Reflecting the human condition via the means of the automaton: 'The Marvellous Mechanical Museum'

Automata allow us to reflect on the human condition through mimesis, allowing us to view machine-images of ourselves, conducting the motions and movements of our daily lives – walking, talking, working, reading, swimming, laughing, dancing, playing music and so on.

In this year's summer exhibition, Compton Verney Art Gallery has brought together important historical and contemporary creations that demonstrate the development of these wonderful machines. Ranging from the perfectly crafted technologies of Enlightenment automata-maker, Jaques de Vaucanson, to Ting-Tong Chang's provocatively articulate crow, and the heaving, sighing, contemporary sculpture of Harrison Pearce, the exhibition also features work by Caroline Radcliffe from the University of Birmingham.

Drawing on their own collection of folk art, Compton Verney's curators juxtapose a Victorian working model of an artisan potter's workshop with Caroline Radcliffe and Sarah Angliss's filmed performance of The Machinery. The relationship between the two artefacts represents the historical moment in which the artisan worker was replaced by the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. An embedded fear and suspicion of automata was realised when the mechanisation of the workforce in factories and mills threatened the autonomy of the individual. In Das Kapital (1867), Karl Marx warned against the processes of the perpetuum mobile and the consequent automatisation essential to the success of capitalism.

The Machinery, a collaborative performance by Caroline Radcliffe and Sarah Angliss (filmed live at the AlgoMech Festival, Sheffield, in 2016 by Jon Harrison), articulates the dehumanisation and alienation of the industrial worker subjected to an exhausting cycle of repetitive labour.

The Machinery is a ‘heel-and-toe’ clog dance passed on to Radcliffe by East-Lancashire clog dancer, Pat Tracey (1927–2008), who traced the steps, through her own family, directly back to the cotton mills of the early 19th century. Steps are layered with looped sound and images taken from a working 19th-century cotton mill and a 21st-century call centre, emphasising connections between the two industries.

The Machinery is significant for its direct relationship to the mechanical components and actions of the cotton machines with steps mimicking their sounds and movements, their names similarly reflecting them ‘the pick’, ‘over-the-tops’, ‘two-up-two-down’, ‘weaving’, ‘herringbone’, ‘shunts’ and ‘the cog’. Radcliffe and Angliss have demonstrated that The Machinery constitutes a much earlier form of ‘machine dance’ than previously documented, predating more recent forms, such as the Futurist dances of the early-20th century by over one hundred years. Similarly, it has had a significant impact on the revision of noise music studies, providing an early example of industrial noise music comparable to 20th-century Detroit techno and drum machines.

The Machinery clearly reflects Marx's concerns that to work at a machine, the workers must learn to adapt their own movements to the uniform and unceasing motion of an automaton. Marx's fear was that this would result in human alienation. By appropriating the movements and sounds of the cotton machinery, however, does the dance represent a celebration of the machine or a surrender to it? The dance might be viewed as a creative resistance to automisation by the worker. Rather than allowing themselves to be subsumed by the noise and repetition of factory work, the worker can be seen to coalesce with the machines. Arguably, the dance becomes an autonomy, overturning the imposed power and order of the capitalist factory system. By embodying and symbolically controlling a simulation of the machine itself, empowering the operative, the dance challenges Marx's fears of alienation.

Audiences and viewers of The Machinery describe it as ‘overwhelming’ and ‘moving’. Its enduring appeal as a performance is in its ability to reflect the contemporary human condition via the means of the automaton. When Radcliffe originally learnt the dance with Tracey and Camden Clog, it was choreographed for six people. Taken back to its original solo context “one dancer immersed by the sounds and images of the means of production“ The Machinery perhaps reminds people of their own vulnerability within our current precarious and individualistic society.

The Marvellous Mechanical Museum is at Compton Verney, Warwickshire, until 30 September. A newly filmed three-screen immersive installation of The Machinery by Jon Harrison and Sarah Angliss, with Caroline Radcliffe, funded by the Arts Council England and the University of Birmingham, will be on show at Ironbridge Gorge World Heritage Festival, opening Sunday 23 September from 10.00am–5.00pm at ‘Enginuity’, Coalbrookdale, Telford TF8 7DQ.

Dr Caroline Radcliffe

Senior Lecturer, Department of Drama and Theatre Arts