Machine Aesthetics - a conversation

Posted by Rhizome | Fri Jan 31st 1997 1 a.m.

Machine Aesthetics

The beginning of a conversation between Ken Wark and Andreas Broeckmann,
January 1997.

Andreas: The notion of machine aesthetics derives from the consideration
that we are witnessing the emergence of an aesthetic paradigm that is based
on the dynamics of the machinic rather than on the forces driving and
driven by the human individual. The artistic explorations of the machinic
are attempts at formulating an understanding of production, of
transformation and of becoming that is no longer dependent on a humanist
notion of intentional agency. Its place is taken by an ethics and an
aesthetics of becoming machine.

Ken: I wouldn't put it like that. It makes it appear as if there was a
prior historical moment that was 'human', in contrast to a present which is
machinic, or in which what is/was human becomes machinic.

I think what Guattari does is make the current historical moment the means
to read history as always a question of machinic assemblage (where the word
machinic means something like 'working' or functioning', only of course
they break down as much as they work). In the chapter of Anti-Oedipus on
'Primitives, Savages and Civilised Men' there's an understanding of the
machinic assemblage that's made almost entirely of human bodies.

The machinic aspect of a possible aesthetics seems to me to have more to do
with an aesthetics of making little machinic assemblages that connect to
other machinic assemblages in the non-aesthetic world. An art that doesn't
represent, or critique, but which connects.

Andreas: I was talking not so much in terms of an ontological shift from
human to machinic, but in terms of a shift in the art theoretical discourse
which has, until now, more or less ignored the aesthetic impact of the
machinic. This discourse generally considers machines as apparatuses, as
technological objects invented and created in order to fulfil certain
functions in processes of production, transportation, communication. Such
machines are always prostheses, they are regarded as exterior and 'other'
to the human body. Their machine status is based on the fact that they are
fabricated aggregations of technical parts (wheels, bars, bolts, electric
circuits, etc.) which are in some way or other accessory to humans, whether
as cars, drills, tape recorders, nano-robots or chip-implants.

At times, theorists claim some kind of modern primacy of the machine over
the human body, machines have been described as working on the body and
creating it in its modern, subjectified form. The related phantasms are
those of independent machines, of subjectified machines, of machines as
Other. An entire school of thought has emerged around the notion of a
technology-driven culture: modern society as a result rather than the human
motor of technological development.

Ken: Let's face it, human/machine just isn't a useful faultline. Show me a
human that can function without *any* machines -- and vice versa. Neither
ever exists in isolation. Perhaps the question is: when are human-machine
assemblages organised as repetitions and when are they
self-differentiating? When do they record and rerecord territories and when
do they escape from territories? And what is the subtle music, the subtle
line, in between?

Andreas: Machine art reflects on the 'mechanic' notion of the machine and
explores its meanings in relation to the thinking, feeling, and evolving
human body. It is an art of experiencing an incomprehensible other, and
contains the hope that, by creating machines, that auto-poetic other which
hides in the machine will reveal a dimension of the self, even if only as a
shadow or an ugly reflection. Machine art is an art of dialectical

Ken:... or rather, its an art of pure narcissism. The self delimited and
returned to itself, not as reflected in a representation, but as reflected
in its discovery of its limits as against the machinic.

Andreas: Machine art insists on the problematic relationship between human
and machine, it creates internal and external armour for the molar self in
criticising, attacking, improving the body, it imagines the perfect,
humanoid robot and the transgressive cyborg, a better homunculus,
super-man. This cyborg is a 'posthuman' copy of the Man of humanism. It is
a being, not a becoming.

We can also understand machines in a more conceptual sense, i.e. as an
assemblage of heterogeneous parts, such as the complex of desires, habits
and incentives that create particular forms of collective behaviour in
groups of individuals, or the aggregation of materials, instruments, human
individuals, lines of communication, rules and conventions that together
constitute a company or institution. These are crude examples for machines
which are assemblages of heterogeneous parts, aggregations which transform
forces, articulate and propel their elements, and force them into a
continuous state of transformation and becoming. Machinic assemblages are
made up of singularities which dynamically transform the environment by
which they are being transformed and recomposed.

Ken: No, I don't think that's a necessary attribute of all machinic
assemblages. I think they have a wide range of functionings and
disfunctionings -- sometimes they self-differentiate, sometimes they
territorialise in relation to an other -- and sometimes they switch states
with alarming regularity.

Andreas: But for me it is this transformative potential which is of
particular interest. The folds and loops in these dynamic processes are the
planes of immanence at which auto-poetic effects occur, moments of
self-production or subjectification. In musical terms, one can speak of the
refrain or the 'ritornelle', the temporary emergence of a relative order
around which patterns can form that further crystallise, or collapse into
renewed disorder. The aesthetics of the machinic resides in these
movements, processes, foldings.

Machinic art practices are directed at forms of behaviour and exchange, and
at transformative processes. Machinic art is an art of unpredictability and
of instability.

Ken: ... or perhaps more to do with the changes and relations between
states, than favouring one particular state. I'm wary of seeing the
deterritorialised moment as an ethical or aesthetic good. As to whether one
is on the side of de- or reterritorialisation -- that's always a tactical

Andreas: The point for me is that there is no meaningful differentiation
between human and machine in the machinic assemblage. Rather, the
functionality of the machine itself becomes the core of the aesthetic force
it exerts, creating a phylum that does not distinguish between human and
machine agency. Machinic art practices disregard representation and
concentrate on an intensification of action, communication, play and
disruption, as ways of stirring and accelerating the flow and recomposition
of the singular parts of assemblages.

The aesthetics of the machinic works towards describing an attitude, it
focuses its attention on the preparation towards the facilitation of a
process during which a temporary event can take place. Art, in this
context, is the facilitation of an aggregation of bodies and forces in an
unstable environment. As an aesthetic principle, the machinic confronts its
own ambivalence and works towards making visible its territorial orders,
dispersing and transforming them.

The hybridisation I describe ...

Ken: God I hate that word! It seems to me always to presume a prior state
of 'pures' that are then cross bred into 'hybrids'. I think
deleuzoguattarian thought is always about multiplicities. In this case:
that there never was a purely human that's been cross bred with the
machine. They always exist together. Body-tool-word-territory.

Andreas: OK, let's say, this multiplicity of states of becoming is part of
what we experience daily, even though we are more often subjected by the
regulatory and industrial machines of a segmented existence. Only
occasionally will art or other practices embrace the machinic. The
Internet, still often described as a machine of multiplicity and
difference, is no more than an aggregation of machinic potentialities which
are currently being explored and experimented upon with mixed successes.
The machinic is not a new aesthetic principle; the commitment to the
machine of the Futurists, the ecstasy of
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