Distribution Automatique

Sunday, March 13

Machine Envy

Human beings have become so mechanized it is hard to
resist the conjecture that they suffer from conscious and
unconscious machine-envy. The situation of the artwork in the
"age of mechanical reproduction" is striking
not only as a result of the decline of the work's
aura, as Walter Benjamin postulated, but in the
decline of the auras of human beings
themselves; this includes such qualities, for example,
that formerly might have been experienced as
exquisitely and uniquely human;
the tendency to make mistakes, for example ("To err is human,
to forgive divine.")

The more beautiful and efficient machines become,
the more people admire them, want to have them
and, it seems , want to be like them. As humans are
incredible mimes (the monkey-see monkey-do aspect of people
is as irritating at it is compelling, irresistible and unavoidable) we
should not be surprised that just as machines are made to
perfectly suit our needs, that we are more than willing to
accomodate ourselves to them and emulate them.
Once recognized, it is hard
to not see machine-envy everywhere.
Like everyone else,
the contemporary artist, poet and novelist is tempted to embody
their unmatchably utilitarian powers that include the power
to infinitely sustain apparently unstoppable production, to make
every product comprise identical and perfect value, and to have them be
nearly universally available. The machine
made object is a safe bet to be exactly like every other copy
of the same type- so that once an individual obtains one, his or her
particular version contains exactly the same qualities as anyone else's
examples of this object. The vast majority of machine made
products, instead of being made to last indefinitely, are made to
last a predictable period of time (few would buy a used car over
100,000 miles old, for example). The disposibility or aging of products
is compensated for by the immediate availability of an identical
copy. People can now rest assured that their resources are basically
of equal value as everyone else's, as long as they own identical
technology embodies identical qualities; the implications for
the frighteningly expansive growth of automatism and conformism are anxiety-
provoking; but then there is the equally as rapid expansion of the tranquilizing
advantages of conformism; including the exciting mirroring
of manufactured perfection; thus the breathless excitement, and forbidden-fruit
qualities of cloning. In anticipation of the "magnificent" coming
final triumph of machines, people are impelled to become as
much alike as possible, and as much like perfect machines as possible,
and whatever conceivable morsels of difference
that might continue to exist must be more than countered by fierce
insistence on conformity in some other realm.
Even the celebration of
difference must be manifested and
discussed in a remorselessly similar
vocabulary and manner.

One method of emulating machines for
artists is by means of constant
and prodigious output: steady,
predictable, ample production,
where each object or copy is of equal
complexity and precision with every other; I think
of such artists as Picasso and Dali in this
regard, but there are countless others,
including some whose works themselves are
meant to conceal
the presence of the hand
and resemble machine made products.
Contemporary artists and writers are also
expected to continuously produce works that,
while functioning as interchangeable parts,
must somehow achieve at the same
time the aura of uniqueness. What, in the
art work, can this "uniqueness"
inhabit if not the design of the work?
Uniqueness of conception is not
machine-like enough. The artwork must
be brilliantly novel in its
design or formal qualities, or it must rival the
machine in the smoothness and appeal
of its inventiveness. Such art, in its perfecting of
risk-free, recognizably robotic, manufactured
forms of charming inventiveness,
participates in an
automated, inevitable obliteration or
taming of all eccentricity,
even as it ostensibly celebrates
uniqueness and individuality.

The setting, by the way, for the above
meditation was the
Tim Hawkinson {click here}

show at the Whitney, if you haven't
already guessed. I had been thinking
about this for awhile now, and these
thoughts came to mind so quickly
as I perused Hawkinson's engaging works,
that one of the security guards
noticed me trying to squeeze an
inordinate number of words on the back of
a receipt and thankfully offered me a few
pages of notepaper with the name
*Whitney* in green caps on the top.
Someone had already
written on one sheet the following
sentence: "How often do you change the pen?"
It took me a little time to
figure out that probably this was a question
someone wanted to address Tim
Hawkinson with, as one of his fascinating
machines was a device for writing his
signature over and over on identical slips of
paper and dropping them to the floor.
The visitors were asked by a guard to
kindly return these copies of
Hawkinson's signature to the ground (of course,
mine made it into my pocket, to join the equally
enigmatic little pieces of orange
cloth that I received recently at a visit to Christo
and Jeanne-Claude's Gates).

Well, if you haven't yet gone, I highly recommend you
visit the Hawkinson show. Some
of my favorite pieces of his were not there-
including a few that I saw some years back in the
cavernous rooms at the Ace Gallery.
The piece in this show that most impressed
me was one that he titled *Magdalen*.
I usually don't avail myself of audio guides
at art shows, but this one had the voice of the
artist and I wanted to hear it so
I took one. *Magdalen* was constructed in 2003 of
"paper, wire, string, foam rubber
and caulking (painted black)." On the tape
Hawkinson says: " Magdalen is a little
different from the other work. My nephew calls
it a monster tire blowout and it
refers to the retread tires you see
discarded along the freeway. The tentacles
formed by the steel and radial reinforcements
and so forth led to this kind of dragon-
like quality I was really interested in. And then, when it was
nearly getting to be completed it kind of reminded me
of this stature of Donnatello where she
appears with matted hair...her wretchedness kind of
reminded me of this piece... " I stood and
stared for a long time at
this huge, cartoon-like
semblance of a blown-out tire transformed into a
walking monster (it also reminded me
of a wonderfully frightening, tentacled
"technozoic" *Medusa* (1990)
Toni Simon {click here} once painted,)
Hawkinson is
brilliant in his manner of transforming
materials in unexpected ways that indirectly
reminds me of Richard Tuttle. In one piece
he used dog chews to create a hanging
skeleton that strangely whistles,
like an owner, in some spirit space,
aimlessly whistling for her dog.
One of the things I most enjoyed about Hawkinson's
show is his obvious ambivalence
towards machines.
While he obviously enjoys
inventing, constructing and playing with
them, many of these works also encompass an
almost mournful suggestion that we might enjoy our
mechanical side much more if we could
see and emulate the more "human" aspect of machines,
in their constructiveness and in their

Then we went downstairs and
looked at the Cy Twombly show, an aesthetic
that is about as different from Hawkinson as
one could possibly be. It was
hard to look at this graceful, almost
awkwardly childlike, understated, quiet,
unassuming work as appreciatively as
I usually do after the histrionics
of Hawkinson. After a few turns around the
room I remembered what I liked so much
about Twombly. As he himself put it in
a drawing dated 1990: "The image contains
a primordial freshness ideas can never claim."

This show stands as an antithesis and balm to
the intense, huge, labyrinthal paradoxes of Hawkinson's
work. I liked both, but in this context, in a way,
I appreciated the Hawkinson even more, because
as much as beautiful images can offer inner relief
and peace, only insight into the dangers
of completely succumbing to the
intoxicating, seductive charm of our
powerful machines
might, hopefully, protect us from
completely abandoning our complex
humanity in favor of ease, pleasure and power.
This is all the more possible, Hawkinson seems
to suggest, if we take a more literally hands-on
attitude towards our machines by thinking about
them with greater imagination and making things
with and out of them that reflect
some of our uniquely human qualities: humor,
whimsicality, empathy, generosity.

A trip to the basement, searching for restrooms
and coffee landed us in the gift shop.
I was charmed, but now forewarned, when
I noticed a tiny item on sale for $135 called
"Desktop Ball Bearings and Crank" described
as follows: "Constructed out of aluminum and
brass, this tilted platform provides endless amusement.
Turning the crank carries the ball bearings
to the top...", etc. "Endless", eh?