‘AUTOMATA FOR THE PEOPLE’ – Sarah Longair

RESPONSE #4  Sarah Longair

Our intriguing foray into the world of self-operating machines with Chris Laoutaris incorporated the study of texts, objects, video and drawings, focused our attention on ideas about the post-human and blurred the line between object and person. Starting with automata from the Renaissance period, including a spooky chest-beating monk, Chris introduced us to the idea of materials including metal as living things, on a scale in which stone was more inert, and biological materials most living. With reference to various early modern texts, one began to see how automata not only created articulated moving objects, but viewed in a certain light were themselves living things.

Considering these automata within the cabinet of curiosities provided a contextual frame within which to compare contemporaneous objects. Chris described these cabinets as an experimental space which allowed an exploration of the boundaries between the artificial and the natural. Composite objects displayed alongside automata – such as nautilius shells mounted on metallic stands – fused organic and inorganic materials, highlighting the fluid notion of what was a living thing.

I was particularly struck by Chris’s discussion about how these automata, for example those with religious connotations, exposed the bodily weakness and mortal inadequacy of humans – such as the monk’s ability to relentlessly pray. The automata, and by extension, other machines and modern technology, are simultaneously superior to people in this respect yet (at this moment in time) lack the human capacity for invention, control and decision-making. They simultaneously reassure us about our ability to control such machines alongside our own fallibility.

A contemporary automaton by the Fourteen Balls Toy Co.

A contemporary automaton by the Fourteen Balls Toy Co.

This line of thinking brought me back to the dodo and how it too highlights aspects of human weakness through their extinction by human greed, exploitation and colonisation. A contemporary automaton by the Fourteen Balls Toy Co. conveniently illustrates this point. While dodo extinction was a result of destruction of their habitat and the introduction of non-native animals to Mauritius rather than human consumption, ‘The Last Dodo’ automaton nonetheless represents human acquisitiveness with little regard of the consequences. As the handle is turned, the sailors hungrily hammer the table with their knives and forks while the captain sharpens his knife over the dodo. All that would be left at the end of this meal of the last dodo would be the bones – objects which remain to this day such a source of wonder and curiosity, and our principal material connection with the bird itself. The mechanical makes the human physical, bringing to life an unsettling aspect of our own flesh and blood behaviour.

A contemporary automaton by the Fourteen Balls Toy Co.

A contemporary automaton by the Fourteen Balls Toy Co.

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