Developing the Harmonograph project for my M.A.
The image above has been developed using scans of drawings created by the first prototype harmonograph that I created and displayed over a year ago at the Byam Shaw campus of Central Saint Martin’s at our interim show. This interesting machine works with pendulums, which drive a pen and a drawing platform to create images that are the expression of the frequencies at which the pendulums swing, which can be adjusted by altering the length between the fulcrum and the bob (the weight at the bottom) of each pendulum. It is simple to operate and a fascinating thing to watch as it draws – everyone wanted to have a go. Below are some of the actual drawings that this machine produced.
And so, I decided to develop this creature further, and create something that is in itself a work of art, as well as being capable of producing ‘works of art’.
The idea of mechanised drawing has quite a history. Quite recently, Professor Simon Schaffer broadcasted Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams on BBC 4, in which he traces the development of analogue clockwork machines. In the eighteenth century – during the era known as ‘The Age of Reason’ or ‘The Enlightenment’, extremely sophisticated automata were created, which could be programmed to draw or even write. These marvels were the inspiration for the amazing machine that features in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo. More recently in the 1960s, an artist and philosopher called Desmond Paul Henry made programmable analogue drawing machines out of obsolete World War Two devices designed to guide the trajectory of bombs from fighter aircraft – these produced drawings very similar to those of the Harmonograph. Lots of other artists have experimented with making devices that can draw independently of the human hand: check out Amy Collier’s Photo Essay – Jean Tinguely Art Machines, 1959, and the drawing machines of contemporary artist Balynt Bolygo.
The Harmonograph was invented in the 1840s, a child of the pioneering age of mechanized industry and inventiveness, and continued to be a popular parlour diversion until the early 20th century – an entertaining scientific toy. ‘Boy’s Own’ style instructions for making home-made versions proliferated, and a few of these can be seen at http://www.1920-30.com/toys/things-to-make/harmonographs.html
I hear the question – Why would a contemporary artist, here and now in this digital age, choose to recreate an antiquated historical device? Indeed, that question was posed to me in a particularly rude and challenging manner by a very young colleague of mine. The answer is complex, as an artist’s creative choices are intuitive and difficult to define – we tend to write our ‘artist’s statements’ after we have explored an avenue, not before, discovering rationalizations as we work.
The immediate appeal of the Harmonograph to me is that you can witness the unfolding of natural dynamic geometries that have always existed independently of our aesthetic sensibilities. We cannot draw them ourselves without the aid of mechanical devices. They have existed long before we discovered them, before we even began to understand the physics that drives them, before we had the language to define them in mathematical terms. They are a part of the dynamics of the universe – they have existed long before us, and perhaps that is why we find it so hypnotic to watch the drawings unfold before our eyes as the swinging pendulums drive the movements of the pen and paper.
I find it fascinating to see how humanity has created and developed machines that can tap into these natural forces, harness them to our needs, and sometimes just enjoy them for their own sake. That is where the historical basis of the harmonograph interests me – it’s eighteenth century forbears invoke the visionary curiosity of the Enlightenment, its nineteenth century roots invoke the iron and coal and steam of the Industrial Revolution, and in our own slick, virtual, digital age in which we feel less and less in control, a venerable analogue machine with simple workings that we can see, understand, and touch, offers a reassuring physicality. So, I felt that the harmonograph was a symbol of many things, and that it warranted something more exciting than the simple (but effective) construction that was my prototype.
There is a general consensus within the more forward-thinking creative community that we are entering a different climate in contemporary art. It champions the polymath artist, the curious experimenter who operates without boundaries and thrives in the wider community of scientific and historical research, it validates ‘free-radical’ thinkers and doers like myself, and it opens up the field to enable inter-disciplinary synergies.
And so I embarked, with the support of Central Saint Martin’s college of Art and Design, on a journey that focuses on a machine that draws, but takes on a great deal more along the way. I shall begin to share that journey in my next post, and, like Scheherazade the storyteller in 1001 Nights, I hope to retain my reader’s interest and interactions as the journey unfolds.