Tinkering, Sensors, Machines and Me: Ken Gregory
January 21 – February 18, 2000

a response to the exhibition by Kevin Matthews

Tempting indeed it is to see too much in Ken Gregory’s machines, to zoomorphise or anthropomorphise them – some of them anyway. There are two kinds of machines here, musical machines and mobile machines, and the conceptual axes between them are far too clear in my mind to be stable. Let’s test one and see if it doesn’t collapse.

Douglas Coupland muses, or his protagonist muses, in Microserfs that perhaps computers in general are in a sort of infancy or early stage of evolution and that they have only one way, one signal, for communicating with us, which is “crying” – crashing. He decides to listen more closely, to try to give his computer another avenue for communication.

Now, Coupland’s character is lonely and slightly cracked, probably from spending too much time programming computers, and ends up listening only to himself.

How does this bear on Gregory’s show?

I claimed that there are two things going on here.

For the second, and problematic, part we have the mobile machines, dumbly exploring their two- or one-dimensional environments. They make an exploration which is Sysiphean, endless and entirely in vain. Their programming has been explained to me by Gregory as based on a subsumption model, wherein a robot has no need for programmed knowledge of its environment, only how to react to certain obstacles and conditions. For example the bucket, so long as it is not touching its “horizon”, has no bit of knowledge of its position or the extent of its surroundings. It is blind. Once it touches the horizon, it knows only that it must get away. The easiest metaphor? Pain. So, it moves away, back into blindness.

The climbing machines are in just the same situation, between ignorance and discomfort, but their world is a line rather than a plane.

Certainty is a negative impulse, knowledge exists only in transgression, and confusion is null but preferable, freedom without awareness. Of course it evokes paternal emotion, an urge toward husbandry.

But, just as they begin in ignorance, they need not nor do they have the capacity to learn. So is this only some kind of torture?

For the first part we have the bells. Far easier to see as automata, as performing mechanism, they perform preprogrammed compositions and randomly generated sequences, influenced sometimes, though never in a predictable way, by temperature and motion in the stairwell.

Why then will I not anthropomorphise these? They improvise and respond to stimuli, they can create beauty, they inhabit, fill and shape their environment with their voices, as might humans. They complement their harmonics with a measure of dissonance. Yet, they are immobile, modular, instruction-following devices, and always clearly so. If the moving creatures are animals then these bells are members of a majestic plant – but no. No plant, but a musical instrument.

An instrument finely tuned and programmed by a man, who did so in response to the spatial character of the stairway, its particular resonances and the waveforms created by its volume. A job finely done, a well-crafted installation, but not a living thing. Maybe its competence, ringing in concert as the other robots bumble about, is what shields it from my empathy.

Probably I just want a child, probably I just want these machines – or something/one – to need my sympathy or my guidance. Probably I’m in the same boat as that other geek who needs a pupil, a dependent. Probably I shouldn’t inflict my paternal capacities on these dumb and numb devices.

I cannot, though at Gregory’s encouragement I try, resist it. The locomotive machines become critters, perhaps young and with limited motor control. Sensors become senses; decision-making, however simple, is rendered in my condescending imagination as thinking.

For that’s what I’m doing – condescending: The bucket is eternally blind or in pain, just as a bird’s life has no rest, it oscillates between hunger and fear. That is, I ascribe to them the frustrations I would feel in such a situation, as I might empathize with a trapped child or animal. How arrogant.

Gregory knows better. He built and programmed the machines, he did the titular tinkering, he rigged the sensors and was inside the guts of the machines, and he knows that he has not created life. Time spent in proximity with the machines bears him out: it is futile and silly to feel for the bucket, it is insensible.

Protracted attention has given me to see that there aren’t two types of machines here at all, but two kinds of response from me: one disinterested, and the other inappropriate, born more of desire in the viewer than potential in the objects exhibited.

At least so far.

Kevin Matthews is a writer, critic and artist in (and very much of) Winnipeg. He studies Art History at the University of Manitoba and serves on Ace Art’s Board of Directors.