BY Edward Allington in Profiles | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Dream machines

Robot art

BY Edward Allington in Profiles | 04 APR 02

The museum guard had his eye on me as I stood watching a machine made out of an old desk and all sorts of other junk. The machine was signing the name 'Tim Hawkinson' over and over again.

When it finished each signature, a crude blade would automatically cut the name off from the strip of paper, and it would drop to the pile on the floor. Why shouldn't I steal one? Machines can't write signatures that mean anything, make art or write literature, can they? I should have just picked one up and walked out of the door, without giving it a second thought. If you are going to steal anything, thinking about what it all means is not the way to do it. Stealing involves a rather specialized form of stupidity, which I'd almost attained, but which eluded me at the last moment. So I left the gallery without a signature and very irritated. But of course I thought about it later anyway.

I started by thinking about other writing and painting machines: Akira Kanayama's Work (1957), Jean Tinguely's 'Méta-matics' series (1959), Harold Cohen's computer-controlled drawing robot (1978), Angela Bulloch's Betaville (1994) and Mudslinger (1995), Mark Hosking's 'Word Turn' series (1996) and his current 'Auto Roto Font Project', an art-making machine for which he has made a patent application. Then there is Natasha Kidd, whose work is a continual investigation of the painting machine. No doubt there are many more. Where did this all begin? I knew that, as always, Marcel Duchamp would be part of the story, but I couldn't make the link. Then I remembered the photograph and the women - one real, one fictional and one a machine.

Let's start with the real one. She is there in the corner of the photograph, looking happy and glamorous. She is Iris Clert, owner of one of the most innovative postwar art galleries in Paris. Next to her are two men in white shirts. One is Jean Tinguely and the other is Marcel Duchamp. Every photograph of Duchamp seems to be of significance now but in July 1959, when this photograph was taken, he was almost a forgotten man in Europe. 1 However, with the publication of Robert Label's comprehensive and well-illustrated book Sur Marcel Duchamp, published in both English and French that same year, it looked as if he was finally going to receive his dues.

One of the key figures in the development of Kinetic art, Duchamp's Rotative Demi-sphere (optique de precision) (1925) as well as Nude Descending a Staircase (1912) had been exhibited in April 1955 in a show called 'Le Mouvement' at Galerie Denise René in Paris. The exhibition also included works by Jakov Agam, Pol Bury, Alexander Calder, Jesus Rafael Soto, Pernille Jacobsen, Victor Vasarely and Tinguely, with Duchamp and Calder appearing in the historical section of the exhibition. Tinguely was represented by two drawing machines, which, although overlooked at the time, were the prototypes for the 'Méta-matics' that would bring him fame and success four years later when they were exhibited at Iris Clert. Some 5000 people saw that show, including Jean Arp, Isamu Noguchi, Man Ray and Tristan Tzara, who proclaimed that the epilogue to painting had now begun. 2 The 'Méta-matics' produced over 4000 drawings, and this photograph captures the moment when one of these thousands is being 'made' by Duchamp, who is operating one of the machines.

The 'Méta-matics' are drawing machines - not drawing aids, but crude robots that make their own drawings. According to the art critic Pontus Hulten - a close friend of Tinguely and who helped him name the machines - the 'Méta-matics' are incapable of failure and of producing two identical drawings. Perhaps their significance has grown with Duchamp's reputation, and perhaps his reputation has now obscured the real importance of Tinguely's machines; they are the first real manifestation of a myth that still has a strong hold on contemporary practice: the ultimate removal of skill, of talent, of genius from the production of art. A machine that is an artist.

What a year 1959 must have been for Tinguely, who saw in his machines '... an instrument that allows me to be poetic. If one respects the machine, if one goes along with it, one could perhaps produce a cheerful machine, and by "cheerful" I mean "free"; that would be a wonderful alternative.' 3 He produced the huge Méta-matic No. 17 (1959) for the Paris Biennale; driven by a small petrol engine, it drew quickly and included a mechanized pair of scissors that cut the drawings apart as the paper unrolled. Tinguely also submitted a patent application for a drawing machine and rounded off the year with the end of the 'Méta-matics' series at the ICA in London, where Cyclo-matic (1959), a huge machine propelled by two racing cyclists, spewed an orgasmic stream of drawings over the ecstatic audience.

So there is Iris Clert in the corner of the photograph from 1959, a cigarette in her left hand. But in my mind there is another woman present, a ghost who arrived one night at the Théâtre Antoine in Paris during the summer of 1912, when Marcel Duchamp, Guillaume Apollinaire and the Picabias attended Raymond Roussel's unintentionally outrageous play Impressions d'Afrique. Her name was Louise Montalescot, and in the play, which also includes, among a multitude of extraordinary devices, a zither played by earthworms, she is the owner of a painting machine. Duchamp acknowledged the influence that Roussel had upon him, 4 and went as far as to suggest to J. J. Sweeney, that 'It was Roussel who, fundamentally, was responsible for my glass'. 5 If Roussel was essentially responsible for the Large Glass (1915-23), the question has to be, how? As with most questions of influence, the answer is highly debatable, and will no doubt provide fuel for generations of Duchamp scholars. Put simply, Impressions d'Afrique is credited with introducing notions of chance and a hermetic use of word play as a generative system within Duchamp's work. And the accepted notion is that the appearance of Montalescot's painting machine marks the moment that the idea of a machine that can paint enters the mythology of Modern art. In fact, her painting machine is rather disappointing when it appears in chapter 19 of Roussel's original novel. 6 I first learned of its existence through reading about Duchamp and had always imagined that, like many of the fantastic devices enumerated in the work of Roussel, it would be described in ludicrous detail, but no: 'Particularly fanatical in her devotion to chemistry, she keenly pursued, during the long night watches, an important discovery long germinating in her mind. The problem was to generate by purely photographic means, a motor force sufficiently precise to guide a pencil or brush with certainty.' 7 Its place within Roussel's strange narrative is linked to the search for an elusive essential oil. The machine would seem to be a kind of camera obscura which, thanks to the mysterious oil, will convert light into a means of making realistic paintings.

It was due to the fact that Roussel's character was female that the third woman came to mind. She is an automaton who can write in French and English and can draw landscapes and ships. Known as the Philadelphia Doll, she was made by the Maillardet family before 1812 and is now in The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia - the town that now holds the main collection of Marcel Duchamp's works, including the Large Glass and Etant donnés (1946-66). 8 There were other automata that could draw and write, such as Pierre Jaquet-Droz's scribe of 1770 and draughtsman of 1772; like the Philadelphia Doll they are of French origin. The notion of a writing, drawing machine - a robot artist - has a much longer history, and the real point is not so much its invention as the means by which it makes its transition into Modernist thought. Perhaps Roussel's influence on Duchamp is just such a point of transition, as might be Franz Kafka's Penal Colony (1919), which introduces the notion of a machine that kills by writing. 9 Although from completely divergent literary forms, what Roussel's and Kafka's machines have in common is the paranoia of persecution, which was to become a hallmark of the Modern era.

It is this undercurrent of paranoid thought which inhabits Hawkinson's Signature (1993) and Hosking's 'Word Turn' (1996), a series of seemingly benign mechanisms which literally turn sentences in upon themselves in a manner reminiscent of Kafka's 'apparatus'; they would have to destroyed to be read. Likewise, Bulloch's Betaville (1994), a bench-activated painting machine (you sit on the bench and the machine begins to paint) and Kidd's painting machines seem to threaten the meditative silence of the act of painting and the genre of the monochrome. Philip K. Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), a delirious reverie on automata upon which Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) was based, once said: 'The ultimate in paranoia is not when everyone is against you but when everything is against you'. 10 The paranoid continuum is that of the human, as opposed to the inhuman. The question asked is not, 'does this machine replicate human emotion?' but 'does this machine replicate an action and if I can still empathize with it, am I still human?'

Tinguely's extraordinary 'Méta-matics' of 1959 produced works visually similar to the automatic drawing and Tachiste painting of his time, but because they were made by a machine they were stripped of psychological significance. Which is why when Tinguely was invited to show Méta-matic No. 17 at the 1959 Paris Biennale the other artists insisted it was exhibited outside, away from their work. The philosophical question raised by a machine that can make art, as Tinguely's machines did - No. 17 was bought by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1965, using the profits from the drawings done by Méta-Moritz (Méta-matic No. 8) of 1959, which was already in the collection - is how do you know you are human when a machine usurps an activity that you previously thought of inherently human? Not only do painting machines threaten what it means to be human; they force us to reconsider time on their terms. A machine is designed to exist in the continuous present and as soon as it ceases to function it is redundant. It is either working or not working. This is a problem that is literal and fundamental, with all the implications that those two words hold. Time stops at the point when the machine first begins production. Hawkinson's Signature stopped in 1993. The continuous present is a complex but very important problem. If we allow the past and, by implication, the future to be rendered invalid, then our paranoia will be justified, for in the continuous present there is no failure. Which is why Pontus Hulten could insist that the 'Méta-matics' could not produce failed drawings: if we defy the machine, we - not it - are at fault.

In 'An Anecdoted Typography of Chance', a dialogue between Robert Filliou and Daniel Spoerri, both good friends of Tinguely, two machines made by outsider artists are described. One constructed by the Swiss artist Anton Muller is referred to by Tinguely himself. Muller invented a machine to cut the fungus from grapevines, but did not patent the device and as a consequence became insane. He subsequently continued to make machines within a Bern asylum, lubricating them by pissing and masturbating on to the mechanisms. Filliou and Spoerri claim Muller's contraptions, and a further machine made by a certain 'Plato', were the real precursors to Tinguely's work. 'Plato' had a perpetual motion machine which he would demonstrate in the market place under the sign 'Machine For Sale' while turning a handle on its side: '... he would say "this is the perpetual motion machine". But when there were farmers around, you know, they would look at the thing and say: "that's not perpetual motion, it keeps stopping. The thing doesn't even work." Well then, Plato would say: that's why the man is for sale too.' 12

The 'Méta-matics' have antecedents in Muller and 'Plato' too, for in that frantic year of 1959 Tinguely patented a drawing machine, and it came with a man. Tinguely lent it to his friends, who used it to busk around the cafés in Paris. As long as the machine comes with a man or a woman, we are going to be all right. In the case of that wonderful photograph of Iris Clert's lipstick smile, the man who comes with the machine is Marcel Duchamp. As for me I just wish I'd picked up one of those signatures. But unlike a machine I don't exist in the continuous present, and the next time I see it I'm going to steal one.

1. Pontus Hulten, The Man and his Work: Museum Jean Tinguely, the Collection, Museum Jean Tinguely, Benteli, Basel and Bern, 1996. p. 34.
2. Ibid., p. 44.
3. Ibid., p. 45.
4. Pierre Cabanne, Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp, trans. Ron Padgett, Thames & Hudson, London,1971, pp. 33-4.
5. Quoted in Georges Raillard, Les Fils de la Vierge: Marcel Duchamp, abécédaire, Centre National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris, 1977, p. 185.
6. Impressions d'Afrique was published as a novel in 1910. Roussel adapted it for the stage and opened the play at his own expense at the Théâtre Fatima in September 1911, but closed it owing to the death of his mother. The play reopened in May of 1912, which is when Duchamp saw it.
7. Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa: A Novel, trans. Rayner Heppenstall, Calder & Boyars Ltd, London 1983, p. 282.
8. Jasia Reichardt, Robots: Fact, Fiction + Prediction, Thames & Hudson, London, 1978, p. 15.
9. Kafka gave a public reading of this story in 1916. Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Works Published during Kafka's Lifetime, trans. Malcolm Pasley, Penguin Books, London, 1992, note xi.
10. Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner, BFI, London 1997, p. 67.
11. Daniel Spoerri, 'An Anecdoted Typography of Chance', Fluxus, Today and Yesterday, Art & Design, London, 1993, p. 73.