audience is. The robot cannot move like other robots, and you need to help out. It will tell you in English, Spanish or French what it wants you to do. The artist focuses on the vulnerability of the materials he uses, such as motors and electronic components. They are transient and can easily break, just like us humans. The vulnerability is reinforced in this work, which depends on a helping hand.

Perhaps Ken Rinaldo’s robots will help the helpless? They are definitely self-moving, they are “Autopoiesis” and create themselves - which is characteristic of all life on earth. These are artificially living robots. They act as a group, and use their own musical language in order to communicate with each other. They also crave company and want the audience’s attention. They can sense your body heat, and move towards you - but don’t be afraid, they are more afraid of you than you are of them. If they speak in high frequencies, then you have scared them. Lower voices indicate that they are calm.

A meeting of foreign species

The exhibition space is swarming of life during this year’s TEKS exhibition. Electronic life. Martina Höfflin and Pascal Glissman show their little elfs. Elves? They may resemble elves, but no; elfs are electronic life forms. The inorganic creatures move and speak to us and to each other. They get their energy from sunlight. We see photographs of their lives out in the nature; in the exhibition we see them in glass containers. Life can be formulated like a complex biochemical machine. Thus, there is no contrast between human being and machine; human beings are a kind of machine.

Perhaps the most charming machines in this exhibition are Hendrik Leper’s and Stijn Sciffeleer’s ”Dustbunnies”. The soft balls are not a familiar species to me, and I look forward to meeting them. The dust bunnies are employees during the exhibition, and will do what they know best, collect dust, thoughts, memories and knowledge. They don’t show off much, and communicate quietly with each other. If you get close enough and they notice you, they go quiet and play dead… until they get used to you being there doing nothing. Then they go back to work and pretend you are not there. Peaceful, isn’t it? But if you try to touch them, you will see their scary, aggressive side!
Soft on the outside, tough on the inside.

The “MASKIN” exhibition will swarm of life, sound and movement. Will these universes function together, or will they try to drown each other out? They will use the same space and fill it with sounds and movements, and it is unavoidable that they will cross zones. The sound of one work will no doubt influence the audience’s experience of another. But even if they together constitute “MASKIN”, they are separate works and clearly distinguished from each other. Even the helpless is confident, and the brutish is willing to let the other works be heard.

Kinetic relations

Common to many of the works in “MASKIN” are forms of movement. Kinetic art involves movement - physical or optical, by machine or by external forces. The first kinetic art was launched by the constructivists in the early 1900s. Moving art incorporated the aspect of time in visual arts in a new way, and used the space more actively than traditional sculpture. Naum Gabo said: ”Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed”. Thus, art should imitate life, and all life is connected to time and space. Alexander Calder’s mobiles from the 1930s are early examples of a tradition that has developed rapidly after new media entered the arts.

Technology has changed dramatically since early kinetic art. Several of the works in the exhibition are examples of mechatronics, a combination of mechanics, electronics and data techniques. It is obvious that the possibilities in artistic expression today are endless. The kinetic is more complex than ever.

Movement is something we associate with life. The mechanical life forms in “MASKIN” try to enter our human spheres this way. They move so we cannot avoid sharing their space, and they make sound we cannot ignore. They demand attention and they demand that we are active.

Interactive relations

Art has always been part of relations; between artist and benefactor, image and viewer. And it has always created dialogue. Today, however, relations take place on a different level. This is clear in the exhibition “MASKIN”. In contrast to objects that close in on themselves, their own style and signature, contemporary art shows that form instead can take place through the encounter. Such a view on art points towards a disintegration of the autonomous, which particularly for the modernists was the ultimate goal for art. The audience contributes to the creation of art works that would not have existed without some form of interaction. The viewer becomes a participant and has to return the ball to the artist so the game can take place.

Even though contemporary art has embraced interaction as one of its favourites, we should not forget that the audience’s role was brought forward already in the 1950s by Marcel Duchamp: “In the end the act of creating is not carried out by the artist alone; the viewer brings the work into contact with the external world by decoding and interpreting its inner qualifications and makes a contribution to the creation.” Duchamp does not here refer to interaction the way we experience it in “MASKIN”, but we cannot deny that this rebellious artist has influenced this area as well as many other aspects of art that came after him.

The explicitly interactive works, such as “Dustbunnies” and “The Helpless Robot”, demand action and movement from us. I will say, however, that the exhibition as a whole becomes interactive because the room is completely activated, sensors feel when the audience moves, and participation in a production of meaning is inescapable. At the same time as we are activated by the works, interpersonal encounters take place. We no longer stand alone, absorbed by the painting on the wall, “a window to the world”; the external world enters the exhibition space as active participants and parts of the technological development that is happening right here right now. Althusser talks about the increasing urbanisation of the artistic experience. The city has made an inescapable presence common, and creates a meeting condition which “is forced upon the person.” The space in-between that art represents is a space for human connections. Any art exhibition makes possible and forces interpersonal communication, and intersubjectivity is thus the basis of the art world. “MASKIN” produces and thematizes relations: “AutoGene” loosens the mood, and you realise that you can let yourself loose more than you are used to in traditional exhibitions. “Dustbunnies” is some kind of study or reflection on human behaviour. Same with “The Helpless Robot”. You need to reflect on your own and others’ movements and relations to the art work. How much further away can we go from traditional art viewing?

It is obvious that new technology and new tools provide new solutions and new aesthetics. Norman T. White says that the computer is more than a tool to him. The possibilities are endless, which is not true for tools that are made for a particular purpose. We see the picture of variations in the exhibition as a whole. The machine is not only the method or a hidden force that makes things happen, it is also a crucial part of the aesthetics. We can let ourselves be fascinated by the open and bare mechanics that are both the theme and what the works have in common.

It remains to be seen whether the universes of these ten artists actually can exist in the same space when the exhibition opens and “MASKIN” fills up with an expectant audience who is going to complete the relational art works.

Solveig Lønmo

Solveig Lønmo