A poetics of automation:
conceptions of human and non-human agency in design
Daniel Cardoso, MIT
“The machine is first and foremost an instrument that allows me to be poetic (…) if we respect machines and enter into their spirit, we may be able to make a joyful machine, and by ‘joyful’ I mean ‘free’. Isn’t that a fantastic idea?”
On July 1 1959, in the number 3 of rue des beaux-arts in Paris, the Iris Clert Gallery opened an exhibition of 30 automatic drawing machines built by the famous Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely. The machines, called ‘Meta-Matics’ by their author, were indeed elegant sculptures made of scraps of iron, springs and motors of various sizes that, once set up with certain basic parameters, made paintings on sheets of paper. As part of the set-up process of the machine each operator could adjust the distance between the colored felt-tip pen held by the mechanical arm and the paper, choose from a variety of different kinds of paper sheets, and modify the springiness of the machine’s erratic workings. As a result of these configurations the drawings produced by the machines were all different and unpredictable to some degree.
During the exhibit, which lasted one month, this family of unusual mechanisms produced thousands of drawings. The legend goes that one of the machines, the Meta-Matic #12 produced 3800 kilometers of paintings alone, in “collaboration” with different operators.
The machines in the exhibition were operated directly by the Parisian public, including the crème of the contemporary avant-garde, among them Marcel Duchamp, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, Rufino Tamayo and Tinguely’s friend and collaborator Yves Klein, in what could be seen today as a sort of conclave of twentieth century post-war aesthetics.
The exhibition, which was preceded by an aggressive pseudo-commercial campaign orchestrated by Tinguely and Iris Clert (2), was a success according to witnesses and press records (3) –we can only imagine the excitement produced by the rattling sounds of thirty Meta-matics’s in nervous drafting- and has a place in the history of twentieth century aesthetics: the Meta-matics can be thought of as prominent members of a lineage of works spanning disciplines that famously helped theorists and artists of the twentieth century reconfigure the relationships between authors, works, audience, and artistic practice in contemporary cultural discourse through narratives of openness and interaction. This reconfiguration is the main concern of this paper.
The photo reproduced below (4) shows one of Tinguely’s machines, the Meta-matic #8, being operated by Marcel Duchamp. In the back, Jean Tinguely observes with paternal interest and confidence the process, his arms with rolled sleeves crossed in curiosity and expectation. Enveloped in a delighted smile, Iris Clert, the gallery owner, follows the scene while holding a cigarette in her hand. What exactly is happening? The photo captures the richness of the interaction between different actors, humans and non-humans, between a man’s gesture, observers, and an automaton, and between machine and hand. It’s not only an encounter between a man and a machine, it can also be seen as an archetypal moment of recognition of automation as a poetic device, and as such as generative of semiotic tensions and pregnant with cultural meaning. If we think of the drawing produced by the machine as the work of art we are likely to think of Duchamp as an author, and the machine as a tool, not very different from a brush, which can be conceptualized as having no further effect on the work beyond becoming a constraint conditioning the expressive range allowed to its user. Does this view of the meta-matic as tool in the sense described account for the situation captured in the photograph?
A different interpretation results from thinking of the machine itself as the work of art. In this case we are likely to see Tinguely as the author and Duchamp to become part in a space of meaning orchestrated by Tinguely. Operators of the machine are contingencies, accidents desired for. What are, then, the colorful sheets of paper that result from the work? Are they a sort of second-order work of art?
On the other hand we can think of Duchamp’s engagement with the machine depicted in the photograph as a performance –not very different from the performance of a musician with his instrument before an audience (Clert, Tinguely); well known readings of works like Tinguely’s have elaborated on narratives about the openness of the piece and about the democratic distribution of authorship in the work of art that will be discussed in more detail below. A fitter metaphor may be the hardware/software dialectics. Can we think of meta-matic #8 as a piece of software, of Duchamp as a user, and of Tinguely as the “developer”? Under this light Iris can be conceptualized as “client”. At first glance his analogy sounds and feels better than the previous ones. The plot thickens, however, if we consider that the pieces of paper on which the machines drew their patterns were pre-signed by Tinguely. The maker of the machines claims fatherhood rights on their outcomes.
Yet another perspective is Iris, the gallery owner, as the author. By seeing the work and assigning meaning to it Iris is configuring the work. Without her delight and perception the artistic work would be mere mechanical operation, wasted time.
I don’t want to delve too deep in Tinguely’s highly satirical work, but it’s worthy of notice that the analogies our language makes available to us for talking about the events of this automated evening are all somehow inadequate for the purpose of accounting for its complex, collective and rich distribution of agencies.
It is this problem of distribution of agencies and the narratives around it what concerns me in this paper, between human and non-human artifacts, in processes we think of as “creative”. I therefore focus on observing how automation plays a role in de-centering conceptions of agency based on models of individual authorship, and on discussing prominent theories about the cultural meaning of the interplays present in these archetypal human-machine design endeavors.
(1) Hulten, P. (1987). Jean Tinguely: A Magic Stronger than Death. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, p .56.
(2) The campaign involved the distribution of thousands of fliers and sandwich men on the streets. For more information and excellent photographic material see Hulten, P. (1987). Jean Tinguely: A Magic Stronger than Death. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers.
(3) A French journal headlined the story "Un Marlo Brando suisse invente une machine à fabriquer l'art abstrait." (A Swiss Marlon Brando invents a machine for making abstract art).