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Jennifer Gabrys

Residue in the E.A.T. archives

Residual Mechanisms

Flyer for 9 evenings: theatre and engineering, 1966
Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) had its nascent beginnings with a collaboration between one of its founders, engineer Billy Klüver, and artist Jean Tinguely. The project, "Homage to New York," staged the self-destruction of a machine in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1960. From scouring for materials in the New Jersey garbage dumps to designing electrical circuitry to overheat and collapse, Klüver and Tinguely pushed the usual boundaries of art and technology by playing with the life and death of the machine. In this historic performance of mechanical disintegration, the deliberate failure of the machine reveals one of its most compelling uses: its ability to waste (or erase) itself.

In "The Garden Party," an essay written two days after the MOMA event, Klüver gave a minute-by-minute description of the machine’s self-destructive performance. Recounting the chain of aesthetic disasters that were triggered during the 30-minute escapade, Klüver suggested that machines that fail to function according to plan are a source of humor and poetry. Machines that exceed function and control correspond with the unpredictability and provocation of a city such as New York (and from this derives the "Homage"). In this manifesto-after-the-fact, he elaborated on the rationale for such a project, arguing that it was not motivated by an anti-technological agenda, but rather that it captured the machine’s constant oscillation between on and off, between creation and destruction. In other words, he notes, "The self-destruction or self-elimination of the machine is the ideal of good machine behavior." (1)

Discussing ideal machines, which effectively shut themselves off only to turn on again, Klüver references the work of Claude Shannon, who was an originator of information theory. In this case, the particular "ideal" machine Klüver describes functions as an information machine, a device capable not only of the transfer of signals, but also of self-modification and regulation. Indeed, Tinguely referred to his own projects as "meta-mecanique," machines that essentially comment on their own operation. The conflation of machine and meta-machine could just as well stand for the "universal" machine, or computer, with its capacity to encompass all machines within programs—or behaviors. Through programming, a machine may then be directed toward a performance of self-elimination, an oscillation that makes way for new and improved forms of innovation. The process of self-elimination is more than a simple matter of erasure, however. As the garden party reveals, the mechanical and informational machine operate simultaneously, where technology exists as both material and process. (2) While the ideal (or virtual) information machine may be perfectly programmed to erase and reprogram itself, the mechanical and material machine remains as a lingering, even accumulating, residue.

Later documented and published in the catalog for the exhibition, "The Machine at the End of the Mechanical Age," Tinguely’s "Homage" and Klüver’s essay captured this shift (and conflation) within the technological from mechanical to informational. The curator for the show, Pontus K. Hultén, made another type of homage to the mechanical machine at the moment of its presumed historic demise. He begins the catalog with an essay that remarks, "This exhibition is dedicated to the mechanical machine, the great creator and destroyer, at a difficult moment in its life when, for the first time, its reign is threatened by other tools." (3) Those "other tools" are of course information and electronic machines—including the computer—that were replacing and controlling the more archaic mechanical machines. Writing at the same time, Jack Burnham similarly suggested that "we are now entering a second age of machines," in which "the new machines are information-processing systems." (4) But the shift from a mechanical to information order was not a total and irrevocable transformation. As Pamela Lee writes in her discussion of Tinguely’s art in the context of the 1960s, the "machinic" and "digital" are "terms (that) do not separate so easily." (5) While the mechanical was seen to approach its last gasp under the sway of the informational, it in fact persisted—and perhaps persisted most indelibly as the resistant physical residue of motors, material and hardware, which ensure that technological processes of dematerialization are always incomplete. The ideal meta-machine pursuing its course of self-destruction then leaves an inevitable residue, and the remains cast off by machines are evidence of the residual mechanisms at play within the technological.

Such residual mechanisms can be found in the subsequent work of E.A.T., which employed devices at once mechanical and informational, material and process-based. Residue is a product of the machine in its endless oscillation, the fallout from both its productive output and destructive terminus. The residue in the E.A.T. archives, documents that are often remainders from the machinic processes of communication and information exchange, reveal as much about technological decay as innovation. Perhaps this explains the seeming strangeness of Klüver’s comment about ideal machines. In an organization that sought to integrate art and technology, where machines were the common denominators throughout the artistic process, why would Klüver, ever the technological optimist, identify self-destruction as a mechanism so critical to technology? The wasting process that Klüver identified as part of the total operation of technology serves as an informative device for investigating not only E.A.T.’s projects, but also the contemporary status of technology and its wastes. From Tinguely’s self-destroying machine to the universal machine, the ways in which technologies decay, and the (seemingly invisible) residues they create, contribute to an expanded understanding of the productive economy of art and technology.

Jennifer Gabrys © 2004 FDL

(1) Klüver, Billy, "The Garden Party" in The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, ed. K.G. Pontus Hultén (New York : Museum of Modern Art, 1968): 171.

(2) See Davis, Douglas, Art and the Future (New York: Praeger, 1973): 138, for a discussion of technology as material.

(3) The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, ed. K.G. Pontus Hultén: 6.

(4) Burnham, Jack, "The Aesthetics of Intelligent Systems," in On the Future of Art, (New York: Viking Press, 1970): 96.

(5) Lee, Pamela M., Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge : MIT Press, 2004): 109.