Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane
Steam-Powered Internet Machine.
Various venues across Kent, UK, Summer 2006
Reviewed by Cameron Irving
Commissioned by Turner Contemporary, a visual arts organisation based in Kent, Steam-powered internet machine (2006) is a technological mongrel comprising a functional steam engine built by model maker Alan Gibbs that powers an generic Apple Mac allowing the user to access the World Wide Web. The contraption has appeared in various venues across Kent this summer, including the Kent County Show – an annual outdoor trade fair and local hobbyists’ convention – and it is here where I experienced the project first hand.
Gibbs’s machine is an awkward apparatus fashioned from a boiler, originally used to pump water from fire engines. Punctuated with pistons, pipes, valves and gages it contrasts the synthetic nature of the computer it powers. As if to marry the aesthetics of two technologies, as well as their mechanical and electronic properties, Deller and Kane have amusingly modified the appearance of the Mac by gluing on a polished brass plaque – bearing the title of the piece, the date, and the artists’ names. It is a very literal work – physically coupling two forms of technology, one part yesteryear to one part today – and it connects the Industrial revolution to the Digital revolution, in order to reveal their proximity.
If we talk about this work in terms of its ‘success’ and ‘failures’ then we might go about it by considering it in light its literal characteristics.By choosing the instantly recognisable Apple Mac over an anonymous PC, the work speaks more about the Mac as a specific cultural icon than as a purely technological resource. Apple holds a particular hegemonic position within popular culture. Its iTunes program seized the way music was being distributed and consumed via the web, and transformed what was once the domain of a few into the mainstream, making downloading and uploading mp3 files normal practice. Its aesthetic influence is reflected everywhere from the curved pods and sleek white girders of the Millennium Wheel to smallest personal mp3 player.
The technology of the Industrial Revolution must have had similar influence in its time, and in fact now – possibly due to the trend of contemporary art seeking industrial spaces – its ‘ look’ has resurfaced and become de rigeur in mainstream art venues. The Tate Modern is a classic example.
Unfortunately, in the environment of the Kent County Show, Steam Powered Internet Machine was lost amongst an abundance of other, more impressive, steam-powered machinery dug up from regional museums around the area. Huge contraptions of steel, brass and wood buffed up for the day, performed incredible tasks – such the quick and efficient cutting of huge pieces of timber – and on the day, each of these machines were drawing large audiences. Meanwhile, Deller and Kane’ s piece was malfunctioning and its audience (consisting soley of myself) was getting increasingly impatient, and distracted by the wealth of other sights on offer.
Perhaps Deller and Kane’s work might be read as charming in its slow failure, especially in relation with the instant gratification of the web, but that would only serve as a sentimental reading. Another more sceptical interpretation might be to situate a critique of this project within a familiar argument about the artists’ work as being patronising, or even exploitative of the people whose accomplishments they apparently wish to promote, but this would equally miss the mark.
The real failure of the work lies in the fact the apparatus that was paraded around was so large and showy. The revolutionary quality of the web is contained in the fact that an individual can connect him or herself with the world with equipment made in proportion to the individual’s body. He or she can use the technology quietly, privately and cheaply, and this a world away from the visceral nature of archaic machinery, which now only provides anecdotal historical interest for children and a small number of enthusiasts (Deller and Kane included).
By encouraging the viewer/user to access the Web in front a crowd, as was the case here, the project unwittingly stifled the well-known potential of the internet, and the nature of the project turned the mundane and essentially personal activity of web surfing into an absurd and dull event.The paradox of Steam-Powered Internet Machine is that it would work better in a galley, where the odd visitor could pop in and use the internet alone. However, this of course,would place the work outside of the context it was intended for, in an environment the artists would desperately wish to avoid. I have a feeling this is a piece that will never find its right place in the world.