Re: Nostalgia Machines

Mark Cetilia, PhD Student, Department of Music



On Saturday,  February 4, Zimoun, the Swiss sound artist, came to Brown University’s List Art Center to give a performance in conjunction with the exhibition Nostalgia Machines at the David Winton Bell Gallery. Most readers will be familiar with Zimoun through his installations, which involve simple systems that exhibit incredible complexity through minute variations between multiple, seemingly identical, physical objects. These installations most commonly include prepared industrial-grade DC motors (of which Zimoun swept up a hefty stock when a Swiss manufacturer went out of business) in conjunction with other materials such as cotton balls, steel wire, and cardboard boxes. However, Zimoun also has a long history with experimental music-making. In 2003, Zimoun and graphic designer Marc Beekhuis founded Leeraum, a label and “networking hub” for artists who “explore forms and structures based on reductive principles and careful yet radical use of materials.” Since then, Leeraum has released recordings by artists such as Dale Lloyd, Richard Garet, Kenneth Kirschner, Mise en Scene, and numerous works by Zimoun himself. It is not often that one gets a chance to see Zimoun perform in the States, so I was very curious to experience his work first-hand.


His performance at the List Art Center was comprised of two pieces. The first featured a handful of DC motors, each of which was connected to a thin steel wire hosting a ping pong ball, and its speed varied using a custom control surface. The DC motor assemblies were mounted atop a single cardboard box, and as the motors rotated, the ping pong balls struck the box, which acted as a resonant chamber. The resulting sounds were then amplified via a number of contact microphones and then sent to a small mixing board, giving Zimoun the ability to change the equalization parameters for each microphone and adjust the overall contour of the piece. As in his installation work, the simplicity of the system allowed for complex results ranging from complex rhythmic patterns to dense textural material. His presence on stage was not performative; instead, he acted as a guide through the potential sound worlds created by his mechanical devices. Earlier in the day, Zimoun gave an informal talk about his work; during the talk, he spoke in depth about his documentation process, which involves a number of camera angles and microphones combined with careful equalization, mixing and editing. In a way, this piece served as real-time documentation of a miniature sound installation, allowing the audience entry from different vantage points which slowly shifted over time.


The second piece was a quadraphonic recording presented in complete darkness, and seemed to be comprised of manipulated recordings taken from his installation works. Though we had all been forewarned, the sudden darkness at the beginning of the performance took everyone somewhat off-guard. As the piece began, sounds of machinery in the distance mixed with the rustling and fumbling about of audience members as they gradually adjusted to their new environment. Eventually, everyone settled into the darkness and a new phase began, in which all in attendance were given over completely to listening. By stripping away the visual information, and thus the ability of the audience to see the “source” of the sounds they were experiencing, more intent focus was given to the sounds themselves. As in the first performance of the evening, this piece was not built on a recognizable narrative structure or compositional arc, but instead seemed to be centered around creating an environment for the audience to inhabit, a world where tiny machines roam the earth freely without need for light or human intervention.



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.

Prof. Ed Osborn, Visual Arts Department

Jasper Rigole, Outnumbered, a brief history of imposture, 2009. Camera, photograph, computer, robotics, projection. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

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