Mark Selby

Machines at Play: The Attraction of Automation

PhD Viva completed 2020-2021


Taking as its starting point the ubiquitous nature of automated technology, this research asks 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 focuses 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.

While automated machines have become increasingly complex over time (synchronous to the trickle-down availability of computing devices to the everyday consumer), the understanding of their function and the means through which they produce, represent or declare forms of ‘knowledge’ are today even more opaque. An automated machine—thought of here as being any set of infinitely repeatable, programmed procedures—raises anxiety as to the human condition. Machina ludens, the figure of the playing machine that I propose, takes this model a step further and uses ‘attractive’ effects to produce (what Huizinga terms) “false play” so as to hide the ramification of any social or political design by its engineer. Following Vilém Flusser and Bruno Latour’s notion of the “black box”, how then can an artist open up an automated machine and its script in order to declare this?

The research is undertaken through an interlinked practical and written component. These components use a methodology that undertakes an analysis of the play-element, alongside a technological/engineering analysis of the machine-element in culture. In practice, following a lineage
of artists who have similarly made use of technology in the production of machines in their artwork, from Jean Tinguely and the E.A.T. group to Harold Cohen’s AARON, the research examines various forms of the ‘art machine’. Both the written and practical works use the tension (or contention) between disciplines, the researcher overtly taking the position of being simultaneously engineer and artist. As such, this research is a re-reading of Huizinga’s understanding of the play-element of culture
through a contemporary, technological lens that bridges the gap between a humanities/philosophical approach and an engineering approach, applying this to contemporary issues surrounding automated ‘art machines’.