A Situation in the Machine


Professor Academy of Arts and Design, Tsinghua University
Consulting Curator of Media Art. National Museum of China
Senior Researcher Media and Design Lab EPFL | Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne 


When questioned just before staging the fateful installation Homage to New York in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art on March 17, 1960, Jean Tinguely replied that the apparatus he would soon set free on its own planned unpredictability “is a machine that makes spectacle…this machine is a composer, It’s a sculpture, it makes pictures, makes sound. It has components. It’s a declaration. It’s a situation.” [1]

Tinguely’s mischievous twenty-seven-by-thirty-foot self-destructing machine, composed of bicycle wheels from bicycle shops, metal scraps from garbage dumps in New Jersey, and a prepared piano, instead of emulating John Cage’s innocuous noises, puffed out smoke and later caused a fire and in addition to many explosions of bottles and unidentified parts. With the help of Billy Klüver, the determined scientist turned avant-gardist on a mission to test the new boundaries of art and technology and his E.A.T. lieutenants from Bell Telephone Laboratory in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the machine was equipped with timing and triggering devices and all sort of mechanics that would move the wheels and rattle the junk and eventually tear the piece apart, sending debris skyward and rendering the performance the first grandiose disappearance of an artwork in contemporary art’s nascent memory.


In 1913, Marcel Duchamp had already articulated a mechanical musical instrument and named the apparatus The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even: Musical Erratum, which was to become the official title of his magnum opus, possessing him from 1915 to 1923, the most occult art machine of the twentieth century, popularly known as The Large Glass.[2] In the manuscript, Duchamp described one part as "player piano, mechanical organs or other new instruments for which the virtuoso intermediary is suppressed." The other part was described as “a compositional device consisting of funnel, connected open-top cars or small wagons, and numbered balls (notes): An apparatus automatically recording fragmented musical periods."  Although the final executed version of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even was neither a machine comprised of bearings and gears, nor cables and wires, nor a sounding instrument with “numbered balls,” The Large Glass remains an affective machine, or a “hilarious picture” of the un-spinning ecstasy of the electrical stripping of the bride and the silence of the splendid vibration, affronted by the bruise-less bachelors’ boxing match of the Priest, Delivery Boy, Gendarme, Cuirassier, Policeman, Undertaker, Flunky, Busboy, and Stationmaster.


Heiner Müller wrote Hamletmachine in 1977. Apart from only remotely resembling Shakespeare’s masterpiece, he further reduced the initially conceived two-hundred-page play to a mere eight pages, representing, in his words, “the shrunken head of the Hamlet tragedy.” The Hamletmachine is a discombobulated mental vessel that transposes protagonists arbitrarily. A disturbing apparatus that rallies Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Tse-Tung with the Danish prince, the play compounds “Give us this day of daily murder” with “Hail Coca Cola” as doctor Zhivago weeps on the side.[3] It is an incidental machinery of postmodern schizophrenia that deconstructs narrative, fragments continuity and breaks down hierarchy. Multiplicity and syntheticity are the textual performing engines of HM (Heiner Müller – Hamletmachine).


The artists of Verdensteatret build machines and these machines create situations, situations placed in architectonic constructs that lend their forms to structural and installation performance, which in turn create conditions for experience. It is during these situations that poetry is written and stories unfold. The machines generate pictures, sculptures, music / sound, narratives, and actors like Beaver Log, The Fly Smacker, Mr. Brand, The Shaker, The Bean and The White, The Fat Lady, Conehead, The Tupilak, etc. albeit short of Duchampian exactness. There is often an underlying darkness in their machine-induced spectacles. The whirling projections in the recurrent mirroring cycle (in the wake of Nicolas Schöffer’s 1960 work Chronos 5) reflect and deflect a destructive impulse, almost reminiscent of Tinguely’s death machine and the discombobulation and deconstruction of Müller’s post-modernity. Figures akin to tupilaks, small sculptures in bone or tooth with native Greenlander origins, suggest a supernatural affinity with the world beyond, as if death needed to be visited, resurrection initiated and spirits uplifted. The machines of Verdensteatret are not like the metaphysical device of The Large Glass, nor like the Tinguelian metallic paternity or the ideological apparatus of Müller’s play. They are electro-mechanical orchestrating machines that create immersive situations for the viewer to surrender to, to be disoriented within. Verdensteatret’s machines are mesmerizing orchestras without a conductor. 

Telling Orchestras

Verdensteatret are travelers, the world theater gets its inspiration by wandering around the world. A trip to Greenland in 2003 resulted in a majestic work of audio–visual splendor, steeped in Nordic mythology and the digital sublime, entitled Telling Orchestra.

Upon entering the exhibition space, one encounters a primitive looking, complex wooden structure made of weather-beaten planks with figures and objects composed of the same aged driftwood replete with ancient memory. The structure symbolizes several “plateaus” with different “altitudes” in which seemingly incompatible materials and technologies are woven together.

Greenland casts an enormous shadow on the European map, hiding other landscapes and other stories, a backdrop for the shadow play that is about to begin. A cyclic rotation of the perplexing yet alluring pseudo-plot seems to guide the audience through its uncanny journey. The drama is insinuated through the cascades of gradual brightening or darkening of the space, in the bursts of strikingly dazzling lighting and the cracking sounds of gushing wind smashing on sand dunes as if the sky is shattering and the earth erupting. Mutants, demons and indescribable others encounter each other with rattling noises and Scriabinian shrieking vocal sounds like thunder smacking the spirits of the underworld out of which the legion of disparate figures and objects, of no particular relevance to each other in form or shape but sharing a common root in destruction, emerge. Death comes in its myriad shapes. A dance macabre parades with skeletons reaching out to devour the living; heavy and gloomy phantom-shadows of doppelgängers, hunchbacks, zombies and the despicable flash by in glowing wagons. Yet other vehicles house elegant silhouetted shadow puppets from Indonesia with their elongated noses, slanted eyes, with fantastic perforated patterns all over their slim bodies, light as feathers and thin as smoke. 

These night creatures on the wagon of doom, rolling down the shadow of the earth and up shaded layers of history are cast in strangely black and flat shapes. Shadows and video projections interact to create lines and spheres of light, enveloping the space with a mysterious aura and ephemeral vapor. Shadow is employed to elaborate stories that have been played out both through images created by projection and by objects / figures performing in real time. 

The objects and figures vary in appearance from geometrical abstractions to figurative naturalism. Dangling wire forms, rotating sieves, snaring meshes, trembling flotsams, bouncing balls, rattling buckets, tins and cans, the found objects chosen arbitrarily at random and the materials with which objects are sculpted imply sources for extended imagination and ambiguous narratives. The story develops according to the objects’ changing relationship within and among themselves. 

The installation as a shadow-play machine engages an audience on two sides of a screen. On the rear side, a viewer experiences it as a pure shadow play appearing on a screen. On the front side, the audience sees the performing objects/figures which would normally be hidden in a traditional shadow play. The spectator follows the actions of the objects/figures and also sees their shadows and video projections simultaneously, which creates a sensation of being caught in between the real and the surreal.

An array of small and silent dc-motors, power transformers and microprocessors were developed into custom motors and robots to move the objects and complicate situations. The motors shuffle objects back and forth, rotate them and move them vertically. A computerized system sends messages to each motor and robot to instruct their movement at any given moment. The structure of this program, which runs the entire installation, can be compared to the notes of a musical score, a score for a “software concert master.”

The projections take on another level of organic fluidity by reflecting off of robotically controlled mirrors that contort the projection surface and range. Instead of being constricted by rectangular shapes, skewed and irregular projected images in curvy and parabolic forms are achieved through bending the mirrors to warp their reflections. It is a strategy both ingenious and effective.

Chance appears to be the predominant element in stringing together these fragments into their own lucidity within an open work that defies the litany of characterization and categorization. The Telling Orchestra symphonically meshes together strings (wires), woodwinds (driftwood, flotsam), percussions (buckets), brass (tins and cans) and shrieking vocals, incidentally and precariously.

On to the Funeral Machines

Verdensteatret finds destruction a form of construction. In their latest work, Electric Shadow, the death motif is amplified with blatant frankness: activating dead objects and frozen images in the realm of the living. The seemingly bizarre impulse is in fact the drive to make the clumsiness of the animated a source of new potential, the stiffness of the puppetry a departure for innovation. 

Death has wheels. Duchamp placed a wheel on a stool to declare the death of retinal art; Tinguely spun out wheels to decompose art based on solid forms; Müller carved out a mental wheel that turned the mind upside down. Funeral Machines has many wheels: wreaths that embellish the unseen dead and halos that reel over a limbo of transience. But the funeral machines are transcendental apparatuses, devices that grind the living into the dead in illuminated transparency and prolonged rhythmic undulation. 

Death is a dark room. The funeral machines envelope a space wherein images emerge and fall apart like the specters in Hamlet. It is a laboratory that attests to the creation of moving images, witnessing the physical process of building pictures: how they arise, take on solid form, and twist and wind into constellations and compounded imagery. In this space of ethereality, kinetic metal sculptures are buttresses that hold the transient, allowing it to perform and to project. Light is directed onto and through miniature glass figures held by mechanical arms. The figures are manipulated in front of the focal point of a lens and projected onto the wall. A small platform between the light and the lens becomes a tiny stage on which the glass figures perform attached to the tip of small robotic arms. This platform is the hot spot or the gravitational point of the instrument / sculpture. The combination of light, glass objects and lenses engenders a mesmerizing micro-theater within the room-sized macro-projection, creating an immersive universe both minimal and maximal, in which the hybrid of a moving-still image manifests its optical prowess and resonates with a grand landscape of immersion and absorption.

A situation in the machine ignites a chain reaction of new situations, like the unstoppable destruction of Homage to New York leaving debris and ashes as its perpetual memory, like the futile laboring of the Chocolate Grinder unto which the Bachelors devote much fantasy only to spill in a pleasureless orgasm, like the much lamented Danish Prince’s uncontrollable predicament and the grave of schizophrenia. 

But for Verdensteatret, a situation in the machine is not only what makes spectacles, or a machine that is a sculpture, a composer, makes pictures, makes sound, but also a delicate desire for intended instability. Although frail and precarious, it promises curiosity and excitement, for who would resist the temptation of a situation that is curious and exciting?

A situation in the machine is a declaration.


[1] Transcript from Jean Tinguely - Homage to New York, FLV http://www.vimeo.com/8537769

[2] Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Duchamp in Context, Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works, (Princeton University Press, 1998), 8

[3] Heiner Müller, Hamletmachine and Other Texts for the Stage,
trans.Carl Weber (Performing Arts and Journal Publications, New York, 1984), 57

Appendix: A Short Description of Two of the Kinetic Instruments in Electric Shadow by Verdensteatret


A source of light, an object, a lens and a wall to project on. The object is made of string and glass. Lending a depth to the quality of the projection, a physical quality of the light. There’s a film running in the background. Ancient cityscapes glide by. The transparent images on the film are physically moving from one reel to another on the Apparatus. On the wall, in the circular projection, the figures move as if walking through the city. Walking down the streets, stopping, staring, commenting. The figures are attached to robotic arms. With their aid they move in and out of the projection and in and out of focus. The projection becomes a stage, a center of attention. The lens is moving, gliding along a depth perspective it focuses on an array of objects lined up, focusing through them. One after another they come into focus and disappear in a mist. Two more lenses are available as windows helping to uncover this world. The glass shapes turn up in small ovals and circles of light, little areas within the central projection. The figures move between and inside these places, suggesting stories. This is Apparatus_1: Light, objects and lenses. Robotic arms, more lenses and more objects. Purposefully creating their little plays in the projection. 

A little to side of this machinery sticks are moving. Initially made as custom joysticks for the control of each robotic arm, thought to be useful only in a performance. The joysticks are now moving by themselves. Needless, useless and, as a part of the larger kinetic sculpture, branching out, leading the string and glass objects to whatever vital part they play. Also the direction of light and projection can be changed. By pulling a curtain around the round and oval stages and setting a light from the side, the Apparatus becomes an ensemble for shadowplay and a dancing sculpture. The arms, lenses and joysticks all become creatures in a world of shadows. Rhythm, degree of movement and complexity gives the impression of the Apparatus as an organic creature. A contraption for projection is revealed to be an organic creature.

The Cluster of Wheels / A Funeral Machine

At first sight it’s a treelike sculpture. The trunk consists of old bicycle parts branching out with wheels for a crown. The wheels have motors and sensors. Their spinning is connected to the room as a controlling power. The wheels control the sounds and images. Dressed in flowers for a funeral, the wheels spin and play music as if in a band following the deceased to her grave. A machine for funeral services, producing funeral marches, memorial songs and hymns, providing floral etiquette and other ceremonial needs, automatically, simultaneously. 

The cluster of wheels also control videos on the walls. One wheel pushes a Zeppelin and sends it gently floating through the room. A half turn from another wheel sinks it dangerously close to the ground. Yet another wheel turns and a giant seagull flaps its wings. The tempo and persistence of the wheels drive the room around and around.