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Machine Metaphors in Art: Asserting Selfhood

1 December 2022 at 2:30:00 am

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Session Convenors

Dr Tony Curran, University of Tasmania

Session Speakers

Ben Rak, UNSW
Dr Chris Handran, Queensland University of Technology

For over a century, the machine has been an enduring metaphor for artists, philosophers, theorists, and historians commenting on the production, distribution, and consumption of art. Presenters in panel address the prevalence and impacts of machine metaphors, illuminating how such metaphors frame our thinking of artists, artworks, and arts workers, and consider what is at stake for communities when these metaphors are naturalized.

The Futurist’s dream to merge with machines still resounds in contemporary art. Andy Warhol famously wanted to “be a machine” as he and his “employees” worked away in the Factory. More recently, authorship has been attributed to algorithms as co-authors (vis-a-vis Harold Cohen and AI robot AARON) and as sole-authors in the 2018 Christies’ auction of The Portrait of Edmond Belamy (2018) by French collective Obvious. Levi-Bryant's Machine-Oriented Aesthetics (2011) proposed that artworks are engines that produce, anticipating Olafur Eliasson’s Reality Machines (2015), an exhibition title which positioned the artworks as reality-producing machines. Increasingly, the machine’s elevated position of value has become palpable in the representation of the artworld machine through the launch of Merek Classens AI and data driven art market App Limna, which calculates artists’ value in the attention economy. Is the machine now the measure of art?

This panel will be split across two sections, which divides the discussion between two foci - on creative agencies and asserting selfhood.

Performing the printed self -mechanically mediated metaphors in art & lived experience

Ben Rak, UNSW

This paper explores the potential to understand the material qualities of mechanically reproduced art as a metaphor for the performed self in art practice and life. Through practice-based research, I position the mechanically reproducible print as a medium for examining mutable identities and their agency and investigating how the material language of the print can be understood to mask or reveal an artwork's identity. I argue that in essence, a print is an impression, and the act of making a print is entirely dependent on managing the transfer of the impression. As such, printmaking can be considered a form of impression management, a term used by sociologist Erving Goffman to describe the way in which we perform in social situations. Similarly, the making of prints constitutes impression management, both literally and metaphorically. The material language of the print is therefore well situated to act as a tool for examining the social phenomenon of the performed self. Here I suggest a new interpretation of the ontology of the print and the social and psychological experience of performing the self in everyday life, thus providing an original way of understanding the commonalities between art and lived experience.

The Mangle of Mondrian: The Dance of Agency in Pure Plastic Art

Dr Chris Handran, Queensland University of Technology

This paper explores a specific machinic metaphor in Science and Technology Studies (STS), and repurposes it to consider creative works. Sociologist Andrew Pickering’s “Mangle of Practice” construes scientific practice as a ‘dance of agency’ in which scientists’ goals and actions are mangled together with the diverse agencies of machines, materials, disciplinary traditions and social structures. Although Pickering hinted at the mangle’s potential as a “theory of everything,” what is its value for creative works? On the single occasion that Pickering applied it to consider painting, he concluded that the works of Piet Mondrian sublimated rather than celebrated the dance of agency. This paper will reconsider this conclusion from two perspectives.

The first part of the paper will outline Pickering’s mangle of practice and consider the relevance of its machinic structure for discussing Mondrian’s work. The second part will survey scientific practices that specifically reference and draw inspiration from the work of Mondrian, in fields including colour perception, virtual spaces and machine learning. These different perspectives will demonstrate that the mangle can garner insights into both the production of Mondrian’s paintings, and into their subsequent entanglement in the machinic discourses of science.



Dr Tony Curran, University of Tasmania 

Dr Tony Curran is a Lecturer in Fine Art in the School of Creative Arts and Media at the University of Tasmania in Launceston. His practice explores the impacts of touchscreen technologies on painted media and changing representations of the self in a post-digital society. Curran graduated with a PhD in Fine Art in 2015 and has held solo exhibitions and participated in group shows between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. 

Ben Rak, UNSW 

Ben Rak is an artist, educator, and independent curator, Ben Rak, is presently working and living in Sydney, Australia.Rak holds an MFA (2013) from the University of New South Wales and is currently undertaking a PhD (UNSW), in which he is examining the phenomenon of ‘passing’ as a condition in both social life and art practice. He is interested in the capacity for the print to act as metaphor for contested identities and the agency afforded to the print when it passes as another medium. 

Dr Chris Handran, Queensland University of Technology 

Chris Handran teaches in Visual Arts at QUT, where he also completed a practice-led PhD in 2019. This research engaged with Vilém Flusser’s philosophy of the apparatus and more recent philosophies of science to consider the performative agency of technologies in both art and science. His ongoing research draws connections between historical, modernist and contemporary practices at the intersection of art, science and technology, and has been presented at conferences including the Latent Image (University of Edinburgh), Critical Information (School of Visual Arts, New York), and The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World (Australian National University).

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