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.
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.
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.
Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Jasper Rigole’s OUTNUMBERED, a brief history of imposture (2009) takes this disclaimer and makes it both a starting and end point for the experience of photographic and documentary experience. The phrase functions as an amen to any work of fiction (purported or otherwise): this is where disbelief ends its suspension and reality resumes. You laughed, you cried, just don’t call a lawyer. The disclaimer exists because there is a chance that a legitimate claim of belief in resemblance could be made; it is a recognition of the existence and agency of the viewer. It recognizes that the strength of the narrative it shields derives its power in part from the experiences we bring to it and our investment in it.
OUTNUMBERED is built around a quick illusion and revelation. A video projection of what appears to be a documentary, complete with British-accented narration and slow scanning of an old group portrait photo, occupies one space. In an adjacent space the video is shown to be derived from an elaborate construction in which a computerized camera glides across the face of an “historic” panoramic photograph. The wide portrait image was made by a panoramic camera whose lens and iris pivoted horizontally across the scene and negative simultaneously. We see not one moment in time, though it looks that way, but instead the several seconds it took for the camera to scan the courtyard. Even before Rigole got to it, the image is not what it appears to be. The chipcam that moves across the photograph’s face appears to reanimate it, but it was an unstill image to begin with. It used to be said that the camera never lies (that has long been an open question), but certainly here it never lies still.
Because the piece shows its hand almost instantly, it rapidly runs through the nominal questions any work of mediated experience might raise: What is it? What is it doing? How is it done? Is it for real? That the piece makes no pretense of hiding the answer to this last question leaves several larger ones in its place: Are any images for real? How can they be trusted? How can we be trusted with them?
Looking at Rigole’s image-producing contraption, we seem to be standing in the place of the man behind the curtain, the place where the illusion is controlled. But the reason the man was hidden was that he had an illusion to control, and in OUTNUMBERED we have neither illusion nor control: we are left with no narrative space – fictional or otherwise – and without it no agency of viewership. We also have no place to hide from the fact that these images have no reliability even in fiction. There is no way to invest ourselves in the narratives here, even knowing that they are utterly fictional: they are so infinitely variable that any meaningful ordering of them depends solely on us, and the longer we look at the work the more undependable we become.
Before this piece we are outnumbered, our stories are outnumbered, our history is outnumbered. Our objections would be outnumbered, except that there is nothing to which to object, least of all the object that spells all this out in flat detail. And this is the point. Objection needs veracity in order to exist, and this is precisely what OUTNUMBERED withdraws from us. Not just the truth of the spoken narrative, which is revealed quickly to have no basis in anything beyond its own database, but more critically the chance to measure ourselves in relation to it. Once the construction of the piece is revealed, the question about whether its narratives are real or not ceases to matter. And this cessation leaves a disquiet that easily settles over any constructed image, documentary ones most especially. I spent extended time with the piece on several occasions, and while it is fascinating to experience firsthand, even repeatedly, I know nothing more about the world after having seen this work than I did before. I probably know less. This experience requires no disclaimer: nothing to believe here, folks, now move along.