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Arts & Humanities Research (MPhil) (PhD)

Mark Selby

My practice mainly evolves around sculpture, installation and film with an engineering (mechanical, computational and material) focus that uses these methods of production to explore the affect of technological rationality upon human agency.

Taking as its starting point the ubiquitous nature of automated technology, my PhD research project, Machines at Play: The Attraction of Automation, asked how play may be used in an antagonistic form against the regimentation of machines but, conversely, may also be employed to instrumentalise them. The work undertaken specifically focused on how play (a quality considered here as intrinsic to human culture and nature following Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens) can expose issues of control, agency and authority within a technological context. The result is a body of work and thesis that act as a re-reading of Huizinga’s play-element of culture through a contemporary, technological lens–one that aimed to bridge the gap between a humanities/philosophical approach and an engineering approach–while applying this to contemporary issues surrounding automated ‘art machines’ and cultural production.

There was an object with a grey dimmer switch.

It hummed, that grey box with its white plastic wheel for a switch. It was larger than the dial of a standard domestic switch, exaggerated like toys are—a cartoon control for a child. I remember that hum, not for its warmth, but for its danger; it was clearly the noise of an electrical imperfection and it felt as though that box might burst into flames at any moment. The box controlled the speed of a train, a model that was my father’s and his father’s before him. Looping around four panels that he had constructed from chipboard and brass screws, it was a modular set up that came out into the living room only when there was enough enthusiasm for the effort (or more often than not, required as a pacifier for boredom). Once up and running, it always disappointed; going only round and round in circles, the lack of decoration and constant breaking down meant its attractive affect was very temporary. ­

When not being watched, I would remove the four screws on the lid of that grey box, peer in and access the electrical circuit at work. This access to the object’s guts did not offer the clarity I expected. I remember coloured wires and a faint smell of hot dust while distinctly learning nothing of the physical operation in front of me; it revealed instead a desire for transgression, the undoing of an interface so that I could cross the limits of safety and—when the screws were back in—without anyone noticing. I don’t ever remember even disconnecting the electricity. Here then, despite the risk of a verbal and physical scolding, was ’play’; not through the expected model or the thrill of controlling the intended object of the game, but the risky archaeology of a machine that, bit by bit, might push the limits of my knowledge.

The Nerves, The Blood, The Muscles and The Eye (2020)
Brighter Than A Thousand Suns (2020)
Seeing Meaning Where None Exists (2020)

Spare materials, archived objects and found parts; an archive of accidental and conscious aesthetic choice.

Selected pieces from this ‘database' are drawn up as digital, 3D replicas. Geometry and dimensions are measured by hand, transposed and rendered in as close an approximation as possible to their physical form. 

These digital versions are, one-by-one, connected in a chain of events that build into a mass: an auto-assemblage. Through a coded script, the various objects attach to one another along vertices, edges and faces. The location and co-ordinates for intersection are selected by the pseudo-random number generation of the computer/machine.

The model generated on the screen is used as an instructional diagram; to be made with variations allowable only upon a lack of skill, experience or tool.

Medium:

Mixed media

Size:

Variable

Jocularity can hide being on the threshold of the amiable and the antagonistic; our collaboration was the perfect illustration of that.

My intention was to approach an abstract painter, one who referenced human gesture and the application of brush on canvas with impressive authorial confidence, all while under the spectre of a Modernist language that seemed like martyrdom to the ‘God of Anthropocentrism’.

I thought they might find it ‘amusing’–a playful game–to think about the convergence of automation and automatism, of hearing from beyond that voice which asks us to follow some procedure… be that intuitive or logical, rational or irrational, it’s all the same game, right? 

I send a letter to my dear Malvolio to find out.


Medium:

Custom CNC machine, eco paint stripper & water
When a Tyrant Eats Itself — Installation view @ Three Works (18th September- 22nd October 2020, Image Courtesy: Chris Shaw & Three Works)

It was very common for me to be unable to sleep when I was younger; the precise reason for which either escapes me or is simply the kind of thing one does not want to return to easily.

Certain mannerisms, the constant wringing and rubbing of hands that tries to calm the feeling of accelerated thoughts, still remain with me today. I would lay there in bed, automated knots in my head tying themselves inside out, wondering whether it was normal for the mind to manifest so physically. “Better than banging my head against the wall” I’d say to myself, as if some comfort could be gotten from making skin red and raw.

Ironically, I also cannot remember in the chronology of that time when I got my favourite watch, but I do know that it meant more to me than being able to keep an accurate hour and minute. It was the age of multi-functional digital watches; not just the tellers of time but portable machines that allowed one to be a master of calculus, know the ambient temperature or light up the way through a tiny beam of light. A friend’s watch had a barometer and altimeter; a wild adventurer, a mountaineer, a deep-sea diver, what images that watch seemed to solicit in a hair-brain fool.

Mine was not so talented a timepiece but it was good enough not to seem at odds with others. A common function was the stopwatch, of which mine could also memorise selected records. Its circular, grey plastic frame was designed with four small buttons on the outside, allowing start, stop, split and lap times to a degree of timing only really practically useful for a professional athlete. At night, under the sheets, I would press start and then stop in order to try and precisely land on 00:01:00. From there, other numbers of my choosing—or sometimes just the same one—would be selected. Repeat. Outside my room, while the game went on, I am sure all one could hear for hours on end, was the ‘beep’ of each attempt.

I didn’t stop when I did manage the task; any small feeling of delight in success was not celebrated, and failure neither castigated, for each attempt had its own joy. Again and again I would do it, practicing for no purpose other than my own satisfaction. Sometimes in the morning I would wake to find I was still holding the watch in my hand with the timer running.


Medium:

Live computer generated video, screen and fluorescent light

Size:

Dimensions variable
Better With or Without — Installation view @ Three Works (18th September - 22nd October 2020, Images Courtesy: Chris Shaw)

What is it doing? 

Do you, Bartleby, prefer not to work? Yes, no… another option? What do I say…? It is doing something when it’s not even doing anything like all the other objects in the world… such a reply seems more like a feeble excuse for something that might just be plain broken; a reply that might suggest I am hiding my lack of ability through the abstraction of a machine. 

Like Bentham’s Panopticon—the all-seeing eye—those on the periphery feel uneasy when a machine takes centre stage. Our attraction is desire, for image, for knowledge, for understanding (and to therefore not look foolish)… I am too nearby to resist being asked for an easy answer and so, walking away, I leave the machine to explain itself and for others to try to listen.



Medium:

Custom computer controlled projector & aluminium frame

Size:

Dimensions variable