Thursday, January 05, 2006

Cyborg art @ Ontario Science Centre - Science Centre works shown the door Toronto cyborg artist/engineer Steve Mann has had one of his installations chosen for the "Grand Central" entryway of the Ontario Science Centre.
"FUNtain, an interactive fountain that uses a water pump and hollow pipes to generate music when visitors press their hands over the opening of each pipe.'As far as I know, it's the world's first and only water-based instrument,' Mann explained yesterday while inspecting the site where his fountain will be installed. 'There isn't a lot of inventiveness in art (these days) but art is about invention. Art, science and technology inform and influence each other.'"
This is an interesting choice: I wonder if it's anything like the 17th- and 18th-century musical automata that were powered by water, on which Descartes based his description of the human body as a fountain automata piloted by an immaterial spirit and moved through the workings of the nerves as hollow pipes through which the animal (animating) spirits flowed?

This is an image from Kaspar Schott's Mechanica hydraulico pneumatica. There's a different version of this type of automaton at Stanford: Between the Demonic and the Miraculous: Athanasius Kircher and the Baroque Culture of Machines by Michael Gorman.

I talk about this history of water automata and humans-as-machines in a forthcoming book, The Enlightenment Cyborg: A History of Communications and Control in the Human Machine, 1660–1830. What Mann is doing in his installation probably has very little to do with muscial automata: it sounds more like an interactive device, where people actively participate in making the music rather than the earlier musical fountains which were essentially "pre-programmed." But it's a fascinating choice for a cyborg to make as art. As long as we've imagined human bodies to be machines, we've also been intrigued by the conundrum of human creativity, which seems so spontaneous and filled with genius, versus programmed musical machines. The famous 18th-c. builder of automata, Jaques de Vaucanson, claimed that his mechanical flute player was actually superior to a human because it could play so many notes in quick succession. But many physicians took the trouble to explain that the human body, with an immaterial soul conducting the music, was the superior machine.


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