Artist and graphic designer, Xavier Antin first became known for his works on the conditions of production and forms of resistance, even revolt, brought about by machines in the course of history. In recent years, he has turned his attention to their role within the dematerialised monetary economy and the language economy that they feed into. This was the starting point of my exchanges with the artist, from which this essay on our contemporary and conflictual relationship to machines has been woven together.
The Collins English Dictionary defines a polymath as “a person of great and varied learning,” see https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/polymath
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (New York: Random House, 1977), 26.
René Descartes, Treatise on Man (1648).
Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), 139.
Privatisation by the big landowners, which occurred in England as early as the 16th century, of the “commons,” land which until then had been collectively cultivated on the outskirts of the villages. This privatisation was carried out in favour of animal husbandry—especially sheep farming—which was both a cause and a consequence of the development of the textile industry due to its high demand for wool.
Federici, op. cit., 140.
Karl Marx, Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. II, quoted in Vincent Bourdeau, François Jarrige and Julien Vincent, “Le passé d’une désillusion : les Luddites et la critique de la machine”, Actuel Marx, No. 39, 2006, 145‑165.
Edward Palmer Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1963).
Thesis developed in Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
Bourdeau et al., op. cit. (note 11), 147.
Type of printer for large format printing.
Interview with the author, 9 November 2019.
Ethics according to which the only legitimate moral principles are those of non-harmfulness and equal consideration of interests, see Ruwen Ogien, L’Éthique aujourd’hui. Maximalistes et minimalistes (Paris: Gallimard, 2007).
Interview with the author, 9 November 2019.
Paul Lafargue, Le Droit à la paresse (1880), The Right to be Lazy and other Studies (English translation published by Charles H. Kerr and Company, 1907), 31.
Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 300.
The place of the human being in relation to machines is one of the questions that threads through contemporary thought, although there is nothing new about it. Every new technological age, every major step towards easing human labour in the performance of a task tends to revive utopias of the end of work just as it arouses the fear of replacing humans with machines. We’ve been going in circles, from when the first machines were smashed by the Luddites to the present day, in concentric rings of fear of substitution, expressed in more or less the same terms, from revolt to revolt and from century to century. The age-old competition with machines, originating in 17th century Europe, can be examined afresh thanks to the contemporary forms lent to it by Xavier Antin.
A genealogy of human-machine conflict
Today, everyone agrees to assume that a competition exists between machines and humans. We should know, we should be firmly convinced that certain operations of intellection, cognition and choice cannot and will never be performed by a machine. Yet the victory of the computer Deep Blue over chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, or the success in the Turing test of a computer posing as a teenager in 2014, caused a sensation. Every press release and article announcing these technological successes helps to rekindle the danger of non-distinction on the edges of our imagination. But, looking back at the historicity of these concerns, since the beginning of industrialisation, we see that they have always been based on the shock produced by “progress” leading to a hitherto unknown state of technology. Moreover, it is not only the prowess of machines, but also the way in which humans perceive themselves and where they place their humanity that could be at the root of these concerns.
The mechanical conception of the body is the prime focus of these renewed fears. It emerged at the end of the 16th century, with the philosopher Francis Bacon, then in the early 17th century, with René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, followed by the physicist Isaac Newton, and on a different note, the polymath1 William Petty, who all contributed to the “creation” of the body. This redefinition is part of a wider perspective of changing forms of social discipline that began to view the individual body as a threat that needed to be disciplined in an effort to maintain the order of the social body. In Bacon’s view, because the body is conceived as a great machine, it can be known and deciphered: the corporeal entity can be “penetrated in all her secrets.” This new ideology thus reduces the body to being “caught up in a system of subjection” and to being “calculated, organized, technically thought out2.”The mechanistic philosophy developed by Descartes and Hobbes in the following century continued in this vein: in the Treatise on Man3, Descartes conceived “this machine,” as he described the human body, as nothing more than “an automaton, and its death is no more to be mourned than the breaking of a tool,4” as the philosopher Silvia Federici wrote. At a time of the “emerging capitalist science of work,5” these thoughts are rooted in the idea that the body can be subordinated to a work process increasingly relied on uniform and predictable forms of behaviour. She sums up by saying: “it is in the speculations of the two philosophers that we find first conceptualised the development of the body into a work-machine6.” Federici’s interest in the origins of primitive accumulation and the consequences of the Enclosure movement7 on women’s ability to earn a livelihood from their labour, led her to continue after Michel Foucault, to weave the history of utilitarian metaphors applied to the body in the early 17th century, which shifted from the relation introduced between land and work to the relation between the body and labour8. Similar to the thinking developed by Isaac Newton on the subject of mass and movement—mass tends to inertia if no force is applied to it—the body was seen as “inert, sterile matter that only the will could move9.” Will in this case goes by the name of “work,” fulfilling the function of force applied to mass. Federici concludes that “these mechanical metaphors reflect not the influence of technology per se, but the fact that the machine was becoming the model of social behaviour10”during the 17th century.
A history of labour
Thus, from the 17th to the 19th century, a mechanistic filter was applied to the body, allowing not only analogies, but comparisons, and thus competition, with the inanimate. In his account of the English Luddite episode that occurred between 1811 and 1812, Karl Marx cited previous uprisings in England in the early 17th century. He showed, against all odds, that the revolt against machines did not have to wait for the advent of the Luddites11. The history of the Luddite movement, which has been a focus of interest for Xavier Antin through the works evoked here, did not therefore entirely initiate the revolt against the body as a “work machine.” Rather, the English Luddites and the revolts of the French Canuts are the culmination of the mistrust that emerged with modernity.
When the first revolts broke out in England in 1811, in villages around Nottingham, the claims of the hosiery workers were not, strictly speaking, against the machines. Until then, machines had been accepted as long as they enhanced the value of human ingenuity. The 1811 revolts were focused instead on the botched work done by machines, which tarnished the honour of workers of undeniable skill12. In short, the initial revolt was more about working conditions i.e., the effect of adding machines to the production process on the human share of the work, than on employment conditions i.e., replacing human beings for a given task by machines—employment conditions that had initially been accepted as being improved by mechanisation.
The phenomenon of machine breaking, which historian E. P. Thompson was the first to refer to as the Luddite movement, thus acted as a catalyst for thinking about the refusal of indistinction, between humans and machines, peculiar to the industrial age. Indeed, The Making of the English Working Class13 also recounts the history, before the term existed, of the refusal of these workers to join the “modern regime of historicity14.” While the ancient regime, to which the Luddites continued to refer, was steeped in cyclical rhythms, tradition and continuity, the modern regime of historicity that emerged in the last two decades of the eighteenth century dragged its contemporaries on a forced march towards progress, rendering the old idea of cyclical time obsolete. Historians Vincent Bourdeau, François Jarrige and Julien Vincent have described this relationship to the Luddite period, which was marked by repetition: “the workers, drawing on the resources of a political tradition that was as much insurrectionary as it was constitutional, sought to preserve their living environment, their morals, professional values and the quality of their products through machine breaking, but also through petitions and corporatist demands15.” In a world of early industrialisation, whose production systems and social institutions were constantly being challenged, the Luddite attacks on machines, seen as rivals to the gestures they had been performing until then, marked a refusal to be part of a modern historicity driven by hope invested in a better future. We fear machines, we block them, but deep down, can we really succeed in stopping them, and in the name of what?
Xavier Antin’s experimental machines
From the first uprisings in the 17th century to the first Luddite episodes, the common denominator of the controversies was the humanity of labour. Pursuing the history of revolt against competition from machines, Xavier Antin reactivates the history of the Luddite movement not as a revolt against machines, but as an opportunity to experience their revolutionary potential. In a piece simply entitled Les Luddites (2012), a plotter16 was hacked by adding brushes to its print heads. It was supposed to print a reproduction of an engraving depicting Luddites attacking a Jacquard loom. This loom, which operated with perforated cards was a proto-computerisation of Indian weaving, and was at the heart of the Canut revolts in 1831 and 1834 in Lyon. The subject of Les Luddites was the representation of one of the machines that stirred the deepest anger among workers in the French textile industry in the early 19th century, as well as the subversion of another machine invented in the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, the representation which finally emerged from the plotter was surprising. The image was ghostly, having been printed with 1% of the required ink density, while the brushes fixed on the print heads had spread the ink, thus blurring any reading of the reproduction of the engraving. The obstruction of the image was a Luddite expression, whose sabotage did not delete the functioning of the machine; it was not a case of destroying it, but of disrupting its capacities. The machine, trusted to produce and reproduce in a standardised way, was invested with the very principle of protest. What’s more, the project made it possible to see that a machine, in itself, is devoid of any threat for those who are willing to examine and break the myth of its inner workings: “I put my hands back into the machine,” said Xavier Antin, “to find a form of humanity, to rediscover operations and gestures miniaturised by digital tools, to remind us what at one time was a gesture, an arm, a production system17.” The history of production cannot be dissociated here from the history of its misappropriation and misuse.
Machine and critique of value
The plotter in Les Luddites was part of a broader reflection on the organisation of production systems. This research can also be seen in his works Just in Time or A Short History of Production (2010) and in the exhibitions Learning with Errors and Offshore, presented at the Crèvecœur gallery in Paris (2014), and The Eternal Network at the Spike Island art centre in Bristol (2016). It brings together the history of printing (eminently related to the history of the spread of revolt) and the history of industrial production (which gave rise to it). It has been renewed in the artist’s work with a machine whose function, this time, is to mine Bitcoin. The operation consists of checking the validity of monetary transactions, leading to the payment of those who carry out the operation via their computer servers. The cryptocurrency, the best known to date, is accumulated by the machine through a succession of mining actions. A first work created in this way was shown in Singapore between December 2018 and March 2019 at the Aloft Hermès art centre in the context of the Vanishing Workflows (Flowers of Singapore) exhibition. It consisted of a metal frame sculpture in the centre of which was the bitcoin-mining device. Its proceeds were used to order flowers from a shop in the city. When the amount required to purchase a bouquet was reached, the order was automatically placed, and the flowers were delivered and arranged in the exhibition space, forming an evolving still life composed of lilies, thistles, carnations, eucalyptus and other flowers and foliage. This first stage of the project aimed to explore the place of the human being in production. The perspective applied was midway between the libertarian dream—which stems from the doctrine of radical liberalism, to which the creators of Bitcoin are strongly attached, and which advocates the disappearance of the State in favour of free cooperation between individuals—and the uncontrolled reordering of political and economic powers in the name of this radical liberalism. It gave rise to a work that was as fascinating as it was dystopian: within this system that sends automated orders, human initiative was reduced to a bare minimum. The machine ultimately served to explore the potential of moral minimalism18 in the project through its closed-circuit operation.
Back in Europe, the machine was accompanied by two new counterparts; these were presented concomitantly in Paris and Marseille, from May to July 2019, in the Crèvecœur gallery spaces. The Marseille exhibition project, entitled La Dépense, avec témoins [The Expense, with witnesses], used the Bitcoin extraction device to support the projects of Éva Barto, Kevin Desbouis and Guillaume Maraud, the three artists invited to incur the expense. The three of them shared the €412.49 that the machine managed to mine during the exhibition (“the price of Bitcoin was low at the time,19” explained Xavier Antin). While the first artist chose to help pay the gallery’s electricity bill during the time of the exhibition—the machines being energy-hungry—the second reimbursed himself for the writing work developed for and during the exhibition, while the third donated the income to its support fund “23122015.” The device was concealed, yet accessible, and could be visited in the basement of the site. Its presence could be discovered by following its lengthy cables. In the Parisian space, on the other hand, it was presented in a central location, where its noisy breathing seemed to express an exerted effort, so much so that it was programmed to operate only when the staff of the exhibition space was absent. The artist thus created “disturbing machines,” disturbing because of the noise they generate, making them seem “beast-like,” contravening the good working conditions of the gallery staff, and also because of the small profits made, which reveal the inexorable decline in the profitability of Bitcoin mining.
Xavier Antin explains that his machine has no reason to exist unless it finances other projects. The redistributive ethic gradually conferred on this tool of wealth production now governs its uses. It takes part in a form of potlatch where each generation of wealth corresponds to an expense, thereby justifying its raison d’être and implementation, and allowing anyone who benefits from it to develop its practice further. There would be no sense in making it work as a hoarding mechanism, the artist insists. Rather, its treasure consists in being able to provide for the needs of others’ projects. Extending the emphasis on the traces of humanity in machines, present in his early projects, the mining machine contributes to making the community—of both artists and works of art—a reality.
The conciliatory impetus the artist has provided, through the machines and within their functioning, does not stop there. For a project at the CAC Brétigny art centre, presented between January and March 2020, seven new machines created for the occasion and equipped with artificial intelligence develop a verbal exchange. The title of the installation, The Weavers, refers not only to the weaving trade, but also to weaver birds that build their nests as a community. The sculptures are all equipped with artificial intelligence drawing on a vast database of texts chosen specifically for each sculpture, and helps to develop their character. Between them, they develop writing in line with experiments by Oulipo and Anglo-Saxon concrete poetry. Each machine weaves text as well as social links, helping to create a society of machines, analogous to human or animal organisations. In this project, the machine is not set up as a mechanical otherness confronting the human: it acts as an extension to the human, as a tool, holding up a mirror. A publication will be issued at a later date with an account of the exchanges that, like weavers, they have established among themselves over the course of the exhibition.
In 1880, when Paul Lafargue published his Droit à la paresse [Right to Laziness], he deplored the fact that “In proportion as the machine is improved and performs man’s work with an ever- increasing rapidity and exactness, the labourer, instead of prolonging his former rest times, redoubles his ardour, as if he wished to rival the machine. O, absurd and murderous competition!20” The bid between humans and machines in the industrial era, which the Luddites fought against, was followed in the 21st century by the post-workerism era, which advocated the end of the value of work theory and the obsolescence of the body in the work process. According to historian Anson Rabinbach, the late 20th-century body is hit by obsolescence. In The Human Motor, he observed a shift of labour from the centre to the periphery of society, a symptom of “the disappearance of the systems of representation that had placed the body at work at the junction of nature and society—[…] the disappearance of the human motor.21”
The red thread linking Xavier Antin’s machines is seemingly wrapped around this rarefied presence of the body as a linking factor. Each one verges on the limits of anthropomorphism, whether the machines are complicit in revolt or in the creative process (Luddites; Just in time or a short history of production; Learning with errors; The Eternal Network), as machine-substitutes (Vanishing workflow) or adjuvant machines (La Dépense, avec témoins; The Weavers). The works they are part of reveal that while many actions considered as human do not belong to us, the uses of the machines we create do belong to us. These projects advocate neither blind faith in any new machine nor techno-scepticism. On the other hand, they remind us that we have the right and the capacity to create machines that live up to what we want or do not want from them. Those of us who fear being replaced in our actions are reminded of the simple fact that the machines we are confronted with can be made to do things, made to do nothing, and also made to do things that are unproductive yet full of potential for action through sabotage, hacking and tinkering for those who create them.
Publisher: Vincent Simon
Translator: Angela Kent
Acknowledgements: Laurence Bertrand Dorléac
Cover: Xavier Antin, Worker (Kevin), in La dépense (avec témoins) exhibition, Crèvecœur gallery, Marseille, 2019 © Jean-Christophe Lett
This text is produced with the help of Antoine de Galbert Foundation (Paris) : https://fondationantoinedegalbert.org/en/fondation/