Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking, and Seeing*

Ernesto Menéndez-Conde

(Translated by Annie Stutzman)

I

When the current World Chess Champion, Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, received notice of the death of Bobby Fischer, he declared that the once American grandmaster had the virtue of making the difficult seem easy. Something similar could be said of the exposition Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing that is currently on view at the New York Bronx Museum until September 2019 (after which it will travel to Rome). Useless is a criticism of the present day. But it is not a criticism of problems too visible, such as the amassing vitality of populist rhetoric, corrupt political behavior, and the recent manifestations of xenophobia, nationalism, and homophobia that are undermining Western democracies. In the show, the criticism, aimed at contemporary capitalism, invites one to think about the roots of these problems. It does so by insisting on the notion of the ‘useless’—that which an aesthetic tradition, from Aristotle to Jacques Ranciére has attributed to art (Mosquera).

With the appearance of digital technologies and the advent of advanced capitalism, the pragmatism of the past has done nothing more than accentuate itself. Contemporary societies seem to be governed increasingly more by a sense of utilitarianism that is affecting the moral attitudes of the people, the employment of free time, the forms of interaction—let us think, for example, about text messages, which however much they may accelerate communication, tend to impoverish users’ ability to express a full range of impressions—and the political decisions of the individual. In opposition to this pragmatism, the machinery that makes up Useless stimulates notably the capacity to imagine, it returns childlike curiosity by disassembling the objects and inviting viewers figure out how their mechanisms function, and it induces to thought inventive ideas, albeit unprofitable or devoid of any utilitarian value. The pulleys, funnels, cogwheels, pipes, and gears, usually related to the work done in factories, seek to stimulate poetic associations. Chilean artist Johanna Unzueta exhibits some of these industrial pieces. They are made in felt, which is an homage to Joseph Beuys. They seem unusable, bound like a madman in a straightjacket.

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II

The interpretation of art as social criticism is always comforting. It allows one to ‘understand’ what the artist or curator of the exposition wants to say.  It relieves us of the anxiety of not knowing how to satisfactorily appreciate the highly specialized language of contemporary art. Nevertheless, such readings often run the risk of proposing unambiguous visions. They frequently hinder the potential to enjoy the artistic images as soon as they possess ludic, absurd, or metaphorical meaning. Reducing the installations, videos, photographs, and projects that are exhibited in Useless to expressions of socially critical art could generate many misunderstandings. The curator Gerardo Mosquera was not contented with just showing that an entire slant of philosophy and the aesthetics has defended the futile character of art. He wanted the spectator to experience the futility of the works. The criticism of the utilitarianism of today’s societies is effectuated through the ‘use’ of the exposed machinery. And it is here where what is difficult seems easy. In one of my visits to the Bronx Museum, as I was watching one of the videos, a young woman yelled to some friends that had accompanied her: “this is so cool!” She was sitting underneath Arnaldo Morales’ installation Tentaculosa No. 12. The piece is an ellipsoid structure integrated by a sequence of tentacle-like synthetic cords. Wired to the electricity and hanging from the ceiling, Tentaculosa is a kinetic work. The cords contract and expand rhythmically, as though they were sexual pulsions—in Spanish the title is a play on words, containing both ‘tentación’ (temptation) and ‘culo’ (ass)—or the respiration of a living being. Suddenly the work makes a snap. The cords start to move, they entangle one with other, and then immediately and chaotically, they liberate themselves. These movements repeat cyclically, evidencing the nonproductive character of the machine. The young woman watched with enthusiasm though these palpitations and spasms did not serve any purpose. She was unlikely thinking in that moment about any type of criticism of contemporary societies.

The same occurs with the two works of South African artist William Kentridge, in which the spectator, upon rotating a handle, moves small flags and meccanos that are screwed into structures mounted on top of tripods. Equally futile is Blue Angel Eye, the kinetic sculpture of Shih Chieh Huang. The wiring and the behavior-registering screen, which seems to be a highly sophisticated technology, only manage to inflate cones of nylon and light bulbs of changing color. At most, they produce visual rhythms and the likeness of insect wings—or of being demonic—that open and close. Parodying slightly the concept of the ‘real maravilloso’ (the ‘marvelous real’) proposed by Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, it could be said that Blue Angel Eye is an example of the ‘marvelous uselessness.’

Dreambox—by Taiwanese artist Shyu Ruey-Shiann—is composed of four panels acting as walls of a rectangular enclosure. Each panel contains a system of pipes to which dozens of motorcycle pieces are adhered (saddles, handlebars, pedals, pistons, rearview mirrors, speedometers, fenders, etc.). They are the parts of a Sanyang that the artist drove when he was a young man. Each one of the panels is identified with a letter—from A to D—as the parts of the vehicle are enumerated 1 to 99. With these classifications, Ruey-Shiann implies not only a tour for looking at the installation. The letters and numbers also purport to have a didactic sense, as if the way in which they are laid out obeys principles that could be deduced or deciphered by merely following the sequence made by the artist. Moreover, in Dreambox, some features come into operation: lights that turn on, motors that sound, cogwheels that turn. But there is no way of understanding what is achieved by these effects, as there is no way to see why the pieces are numerically ordered. Perhaps the interior space hidden by the four walls could provide some answers about the functioning of Dreambox, but the spectators cannot enter that place, despite that on panel D, with which the trajectory around the work would culminate, there is a gap that evokes a square door. French thinker Gaston Bachelard  once said on the subject of chests, drawers, and wardrobes that we cannot see them without simultaneously imagining that they guard secrets (1994: xvii-xviii, 74-89). Dreambox aspires to create a similar effect.

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III

Several of the pieces on exhibit are simulacra. They have a deceiving appearance of functioning appliances. Such is the case with Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Travel Kit, an admirably aseptic mechanism that would produce excrement but functions instead as a sculpture (Mosquera) with the appearance of a tool kit. Cloaca Travel Kit is based on machines, conceived by Delvoye himself and produced in collaboration with designers and scientists, that literally transform food into fecal matter. With its distillation balls, syringes, hoses, and trays, the work induces to thought processes of ebullition, fermentation, and distillation. The artificial creation of excrement is an operation that recalls the attempts of medieval alchemists to fabricate gold. In his own way, Delvoye, a contemporary alchemist, searches for—or perhaps has already found—a new philosopher’s stone. Cloaca Travel Kit invites one to imagine it. Possibly, the work leads visitors to question which could be the substances, the acids, the chemical processes that would activate when Cloaca Travel Kit’s mechanisms set into motion.

We find another simulacrum in the photographs of Lithuanian artist Algis Griskevicius. Depicting his flying machines, the images may immediately call to mind the famed ornithopter of Leonardo da Vinci. However, despite their obvious similarities, between the apparatuses there exist notable distinctions. First is that Griskevicius proposes to make art: photographs or artifacts that have a conceptual or perhaps jesting intention. The Renaissance inventor, on the other hand, sought to create a machine that would effectively allow him to fly. His ornithopter, based on observation of birds in flight, was a scientific experiment. From the epistemological horizon that saw importance in analogy (Foucault 23-26), Leonardo anticipated with notable precision some of the findings of contemporary aerodynamics. No one in their right mind would see any scientific contribution in the works of the Lithuanian artist. Griskevicius knows beforehand that his machines are ridiculous and inoperable. However, in the photographs we see one of his models flying blissfully on some ordinary board and traveling in a rocket constructed of wooden rods. More than the act of boarding a plane, as any contemporary passenger would be able to do, Griskevicius represents the age-old dream of defying the laws of gravity. The photographs and the useless spaceship suspended from the ceiling of the salon, evoke the experience of the oneiric flight beautifully interpreted by Bachelard. In the images of the poetic daydream, Bachelard tells us, one travels through the air with a pair of wings in their heels (42-44). In Griskevicius’ work, the flight lacks this poetic quality. The smile that his machines arouse is due possibly in part to having been conceived with an intended naivety. Despite the profound formal differences that distinguish one artist from the other, Griskevicius is in many ways a continuator of the  painting of Le Douanier Rousseau (who, similarly, took interest in the representation of flying machines, among them airplanes and hot air balloons).

UselessMachines4red

IV

Tropical Mercury Capsule, by Salvadoran Simón Vega, consists of a metallic structure made in imitation of the Mercury space capsules created by the United States between 1961 and 1962. The structure, comprised of tin roofing panels, is surrounded by concrete blocks, bricks, hoses, plastic containers, showerheads, and plants that will gradually wither as the exhibition passes. It contains a square hole, like a window from which we can see its interior. Furnished with wallpapered walls, kitchen accessories, and a chair, the spectator might have the impression of peering into a domestic space. At the top of the simulated spaceship there is a running fan, indication perhaps that someone eventually left and may come back at any minute. The pleasure that Tropical Mercury Capsule’s ‘indiscreet window’ provides reminds us at the same time that in our global world, the waste of some societies—and that of contemporary art installations—does not possess a visual appearance any distinct from that offered by many symptoms of misery in other parts of the planet.

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In Jairo Alfonso’s video Telefunken, an old radio made in the German Federal Republic in 1958 emits a sound collage, a composition of material that was originally transmitted by these appliances, namely news about the milestones of the sixties, much of which pertains to the Cold War. It begins with the teenage pop song She Loves You by the Beatles to then incorporate news of political crimes and war tensions, as well as fragments of speeches and propagandist slogans of totalitarian regimes. These records alternate with those of cultural and scientific events such as Woodstock, the news of the first heart implant, and the space flights of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. With each recording, the radio progressively disassembles and self-mutilates, as if it were going obsolete or as if the materiality of its valves, speakers, and electronic circuits were no longer able to resist the intensity of the information being heard. Amidst the self-destruction, we get a glimpse of the emergency of the new cultural moment wherein said events have an even more global purview. For many of Alfonso’s fellow Cubans, Telefunken is a machine that will also likely activate the involuntary memory. These radios were still listened to daily when Alfonso was a child though they had then been outmoded in many other countries. This nostalgic accent is evoked through a radio commercial for an analgesic fabricated in the Caribbean island during the sixties.

V

In the exposition there are various machines that generate artistic images. The photographs of José Iraola were taken with a camera that, in addition to producing self-made snapshots, creates distortions in its focus lens, chromatic alterations, and even abstractions. Roxy Paine shows four photographs of an apparatus that fabricates sculptures, as well as six pieces produced with this device. We cannot see the machine itself, nor is there any explanation for how it functions. It is possible to infer that various synthetic materials are thrown into a funnel and after undergoing a chemical process, the works emerge, amorphous mounds whose folds suggest liquids that have solidified upon cooling. Paine’s machine is a criticism of contemporary art, wherein artists often make miniscule changes through excessive repetition of the same procedure. In the film Modern Times, Chaplin’s factory worker has been mechanized to the point that at seeing four hexagonal buttons on a woman’s dress, his impulse is to wrench them tight, having mistaken them for fastening nuts. Paine suggests that in contemporary societies, it is not just the factory worker, it is too the artist that has been transformed into a machine, even when this artist seems to profess creativity and opposition to pragmatism.

Stefana McClure contrived the idea to adhere thimbles to gloves. Functioning like stamps, McClure dips them into ink and with them prints numbers, letters, asterisks, and other signs. Her video shows her sitting in front of a table where she writes something as if she were typing on an imaginary computer. We listen to that incessant ta, ta—of which Reinaldo Arenas once spoke in one of his short stories. The thimbles create the sound as they strike the paper. The result is an abstract image, an illegible accumulation of signs that transform into visual rhythms and gradations of gray.

In the Method of Discourse, a video by Spanish artist Fernando Sánchez Castillo, two explosive-defusing machines create pieces of art as if they were two artists that must work in the only free time left by their day jobs. The machines parody important creators of art of the twentieth century. They fire against paint cartridges, as artist Niki de Saint-Phalle was doing in the sixties, and create replicas of two of Marcel Duchamp’s famous readymades. Additionally, Method of Discourse makes allusions to other artists such as Pollock and Kline. The music, a post-romantic symphony piece, adds a human—and humoristic—accent to the video, as if the machines were emoting or developing emotional bonds while they collaborate to produce the works.

VI

In Careless Machines by Colombian artist Adriana Salazar, two robotic figures struggle to perform an act as simple as a cheers between two friends. One time after another, they try to knock together the small glasses that they hold in hand. But it is to no avail. They suffer from a comical and exasperating clumsiness. As an additional comical note, Salazar designed one of the figures to stagger drunkenly. In another of her installations, the movements produced by a clock’s motor are employed to try to thread a needle. They are useless machines, as much for their incapacity to achieve desired results as they are for the banal purpose with which they were conceived.

The machines collected by curator Gerardo Mosquera proffer a more decelerated world, where time can be utilized more creatively. Seeing reality from points of view that are scarcely habitual is a way of dreaming it as well as thinking critically about it. One of the wonders of art lies in the development of these capacities, and in this way, it contributes to enriching the daily life of people. Uselessness transforms then into an indispensable function—in reality, disproportionally useful—for human beings. The term ‘useless’ applied to artistic images does not mean lack of functionality, but rather an opposition to utilitarianism.

Notes:

* All photos courtesy of Gerardo Mosquera.

Works Cited:

– Alfonso, Jairo. Telefunken. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Bachelard, Gastón. El aire y los sueños: ensayos sobre la imaginación en movimiento. Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1958. Print.

—. The poetics of the space. Beacon Press, 1994.

– Chieh Huang, Shih. Blue Angel Eye. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Delvoye, Wim.  Cloaca Travel Kit. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. Archeology of Human Sciences. Routledge, 2001.

– Morales, Arnaldo. Tentaculosa No 12. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Mosquera, Gerardo. “Of art, machines and uselessness”. From Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. Bronx Museum: s/p, 2019.

– Ruey-Shiann, Shyu. Dreambox. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Salazar, Adriana. Careless Machines. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Sánchez Castillo, Fernando. Method of Discourse. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

– Vega, Simón. Tropical Mercury Capsule. Useless: Machines for Dreaming, Thinking and Seeing. 27 March 2019 – 1 September 2019, The Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York.

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