Thursday, September 20, 2012

All Ryled Up

Hans Haacke (source)
In a famous critique, the British philosopher, Gilbert Ryle described René Descartes' mind-body dualism as committed to a "ghost in the machine."  Descartes claimed that the mind is a non-physical substance that somehow controls the body and lives on after it's death.  Ryle was not convinced, and he lampoons the Frenchman for these supernatural beliefs.  But the critique is only half right, because Descartes was also instrumental in pushing for the then controversial view that bodies are machines, and it was a small step from a mechanical view of bodies to a mechanical view of minds.  Descartes interest in machines ran deep, and he even dabbled in the construction of automata.  Toward the end of his life, it is said that he used clock parts to construct an automaton resembling a young girl, which he referred to as his daughter and hefted around in a suitcase.  According to legend, it was discovered by sailors, while Descartes was en route to Sweden, and they were so horrified by the like-like movements of this mechanical child that they cast her into the sea.  Whether true or not, one can credit Descartes as a pioneer in the effort to explain human behavior in mechanical terms.  A century later, this idea was taken up by the physician-philosopher, Julien la Mettrie, who penned L'Homme Machine, arguing that human beings are machines and nothing more.

The automaton in Philippe Parreno's The Writer (source
The relationship between mind, bodies, and machines has also been a theme in art.  This is the theme of an exhibition at the New Museum, which is closing in ten days.  The show is admittedly a bit of a mess. It is an unholy amalgam of pop, op, and outsider art, that always seems to be chasing a few feet behind it's theme.  It's not always obvious why certain works are included in a show that concerns the human-machine relationship (Vasarely is surely a stretch), and some of the included works are, well, bad.  I won't name names.

A Paolozzi still (source)
But there are also some works that make the show worth catching.  Among the most apt inclusions are an animation from Paolozzi (the inventor of pop art), which celebrates the machine age through montage, and a Fritz Kahn poster (a creased recent reprint, unfortunately) showing the human body as a factory.   Also fitting is a lovely film by Philippe Parreno, which documents the penmanship of an 18th century automaton.

Haslan's illustration of James Tilly Matthew's Air Loom (source
In addition to exploring the idea that people are machines, the exhibit includes various representations of machines that interact with human beings.  Vocodors, a tribute to Turing's pioneering computers, art related to automobiles, and Man Ray's hidden sewing machine are all included.  The best room contains work by outsider artists: a Jakob Mohr drawing of a box emitting electrical volts that can paralyze or empower; a drawing by Robert Gie showing people linked to a vein-like apparatus that can influence thoughts; and a collection of metallic healing machines by outsider Emery Blagdon.  Especially lovely is a diagram by a 18th century clinician depicting the Air Loom, a mind-control device fantasized by delusional patient, James Tilly Matthews--the first diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic.  There are also two impressive uncredited works nearby: a wooden hut designed to contain orgasmic energy based on the principles of the ousted sex guru of psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich, and an imaginative realization of a machine designed to inscribe words into human flesh, based on Franz Kafka's "In the Penal Colony."

A Kafka tortue device (source)
The exhibition also explores the use of mechanical means to create art.  Hans Haacke uses fans to create two pieces.  One keeps a white ball suspended in the air, and the other makes a large blue sheet float, with ghost-like poetry.  Also of interest here are works by Channa Horwitz, who developed algorithmic techniques for creating colorful minimalist abstractions, which can also serve as scores for multimedia performances.  It's not entirely clear how these works fit with central theme of the human-machine relationship, but they are enjoyable to see.

Channa Horwitz

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