Five Introverted Machines.


Review by Chris Whitehead

Installation official video

Five naked bodies against a wall, each obsessed with its own internal impulses, each needing no other input than itself, seperate, discreet, unknowing of anything outside and lost in a pornography of self absorption. Inward looking objects forever contemplating only themselves and listening to the sounds of their own electric metabolisms.

Sculpturally Stephen Cornford’s work consists of five first generation 1960s Philip’s cassette players stripped of their casings and mounted equidistantly on a wall. Rather than being used to decode information from a magnetic tape, each of the machines’ heads has been extended and remounted so that it picks up the electromagnetic impulses given off by its own motor.  These sounds are then sent out into the world by each of the five directional speakers.

They gently whirr to themselves, bare circuit boards gleam in metallic, hieroglyph scripts and wheels move belts and cogs engage. The basis of these sound production units is very physical. There is a kind of sadness about watching spindles that long to carry tape over playing heads spinning forlornly in thin air.

Together they create a variegated cloud of buzz, a spectrum of disturbance. A soundfield through which a listener can move and experience the nuances and differing focuses at play. Although each machine is identical and set up in basically the same way, the heads are variously placed to pick up low tones through to higher pitches, so a wide range of timbres makes up the cloud.

They are the people on trains and buses plugged into their iPods and never making eye contact and never looking up, except instead of listening to music (the product of others’ minds) they are hooked up to their own internal organs in a kind of desperate autism.

Certain theories of physics postulate multiple universes existing independently, in which it is never possible to travel from one to another, or even prove its existence. Anthropic principles state that observations of the physical universe must be compatible with the consciousness that observes it. These circular, looped theories and others come to mind whilst contemplating Cornford’s introverted machines.

I asked Stephen why he chose to work with these particular mechanical objects? He explained ‘They have an audio input and an audio output and a kinetic mechanism, which in some sense makes them very like creatures with the ability to listen, speak and move, but not the ability to be self-aware. This piece gives them the ability to be self-aware.’

Self-awareness and self-consciousness are difficult concepts to pin down. If self-awareness is simply the ability to look inwardly and to treat oneself as an individual, seperate from the environment and other individuals, how apt is that to describe these automatons?  If self-consciousness is simply a more acute, deeper sense of inner preoccupation, where is the line that divides one from the other? What are these five introverted machines?

As well as encapsulating their profound loneliness, the video that documents this exhibition perfectly demonstrates the tone cloud produced. Any variation in sound on the video is a product of mic placement, no manipulation of the machines occurred during recording.

Five Introverted Machines is on display at Pavilion 0 this summer at the Palazzo Dona, Campo San Polo as part of the Venice Biennale.


[Stephen Cornford]

Stephen Cornford website

Chris Whitehead

Sound artist.