Machinic Protocols

At a time when machines have allowed for us to translate our ideas with an inhuman precision, from the likes of cad, grasshopper and beyond the research of Edouard in between machine and analogue methods of production praises the unexpected. The deviation. The research, which started in 2015 questions a design methodology which integrates ‘notions of chance and indeterminacy’ where the drawing exists as an exploratory tool of research. Rather than being a means to an end, the drawing is here deployed as tool of investigation, one which responds and engages with natural elements as the wind, or urban data as the number of people crossing a square or alternatively a set of protocols set forth by an individual to our very own hand. Whilst one might be surprised by the level of deviation inherent to the machine, experiments as ’12 arms’ reveal how we as people can ourselves become drawing devices allowing for our singularities to vanish through time.

12 arms, Machinic Protocols. Barcelona 2016.
12 arms, Machinic Protocols. Barcelona 2016.
12 arms, Machinic Protocols. Barcelona 2016.
12 arms, Machinic Protocols. Barcelona 2016.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

Tools…
That’s a very intimidating question.
As fast as our world is changing today, the same happens to the tools we use.
Craftsmen used to pass knowledge from generation to generation; today a single career has to go through the constant adaptation of novel tools. Learning how to use them has become part of practice and not solely of education as it was before.

And tools have diversified to an incredible new window with the arrival of the digital era. We now have a new window into ways of doing things that seems to have opened an infinite future.

This affects the architectural profession is many ways. Because of the advancement of technology, we now design and construct differently – and as a consequence also think differently. Today, when we face a problem, it’s possible to invent the tool that will resolve it. I think this is a new thing. A nice example is the one of Frank O. Gherry that had to set up a software company in order to construct Bilabo´s Guggenheim museum, since his winning scheme was unbuildable with the available tools of the time.

The success story of fab labs is another interesting example. Encouraging designers to fabricate their design has lead many laboratories to also fabricate their own tools. Robotic arms, that are now present in so many academic and research institutions, need to be equipped with a tool at its end to saw, weld, print… by now everyone can customizes his own tools, and as a consequence, invent a new way to work.

So today, the facing of a problem is often solved by the invention of a new tool; this to an extend that it might even be simpler to invent a tool that to search for the adequate one.

On a last note, after many years of having witnessed the emergence of digital tools, the debate that opposed hand and digital tools seems to finally be over. I believe that the emergence of new tools can be problematic if it means the disappearance of its predecessors and the value that they still possess. In my opinion, a good designer is one that masters a variety of tools and that can dive into a design process with a certain freedom and “savoir-faire”.

In the Epfl, where I used to teach first year architectural studio in a laboratory called Alice, we taught our students to hand draw with parallel rulers that we had made by a 3 axis milling robot. This is a scenario that I like.

What prompted the investigation/project machinic protocols?

I think it is the desire to miss-use the tools!

In 2015, I invited the film director Michel Gondry to collaborate with us at IAAC. I appreciate Gondry’s manner to work on his films with “hand-made special effects”, he is someone with a great sense for invention and very acquainted with technology, for that I though the encounter with architects and a school well equipped with robotic means could be interesting. The collaboration resulted in a series of films of which each of the stills had been digitally fabricated with experimental materials and use of the machines: laser cut sugar would turn into caramel creating different tonalities of browns, or milled foam retro-illuminated would give a dark to light image. In the public conversation we had to present the results, Gondry explained that, for him, the miss-use of all this sophisticated tooling was the crucial aspect of the work, because it led to results that were not anticipated and unexpectedly created a poetic dimension.

Crade et Vivant, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Hashem Joucka and David Scott, Barcelona 2015.
Crade et Vivant, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Hashem Joucka and David Scott, Barcelona 2015.

Machinic Protocols is an investigation that is based on the construction of creative situations of which we never can fully predict the outcome. And an experimental use – a miss-use – of the tool often leads to new results.

The first experiment of Machinic Protocols was an exercise ran at IAAC in which students had to produce drawing without actually touching the pen: they had to identify a movement in the city and construct a simple device that would let it draw itself. The results were maps of rolling balls in the metro, sails activated by wind leaving traces of ink on a page, pigeons drawing while eating by pecking from a pot supported by pens… In all cases, the element of surprise was the main motivational aspect. No one had an idea of the outcome; students were just playing, orchestrating a process rather than constructing a result.

Traces, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Jean Sebastian Munera & Lili Tayefi, Barcelona 2015.
Traces, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Jean Sebastian Munera & Lili Tayefi, Barcelona 2015.

To what extent was it inspired by Jean Tingluey’s Méta-Matic?

The research hasn’t really been inspired by Jean Tinguely’s work. He is a great reference. Rather than an inspiration, I would say that knowing about his work is reassuring, maybe because it is obsessive: he worked for decades on automating objects for that only sake and he seems to never have stopped finding meaning to it.

Tinguely constructed kinetic installations in which chance had a lot to say. Also there is a clear emphasis of the event of the performance, which relegates the outcome to a secondary plane. I believe that he was one of the first artists to work in such a way. When one of his machines makes a drawing, its unclear whether the piece is the actually drawing or the machine itself, I imagine he must have enjoyed cultivating that ambiguity. And the same ambiguity exists on the question of the authorship: when the machine draws, is he still the author?

These are questions that arise constantly in the work that we do in Machinic Protocols. And despite the arrival of computational tools and the availability of robotic means, I think these questions that were relevant 50 years ago are still relevant today. And maybe even more.

Vientos Alisios, Machinic Protocols, auto-màtic, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona 2018. Photograph José Hevia.
Vientos Alisios, Machinic Protocols, auto-màtic, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona 2018. Photograph José Hevia.

How important is it to reflect on the role of the mechanics of chance in contemporary practice? How different is the conversation compared to the mid 1950’s? Can we talk about deviation as a tool?

Yes, I think so.

The initial thought is that a deviation is something we don’t like.
But in this quest to search for accidents as a source of creative practice, they have became very valuable, and they have recently become a topic that I explore resulting in a series of installations called the… Deviations.

The First Deviation – Barcelona 2018 – is an ink dropper, installed in a staircase several meters above a moving canvas. Droplets of ink fall in the space until they splash onto the paper. Besides gravity, the fall is always slightly affected by other forces, which could not have been predicted, such as a flow of air caused by a person moving in the proximity of the piece. The installation is set up as to draw perfect grids, but the slight imperfections in the fall have eventually created irregular drawings. In this case, I think we can say that the work capitalizes on this notion of deviation, because it has created unique drawings that one could never have predicted.

The Second Deviation – Paris 2018 – works in similar fashion: a robotic arm would catch a ball hanging from a wire on the ceiling, dip it into ink, elevate it a programmed height and release it. The ball would travel across the space until eventually crashing into the opposite wall; this installation was carefully calibrated, again, as to create gridded drawings, yet again, tiny uncontrollable factors brought imprecisions to the result and the anticipated grids became seemingly disorganized stains of colors on a white surface.

I am not sure whether “tool” is the right word for the use of the deviation here. But I do believe that it can be incredibly interesting to try to work with something that is not fully controllable.

First Deviation, Machinic Protocols, auto-màtic, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona 2018. Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
First Deviation, Machinic Protocols, auto-màtic, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona 2018. Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
Second Deviation, Machinic Protocols, Paris 2018.  Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
Second Deviation, Machinic Protocols, Paris 2018. Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
Second Deviation, Machinic Protocols, Paris 2018.  Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
Second Deviation, Machinic Protocols, Paris 2018. Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
Second Deviation, Machinic Protocols, Paris 2018.  Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.
Second Deviation, Machinic Protocols, Paris 2018. Photograph Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.

How has your research on the power and potential of deviation evolved and developed since its conception in 2015?

It has evolved considerably, although I now understand that these deviations have been a constant determinant actor.

In the initially stages of the research, we rather talked about chance, and also accidents. We used them as motors to created unexpected forms: when two students filled seeds into a small container held by pens and let pigeons eat from it, the ink that traced their frenetic movement created drawings that no-one could have predicted, and we all agreed that they were beautiful, largely because of that unexpected quality. In creativity, chance leads to surprise and there is a certain excitement, if not magic, that emerges from it.

But I guess the underlying key concept here is the one of control.

In that experiment, while one could say that the birds are the ones who drew, the two students made most decisions – the thickness and colour of the pen, the size of the paper, the design of the devices, how long the experiment ran for – that determined the out-coming drawings. The pigeons were the only unexpected variable, which the students carefully framed.

Traces, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Pedro Levit Arroyo Ventura & Lina Salamanca, Barcelona 2015.
Traces, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Pedro Levit Arroyo Ventura & Lina Salamanca, Barcelona 2015.
Traces, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Pedro Levit Arroyo Ventura & Lina Salamanca, Barcelona 2015.
Traces, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Pedro Levit Arroyo Ventura & Lina Salamanca, Barcelona 2015.

After 3 years of research into non-deterministic creative experiments, the deviationsmentioned above reinforce this idea by of isolating a single uncontrollable variable and construct the performance in a way that it becomes its most expressive attribute.

In these projects, the level of precision of the automated environment is much higher than in all the previous experiments, and the variations of the stains of ink on the page more controlled. The drawings that were created here are maps of these tiny deviations.

First Deviation, Machinic Protocols, auto-màtic, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona 2018.
First Deviation, Machinic Protocols, auto-màtic, Arts Santa Mónica, Barcelona 2018.

From the human to the machine to the computer, can we talk about different ‘levels’ of deviation?

That’s a difficult question. I guess all means do deviate in a particular way, except maybe the execution of an algorithm because it is virtual, or theoretical. I would say that I believe that deviations occur in the physical realm…

When it comes to the human, I like the fact that our hand is still the most sophisticated tool to date, it can not draw a perfectly straight line on its own. In this respect deviation is inherent to the hand: a kind of mechanical deviation. While for a machine it is easier to draw a straight line than anything else.

A code can contain a “random” function for instance to provide an unexpected quality in a drawing. But I guess this is anything but a deviation, it’s probably the execution of a very precise action.

While attempting to answer, I feel that this question needs to be investigated into more depth, and probably requires much experimentation. If anyone has elements of answers, I would be most interested top know about them!

Plots, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Yingxin Du & Ardeshir Talaei with Alex Mademochoritis, Barcelona 2018.
Plots, Machinic Protocols, IAAC. Project by Yingxin Du & Ardeshir Talaei with Alex Mademochoritis, Barcelona 2018.

In 1948, Mark Bill argued that there was ‘No difference between machines and handcraft because they are simply the prostheses we create to implement our work’. What is your take on this? What defines the shift of the individual from actor to spectator?

The shift from actor to spectator, I don’t think this question can be answered.

Machines are prostheses with the difference that they run without us. And since they are disconnected, they also do not use our intelligence or translate our desire. Tinguely’s machine still work after the death of the artist, and they still create drawings. Are they still his drawings? Where is the shift of the individual from actor to spectator? And who is the author?

The exhibition auto-màtic contained three installations that were producing drawings in real time. With few actions such as placing a new page, changing a pen and switching on the power, they would be drawing, while we were somewhere else doing something different. I think the shift from actor to spectator occurs whenever the drawing starts, because that is when one can no longer affect the drawing that gets produced. Thinking and drawing are dissociated. Here the thinking occurs before the drawing starts, that might be the most important difference to traditional drawing in which the mind remains active during the execution. I like to think that the surrealists search for that when they invented automatic drawing, and writing.

All the work shown in auto-màtic was collectively made, by people, computers and machines, so none of them can be identified as having been made by a single author. The question of authorship is always ambiguous.

In what manner has your research with machinic protocols affected how you operate as an architect and vice versa?

All of these experiments are about drawing, but eventually they address design and question the attitude one can have during its process.

Until today, Machinic Protocols is an investigation that has mainly produced drawings, but these drawings can be considered the mere manifestation of a process, and other forms of outcome are possible.

Intrinsically, the research is not about drawing, it explores the notion of design: through all these experiments, what really is emerging is a design methodology that integrates notions of chance and indeterminacy, in other words challenges the notion of control in creative process. The design processes here is one that can integrate other forces in order to produce solutions that are not determined by a person. This is where the word “protocol” is important, because design is made by defining instructions rather than by top down actions.

So drawings for now, but I believe that what we learn can be extrapolated to other means of production, and as much as it currently tackles the flat surface of the page, it will soon unfold into space.

Notes:

Machinic Protocols is a research that was initiated at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in 2015 in collaboration with Rodrigo Aguirre and Peter Geelmuyden Magnus.

First Deviation, Arts Santa Monica, Barcelona 2018. With the collaboration of Peter Geelmuyden Magnus and Soroosh Garivani.

Second Deviation, Area Institute, Paris 2018. Exhibited curated by Emmanuelle Chiappone-Piriou with the collaboration of Peter Geelmuyden Magnus and Soroosh Garivani.