Among the Automata
May 22, 2012 | by Jenny Hendrix
By now, the entire Internet is aware that last month A/V technicians at Coachella resurrected Tupac for a performance with Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre. Though a little phosphorescent, the rapper seems lifelike enough in the videos, with his Timberlands and rather nice abs. Cumulatively, though, the effect, especially when (living) Snoop is in the frame, is, above all else, weird. Watching the virtual Pac unintentionally moonwalk across the stage, we might think of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “Sandman”: “Aha! Pretty doll! Spin round, lovely doll!” Not as odd a juxtaposition as it may seem: as Gizmodo reports, the effect was produced by means of a nineteenth-century trick called “Pepper’s Ghost.”
The nineteenth century represents the tail end of humanity's fascination with the mechanical replication of itself. Much effort had been expended in that direction the century prior, in the Marais neighborhood of Paris, where the automata builders lived and worked. That the word automata comes from an economical Greek verb for “acting of one’s own will” points somewhat toward the source of the period’s fascination with them; miming organic processes, these machines seemed to be animated by something beyond gears and wires. Actually, they were operated by clockwork: linkages or rods in the body connected to a set of cams, irregular wheels concealed in the object’s base or body. The cams served as the object’s “memory” turning in circular motion—a winding key, for instance—into linear, transposing mechanics into something resembling life. Automata were, as Freud put it, in his essay on the uncanny, unlike us enough to be at once familiar and strange, or at least “secretly familiar.” It was uncertain whether they were really doing what they appeared to be, whether they lived, whether they had something resembling a soul. But like Tupac, automata were reproducible, replaceable, and performed the same actions again and again. There were also many copies, quite a few of which still survive.
Morristown, New Jersey, is known as “the military capital of the American revolution.” Among its landmarks are George Washington’s headquarters, the brilliantly named redoubt Fort Nonsense, this country’s sole heroic statue of Thomas Paine, and the site of a well-known UFO hoax perpetrated by weather balloons. It was here, too, that Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph over two miles of wire looped inside the ironworks: “A patient waiter is no loser,” it said.
Of the town’s many curiosities, one of the more surprising is housed inside the unprepossessing Morris Museum, a few minutes from the train station and one of the largest public holdings of automata and mechanical musical instruments in the United States. The collection was a gift of the Honorable Murtogh D. Guinness, scion of the much-beloved brewing concern who, until his death in 2002, kept two townhouses on the Upper East Side where he lived cheek-by-jowl with these seven-hundred-odd mechanical wonders. His favorites were the music boxes, of which he had models from the late sixteenth century through the early twentieth, and for which he collected some five thousand interchangeable cylinders and discs across a variety of musical genres. Judging by numbers, his tastes ran to ragtime and jazz.
I was shown around the collection by conservator Jeremie Ryder, whose parents were friends of Guinness’s and whose services, as he put it, “sort of came with the collection.” Ryder studied automata manufacture and restoration with Michel Bertrand in Switzerland and keeps a modest shop in the museum’s basement where, among assorted pliers and carefully labeled tubs of cogs and wire, he repairs and restores the collection. He has a special fondness for automata and knows each one in the collection intimately: the knitter he calls Madame Defarge, the man under a bell jar who whistles and alternately winks his eyes, the grimacing cat with real fur who plays a harp. A dozen or so had been loaned out for an exhibit at the San Francisco airport. Ryder was glad they’d be back soon; he misses them.
The collection’s permanent exhibit, more whimsical than steampunk in aesthetic, attracts huge numbers of schoolchildren during the week. Even empty, though, it felt busy, alive with click and chime and jingle. The sound is artificial: the objects are designed to move, but in a museum setting and for conservation purposes, they mainly can’t. Behind their glass cases, the automata look more or less like dolls, albeit gorgeous in a kind of Baudelairean “old acrobat” way. But the museum provides videos in which the visitor can watch them move: the blinking calfskin eyelids, lips pulling back over a mouth of sharpened teeth, jointed fingertips tapping as they meander over a flute. There are animals, too: suede pigs with bellows inside them so they squeal while walking around on their little wheeled feet, a wind-up peacock that spreads its real feathered tail, a mournful-looking tiger that jerks suddenly upright. The motions, for the most part, are slow and smooth, performed with a studied languor that Peter Carey, in his latest novel, called “the huge peace of mechanical things.” The museum also holds daily “live” demonstrations, conducted during my visit by Shep, a volunteer and collector of music boxes, automata, and beer steins. “Now this here’s a kweezinere, or French cook,” Shep explained, “and his story’s that he’s in love with his boss, and he’s gonna drown his sorrows in wine, and he’s also gonna cook her pet cat.”
Among the automata not on display was a Chinese Mandarin, who, as Ryder described it, has a reversible bellows hidden in his chest. If one were to put a lit cigarette into the thing’s pipe, it would actually smoke it, inhaling and exhaling in the usual way. A couple of the other automata can “breathe,” though according to Ryder this was relatively rare; upstairs in the gallery, a mirrored vitrine depicting Cleopatra’s suicide would, if switched on, enliven the dying queen’s bosoms as the asps on her arms slithered and struck. “Breathing” underlines the peculiar l’art pour l’art absurdity that automata evoke. They don’t need to breathe and they do, or rather they don’t, but may as well—it’s poetic, and also silly.
The famous Digesting Duck of Jacques de Vaucanson, an automaton with flexible rubber intestines that allowed it, among other things, to seemingly eat and defecate, no longer exists except in one tantalizing photograph and the pages of quite a few books. In Thomas Pynchon’s rendition, it’s a homicidal thing in pursuit of the chef that’s turned its fellows into Canard au pamplemousse flambé. The chef, Armand Allègre, explains: “ ‘Twas this very Attention to Detail, whose Fineness, passing some Critikal Value, enabl’d in the Duck that strange Metamorphosis, which has sent it out the Gates of the Inanimate, and off upon its present Journey into the Given World.”
It was probably Descartes, writing that an organism is nothing but an especially complex machine, who served as the basis for this kind of thinking: if we are nothing but an assemblage of pumps and motors, life could theoretically be replicated by pistons, linkages, and cams. The dividing line between man and machine, in that case, was just a question of detail, as Vaucanson’s false droppings seemed to show.
By comparison, most of our miracles are subtler or, like the microchip, invisible to the eye: iPods, unlike musical rings and nécessaires, won’t open to show us their pretty cogs. Opening a compartment on top of the Phonoliszt-Violina, a kind of trumped-up player piano, Ryder showed me where a circular horsehair bow spun around the three violins inside. Even the contraptions that weren’t remotely human seemed to do what we do, to imitate our pleasures and fears and reproduce them for us in turn. The player piano, on its face a useless thing, is noteworthy for its frivolous need to reproduce frivolity: like the museum’s Popper’s Rex Orchestrion, a Victorian jukebox with a small orchestra stuffed inside, these are machines built to do something for us that we’d do for fun anyhow. How easy, from there, to imagine that the piano enjoyed itself, too.
Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.