In response to the current popularity of generative design processes in which designers use algorithms to create a variety of different outcomes, instead of focusing on one, Echo Yang transformed a series of obsolete devices into art-making machines.[1] Her 2013 project Autonomous Machines, presents works of art (?) created by a vacuum cleaner, a hand mixer, an electric shaver, a wind up clock or a Walkman.  For each device, Yang repurposed a moving part, adding brushes, dabs of paint, or other materials, then switched them on allowing them to create abstract images with a little or no human help.


In an age often called postdigital, which is now generally understood as either a time of “contemporary disenchantment with digital information systems and media gadgets, or a period in which our fascination with these systems and gadgets has become historical”[2], Yang’s attitude is not at all unique. It partly reflects a trend supporting the revival of old (analogue) media against the further spread of digitalism. The rather naïve but clearly romantic position of digital withdrawal quickly found its way to art schools and resulted in a growing rejection of digital media which – for some – became commercial and mainstream.


Kryštof Pešek’s project also shows the transformation of artistic approaches to advanced technology[4], but unlike Yang, he refuses to turn back. Instead he focuses on the current situation and experiments with ways of coexistence. “Dokumat represents an autonomous device for filming which decides itself on the importance of what is being recorded. It consists of a robotic camera head capable of 360° movement, a lens and a computer for processing algorithms and evaluating the filmed image, capable of making decisions about both camera movement and the actual moment of recording.”[5] By creating a device governed by computers which aims to imitate the human point of view, giving a human touch to digital technologies, Pešek turned into an experimenter Alexemberg calls a postdigital artist, “a creative educator in our networked world who creates artforms that integrate digital technologies with aspects of our everyday lives [and supports a] vital dialogue between high tech and high touch experiences”[6]



Art machines have been around for quite a while now. Prominent examples include Akira Kanayama’s Work, Jean Tinguely’s Méta-matics, Angela Bulloch’s drawing machines or Natasha Kidd’s painting machines. More Dokumat-like experiments, meaning computer generated algorithmic art pieces first appeared in the late sixties[7] created by people representing different fields, like music (Manfred Mohr) fine art (Harold Cohen, Vera Molnár) and science (Georg Nees). Analogue or digital, interacting with the viewer or not, all these machines – to a certain extend – are the manifestations of the artist’s intention to hand over the responsibility of creativity to an apparatus. This attitude triggers a large number of questions: How does the role of the artist change? Does the artist become an engineer? What is then the work of art: the machine, the product, or the act of producing it? Can we talk about art at all? Each experiment shows a different approach and therefore comes up with different answers.


As for Pešek, there is no expressed artistic credo whether the result should be considered art or if it was even his intention. The machine on the other hand is identified as the creator, since Pešek “describes the device as independent and autonomous.”[8] But as it is in the case of most previous art machines, this is not entirely true. Even if Pešek’s work can generate an infinite amount of unique films, they are all based on and show the marks of the mathematical model the artist encoded in the machine. The algorithms determine the inclination of the machine towards both movement and light, therefore give the apparatus guidelines. The unexpected images of the actual film are the results of a dialogue between person and his mechanical device, which was set to capture its environment from a human point of view.


As an experimental film, Pešek’s Documat is easy to place. Since the primary theme, the “narrative” of the film is its specific shape, it clearly belongs to the growing group of structural films. The aesthetics of the imagery is marked by the programmed device, therefore even if they seem completely chaotic, the images and sequences of the film are parts of a coherent system. Like most structural films, Pešek’s Documat needs a key to be interpreted. In this case the key is the description of the filming device, which explains the the sudden movements, the abrupt jumps between the vertical and horizontal lines, the unusual framing, and the constant loss of focus.


In the end of his film, Pešek shows a note: “You have been witnesses of automatic capture process. Me as an author of the machine, do not consider myself to be an author of this film.” With respect to the expressed intention of the artist (author), in the light of the film, this statement provokes a debate. Even if we accept the autonomous nature of the filming device, the final piece, the five minute long film shows clear traces of direction. The most apparent proof, besides the author’s decision about the length of the film, is the added sound made by playing raw pixel data through d/ac. To Another piece of evidence, perhaps the result of an unconscious decision, is the setting of the film: the chosen location. It is obvious that Pešek had to pick a more eclectic setting for his experiment to be able to monitor the decision making process of the device. Even so there is one segment of the room arrangement which seems a bit too convenient in terms of the “theory of the project”. This segment is the painting on the wall with a bunch of frames hanging in front of it. Although this arrangement does not seem unusual compared to other parts of the room, there is a clear connection between the suggested reference and the final film. It works bit like an intended mise en abyme, presenting a picture of an unusual framing in a context of a film which is a series of unusual framings.


Even if this segment was a pure coincidence, Pešek’s film is not without direction, neither is his device completely independent. Just like Yang’s reconstructed obsolete devices his machine was engineered, configured, started and stopped, and the result of the experiment was presented in a slightly edited form. In both cases the act of creation commutes between the individual and the device and the final piece is the result of this “dialogue”. But while Yang’s innocent experience, even knowing its intended reflection, triggers more positive emotions such as nostalgia, the joy of playfulness, Pešek’s work is more confusing as it evokes the euphoria of scientific progress but at the same time it “inspires fear and anxiety of de-personalization, the threat of loss of humanity.”[9] Why is the feeling of frustration more pervaisive in the case of Documat, if both Yang’s and Pešek’s devices are autonomous art machines meant to expropriate the act of artistic creation?


The answer lies on the overused opposition of analogue and digital, in this case purely mechanical and computer-generated, software controlled. In the 21th century we tend to believe that we have full control over “old” analogue devices and therefore they don’t frighten us. But the networked electronic devices and media gadgets which sneaked into our lives unnoticed and became inescapable for many of us raise more and more questions. The untraceable technological evolution and the lack of reflection on these changes, in contrast with the increasing use of these devices, puts emphasis on the key question of which both Pešek and Yang focuses: Who is really in charge?


Written by: Dorottya Szalay

[1] See Echo Yang’s website.
[2] Cramer, Florian (2014) „What is ’Post-digital’?” Post-digital Research, vol. 3. 2014/1.
[3] Florian, 2014.
[4] Blažíček, Martin (2013) “Places of Their Own: Technology and Art in the Post-Digital Age.” in. Rosenzveig, Eric and Pospiszyl, Tomas eds. (2013) CAS – Co to je? / What is it?, Prague: NAMU, p. 97.
[5] Blažíček, 2013, p. 93.
[6] Alexemberg, Melvin. L. (2011) The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness. Chicago: Intellect Books, p. 33, 35.
[7] Taylor, D. Grant (2014) When the Machine Made Art: The Troubled History of Computer Art. New York, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 125.
[8] Blažíček, 2013, p. 94.
[9] Blažíček, 2013, p. 96.