Review

Wonder and Technology: Almost Certified at Machine Project

Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree
Almost Certified (Grade A Noise for Non-discerning Consumers)
Machine Project, Los Angeles
December 4, 2004 - January 3, 2005
Kristina Newhouse

Head out on any ordinary Saturday to a public beach, anywhere from Arcata to San Diego, and you are bound to come across a drumming circle. Anybody who can keep a simple beat and is in possession of at least a rudimentary instrument to bang on is welcome to join. The rules of the group— and of rhythm, for that matter—are so fundamental that scant verbalization of them is required. Enter the pulse, the way a little kid might dash into the jump ropes of Double Dutch, and sustain it. The insistent yet joyful percussive sound invariably draws a crowd to ring the performers. The mystical atmosphere of the drumming circle is further enhanced by dancers (apparent refugees from the Grateful Dead concert circuit), who materialize to leap and spin along the perimeter, with arms flapping like those of broken winged dervishes. Players and bystanders who stay long enough are drawn into a trance-like euphoria. Once triggered, this collective high can sometimes last for hours after the drumming has ceased.

A recent installation at Machine Project by the collaborative team of Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree inspired a similar giddiness— a startling sensation to be had in an old storefront near the busy intersection of Sunset and Alvarado. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer was presented with sixteen eggs (laid by birds ranging in size from ostriches and rheas to smaller breeds of domesticated fowl), elegantly perched on stilts atop an equal number of slender, white pedestals. Almost Certified (2004) was, in fact, an elaborate mechanized musical instrument, poised in wait for an audience to begin its concert. Motion detectors set off the tremendous, percussive racket, made— unbelievably—as each egg was tapped by an aluminum mallet. The resulting sound was captured with stethoscopic-looking microphones positioned next to the eggs, and amplified by speakers built directly into the pedestals. Its musical passages were evocative of some John Cage inspired composition involving ping-pong balls, daisy wheel printers and the clip-clop of horses’ hooves.

Although robotic, Almost Certified did not summon up anxiety about some futuristic cyber-prosthetic march towards post-humanity. In fact, it functioned very much like a souped-up version of the robot’s much older precursor: the automaton. The first references to automata were made in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts. Some of Almost Certified’s distant relations could well have been medieval clockjacks, the mechanized men in timepieces who heralded the arrival of a new hour by pealing a bell with a hammer or sword. However, instead of the elaborate cams and gears that were used to direct the clockjack’s musical activity, Cain and Crabtree opted for a more contemporary solution, creating their score in an audio software program, Max/MSP. Samples were requested from other musicians (Joe Lake, Peter Segerstrom, Joe Crabtree and Robbie Crabtree) to be added to the mix. The artists then set up algorithms, with weighted probabilities to control pattern parameters such as sound density, meter and tempo, from which the Max/MSP program randomized the pre-composed materials. The entire system was directed from a vintage Mac LCIII mainframe computer, plunked down in the middle of everything.

Their choice to utilize a computer that, though just eleven years old, was nearly as obsolete as a Victrola phonograph, prompted thoughts about the role novelty plays in the escalation of technology. From the very beginning, the modern era has been demarcated from previous times by our predilection for ever-evolving technology, serving both to better our lives and entertain us. Art historian Tom Gunning has suggested that, contrary to expectations, the discourse of modernity has veered predominantly towards novelty, not innovation, with emphasis placed upon “maximizing the dazzling experience of the new.”1 In the case of robots, it would certainly seem that we expect them to entertain us in return for our attention, a recent example being Sony’s QRIO, a sprightly robot, only 23” tall, that conducted the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in a rendition of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony last March.2 By comparison, the mechanism of Almost Certified was undeniably rudimentary. Indeed, it truly was astonishing that the viewer could still be susceptible to the kind of wonder that a relatively primitive, egg-tapping machine might inspire.

Wonder is a threshold experience. It arises when we are confronted with indeterminate objects or ideas. Apparent contradiction stops us in our tracks: we see, but we doubt what we see, a condition called aporia. Interestingly, an early Greek term for wonder, thaumazein, shares its etymology with thaumatopoios, the word for puppetry, juggling, and conjuring tricks.3 As might be expected, the puppet (an inanimate thing behaving as though it were alive) is frequently given as an example of an object that occasions an aporic sense of doubt.4

Like many threshold experiences, the duration of wonder is usually brief. It is most commonly dissipated by deeper investigation. In subsequent encounters with the same set of stimuli, we tend to be immunized against its effects. Given the extent to which technology infiltrates our lives, the fact that habituation diminishes its wondrous aspects is perhaps a good thing. Otherwise, we might become entirely overwhelmed by technology’s omnipresence.

A well designed and smoothly functioning machine becomes nearly invisible to the user. However, the moment it breaks down or does not work as anticipated, it again becomes conspicuous.5 The interruption or failure of function can result in a surprising de-familiarization with the machine, reopening a channel to wonder. While this de-familiarization may lead to a sensation of alienation and uncanniness (accompanied by dread), it can also be conducive to laughter. In her book about automata, Edison’s Eve, Gaby Wood deliberately conflated psychiatrist Sigmund Freud’s notion of the uncanny with philosopher Henri Bergson’s conception of the “comic,” suggesting the two may arise from the same impulse.6 For Bergson, “…Attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.”7 Given the role that any kind of inversion plays in humor,8 it seems plausible that an opposing scenario might hold as true: equally laughable may be the tics and fits of a malfunctioning machine, reminding us of the failings of our own bodies. (For a far less funny example of this kind of reversal, look no further than the “viruses” and “worms” that “infect” our computers.)

Bergson and Freud shared especial curiosity about the involuntary aspects of humor. Bergson’s Laughter predated Freud’s Jokes and their Relation to the Subconscious (1905) by a mere five years. It was not the first time their interests would coincide. Both had previously been fascinated with the involuntary movements of hysterics, many of whom claimed to feel as mechanical as automatons.9 Each man attended lectures at the infamous women’s asylum, the Salpêtrière, where Freud’s mentor Jean-Martin Charcot presented puppet-like hysteric patients who performed under hypnosis for scientists, intellectuals, and celebrities.10 A preoccupation with hysteria would come to permeate the Zeitgeist of late 19th century Paris to such an extent that its symptoms were translated into comic shticks at the cafés and cabarets located very near the Salpêtrière. Soon these mechanical antics would find their way into the slapstick films of Georges Méliès and Charlie Chaplin.

The vaguely antiquated performance of Almost Certified inspired delight the way an old-fashioned calliope, wind-up toy, or silent film might. The basic unit of life, a fragile egg, had been rendered the “straight man” in a send-up of automation. And yet, in the punning title of their work, Cain and Crabtree also alluded to something else. While “almost certified” refers to near-legitimacy, as measured in the standards set by the USDA, to be “certified” is to be deemed insane. As the saying goes: laugh and the world laughs with you. Laugh uncontrollably and you are liable to be branded a nutcase. Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree invited their audience to open themselves up to the contagious beat of raucous near-lunacy. Somehow, though, the sweet silliness of their proposition and the contrarily elegant, museum-like presentation of Almost Certified kept the uncanny at bay. But just barely.

Kristina Newhouse is curator of the Joslyn Fine Arts Gallery in the City of Torrance.

Footnotes

  1. Tom Gunning, “Re-newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature, and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of-the-Century,” MIT Communications Forum The Aesthetics of Transition–Three Lectures: The Cinema and Other Media at the Turn of the Century, February 24-26, 1998 (http://web.mit.edu/m-i-t/articles/ gunning.html).
  2. Will Knight, “Humanoid Robot Conducts Beethoven Symphony,” Newscientist.com, April 4, 2004.
  3. John Llewelyn, “On the Saying that Philosophy Begins in Thaumazein,” Post- Structuralist Classics, ed. Andrew Benjamin (London: Routledge, 1988) p. 174.
  4. Ibid.
  5. See Peter Seebach, “The Cranky User: The Principle of Least Astonishment,” Eserver TC Library, 2001, (http://www-106.ibm.com/developerworks /usability/ library/us-cranky10.html)
  6. Gaby Wood, Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) p. 191.
  7. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1911) p. 29.
  8. Bergson, p. 94.
  9. Rae Beth Gordon, “From Charcot to Charlot: Unconcious Imitation and Spectatorship in French Cabaret and Early Cinema,” Critical Inquiry, Spring 2001, v. 27, p. 529.
  10. Wood, p. 201.
Further Reading