The machine as seen

Domenico Quaranta, Contemporary art critic and curator

Karl Gunnar Pontus Hultén 1968 The machine as seen at the end of the mechanical age. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Some time ago I came up with the ambitious (let’s say crazy?) idea to work on a follow-up to Pontus Hulten’s seminal exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968). It should be called, of course, The Machine as Seen at the Beginning of the Information Age. The need for such an upgrade is so obvious that I won’t even try to demonstrate it here. Half a century later, the process prophetically announced by Hulten in the Sixties has completed. We now live in a Post Fordist society, and if a young Charlie Chaplin would like to depict today’s alienation and shoot Modern Times again, he should choose a completely different set. Probably a call center, or a Chinese gold farm.

Role playing game “gold farmers” in China.

We still have machines, but most of them are computer-operated, and rely on software and algorithms. We still love them, because we have been told to love them and because of the love for big, strong things we inherited from our childhood. When my 3 years old toddler sees my laptop, he immediately urges me to show him garbage trucks videos on Youtube; but he’s more familiar with laptops than with garbage trucks, and he will most likely work with the first than with the latter. This turn in society, and this evolution of the machine along the last decades, showed up in art practice in many ways, and I’m sure it would be great to see an exhibition talking about it.

This project is still a secret wish (well, not so secret anymore), but it came to my mind when I visited Nostalgia Machines, the exhibition curated by Maya Allison for the David Winton Bell Gallery. Nostalgia is of course a major feeling in our current relationship with machines. When we grow up, the childish love I described turns into nostalgia. We miss what we loved when we were children. We miss mechanisms we can understand, design, build and repair, because we are surrounded by mechanisms we can’t understand, design, build and repair. We miss an age in which we had the time to perceive novelties as such, be amazed by them, and slowly adapt to them, because we live in an age in which things become old in a day. We miss machines that looked like machines, with their wires and gears, because we live in an age in which machines look like everything else but what they actually are. Sometimes they look like humans, and they are frightening.

An example of the “uncanny valley” of robotic engineering.

And yet, surprisingly enough, Nostalgia Machines is not a nostalgic exhibition. The machines on show may trigger nostalgia thanks to their aesthetics, to the way they display their inner mechanism and working processes. They often make us think about time, deconstructing and reconstructing history (Jasper Rigole), reverting processes (Jonathan Schipper), emulating (Zimoun) or reproducing them (Gregory Witt, Meredith Pingree). But they don’t look back to a specific moment in the history of machines. They don’t use obsolete machinery saved from the rubbish dump, quite the contrary. They are automata that don’t need any input from the spectator. They use contemporary technologies – processors, webcams, Arduinos – and materials. Nostalgia Machines is the proof that we may miss the homeland – whatever it is – but also that the trip (nostos in Greek) is worthwhile.

“Odysseus und Kalypso” by Arnold Böcklin (1883), oil on canvas.

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