The machinic city investigates the role of performance art to help us reflect on contemporary urban living, as human and machine agency become increasingly intermingled and digital media is overlaid onto the urban fabric. This is illustrated by several case studies on performance art interventions from artists such as Blast Theory, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Rimini Protokoll, which draw from a rich history of avant-garde art movements to create spaces for deliberation and reflection on urban life and to speculate on its future. As cities are increasingly controlled by autonomous processes mediated by technical machines, the performative potential of the aesthetic machine is analysed, as it assembles with media, Capitalist, human and urban machines. The aesthetic machine of performance art in urban space is analysed through its different – design, city and technology actants. This unveils the unpredictable nature and emerging potential of performance art as it unfolds in the machinic city, which consists of assemblages of efficient and not-so-efficient machines. The machinic city pays particular attention to participation, describing how digitally mediated performance art interventions in urban space foreground different modes of subjectivity emerging from human and machine hybrids. This highlights the importance of dissensus as a constitutive factor of urban life and as a means of countering machinist determinism in present and future conceptualisations of city life.
The introduction describes the concept of the machine-city as representative of the ideal of an efficient city controlled by technical machines. It argues for the importance of aesthetic machines to generate spaces of deliberation on our role as participants in the contemporary mediated city. It provides an example of an aesthetic machine in the form of a performative art intervention in urban space – Graffiti Research Lab’s Laser Bombing – to symbolise the role of media, performance and participation as key factors in how we interact with urban space. Furthermore, it conceptualises the machinic city as a model that represents the current state of urban affairs and the relational nature of the actants that constitute it, comparing it against the vision of the machine-city based on the uncritical acceptance of the effects of technical machines on the city and on social interactions. The concept of the aesthetic machine is briefly discussed by referring to Guattari’s key argument that the aesthetic paradigm is capable of traversing other ‘Universes of value’ and enabling emerging modes of subjectivity. This is followed by a brief outline of the chapter structure of the book.
Chapter 1 provides a participatory account of A Machine To See With, a performative art intervention in urban space by Blast Theory. This is used as a basis to reflect on how participation unfolds in performance art as it is assembled with everyday urban interactions. This account highlights the multiple modes of participation that emerge from the assemblage of artistic narrative, urban space and digital technologies. These modes are subject to technological failure and the many ways in which participants interpreted the artistic narrative of the performance. The importance of tracing relations between actants and analysing their agency is supported by Actor-Network Theory’s (ANT) argument about the difference between mediator actants (actively reconfiguring meaning) and intermediary actants (who simply transport meaning). This is followed by an account of Blast Theory, a renowned artist collective, and some of its most relevant digitally mediated performance art projects: Desert Rain, Can You See Me Now? and Uncle Roy All Around You. These projects illustrate common features across Blast Theory’s body of work, such as the ability to generate hybrid spaces, create playful and fictional interventions in urban space, employ ambiguous narratives and challenge participants to reflect on their ability to trust strangers in urban space.
Chapter 2 provides a detailed breakdown of the different components of A Machine To See With, categorising them as design, technology and city actants. The design actants are related to the process of planning, designing and producing the performance. This includes the locative cinema commission for the performance and the detailed production of each design component, including the narrative, the adaptation of the project to the local ‘stage’ (the city of Brighton) and the testing and promotion of the event. The analysis of the technology actants in the performance includes the infrastructure network mediating the event (including two computer servers located in different countries); the programming of the interface; the state machine, a custom piece of software that can be adapted to respond to prompts from users and computational devices. The user’s mobile phone is also discussed as a technology actant and as the point of contact between the main interface and the participant. The analysis of the city actants includes urban furniture and a BMW car that was part of a key exchange in the performance (the partnering up of participants unknown to each other). This chapter ends with a description of how the fictional narrative of the performance was successful in drawing bystanders into the performance. This is illustrated through several accounts provided by participants.
Chapter 5 opens with a discussion of the process of researching performance art in urban space and recording patterns of participation and the challenges faced by the researcher. Three modes of participation identified in A Machine To See With are discussed: play (game-like and immersive participation), exploration (reflective and emotional engagement) and critique (the desire to understand the mechanics of the narrative). These are illustrated by case studies on participants. Participatory failure and participant reconfiguration of the artistic narrative are discussed by referring to performance art projects from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. This is followed by a critique of the concept of the emancipated spectator and the acknowledgement (based on Rancière’s argument) of the process of artistic narration and participant translation, where the latter might diverge significantly from the stated aims of the artist. This in turn highlights the importance of dissensus as a desirable outcome of both performance art projects (through multiple modes of machinic subjectivity) and everyday life in the contemporary city. This chapter concludes with a participatory account of Ciudades Paralelas, a series of performances that intervene in the functional spaces of the city and that demand active participation and reflection from participants.
Chapter 6 examines the role of performance art to speculate on future urban living. Blast Theory’s app-based project Karen is discussed as an example of how performance art adapts to emerging technologies. This is followed by an account of Dante or Die’s User Not Found, as an example of a participatory performance that examines the future consequences of a contemporary technology (social media) while using this technology as a key component to support the narrative; the participants are provided with mobile phones preloaded with fictional social media apps. Blast Theory’s 2097: We Made Ourselves Over is discussed as an example of a performance art project that conceptualises the future of city living through multiple outputs: live performance, film screenings and a downloadable app, which extend the duration and reach of the performance. The work of architect Liam Young is discussed as an example of speculating on the future of urban living through an ‘exaggerated present’, where the future of contemporary developments – such as smart cities built from scratch – is teased out from the current status of these developments and their interactive modes. Young emphasises the increasing autonomy granted to the technologies that mediate urban life and reflects on its potential outcomes. China’s Social Credit System project is analysed as an example of this outcome, while the importance of performance art is emphasised as a counterpoint to prescriptive future narratives that are based on the model of the machine-city.
Chapter 3 reconceptualises the term ‘machine’ from a technical device to a device with abstract potential and multiple forms. Five main types of machines that are constitutive of both performance art (as a form of aesthetic machine) and urban life are analysed in this chapter: performative, media, Capitalist, human and urban machines. A particular emphasis is placed on the importance of assembling efficient with not-so-efficient machines, and on the potential of machine failure to trigger unexpected but meaningful events. The performative machine is discussed through existing theoretical frameworks of performance that foreground its potential for enabling improvisation and reflection. The media machine is conceptualised through the dominant power of media in contemporary society as the most important commodity. The Capitalist machine is described as a resilient actant that adapts and resists any attempts to criticise or confront it. The human-machine is described through the paradigm of the posthuman and its connection to the cybernetic machine. It is conceptualised as a hybrid where human beings and technological apparatus are assembled to produce new modes of subjectivity. The urban machine is defined through its double role as a stage for performance but also as a collective of actants. Following the analysis of these machines, a definition of machinic subjectivity is provide by referring to Guattari’s definition of the machine and his focus on the aesthetic machine as a means of eschewing the homogeneity of capitalist subjectivity.
Chapter 4 provides a historical account of aesthetic machines, with a focus on performance and the use of technology, from ancient Greek theatre’s use of the device of the deus ex machina to contemporary theatre and its use of digital props. It discusses the critique of inauthenticity in art that makes use of machine-components and the associated argument that machines overshadow the human performer. To counter this, it is argued that we need to acknowledge the artistic relevance of human-machine hybrids to move beyond human-centric and technocentric arguments. The importance of twentieth-century avant-garde art movements as influential references for contemporary digital performance is stated, with references to Futurism and the Agit-Theatre of Attractions. This is followed by a description of cinematic machines, with a particular focus on Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and its similarities to A Machine To See With. The post-1960s performative turn is described as a key event in performance art through the dissolution of the barrier between stage and audience and through the ability to blur art and life. This is illustrated through some of its key movements, including Neo-Concretism, Situationism, Fluxus and Happening. The assemblage of aesthetic machines and the digital paradigm is illustrated through the Cybernetic Serendipity event, which foregrounded the artistic potential of the computer’s procedural logic as a non-human actant. Finally, the paradigm of the machine as an autonomous artist is discussed through events such as the use of artificial intelligence agents in the generation of art.
The conclusion addresses the initial proposition of the book: as we walk through the city, we are subject to an embodied experience that is increasingly mediated by machines, and where human and machine hybrids produce new modes of subjectivity. It emphasises the role of performance art to bring us on a reflective journey where artistic narrative is assembled with the urban fabric and digital technologies, generating unexpected and meaningful outcomes while also instigating us to think about the consequences of our digitally mediated lives. It also emphasises the role of performance art towards acknowledging dissensus as a key outcome through the process of translation of the artistic narrative by each individual participant. The importance of assembling efficient and not-so-efficient machines and acknowledging the multiple modes of subjectivity emerging from human and machine hybrids is emphasised as a means of countering dystopian narratives of technology applied to urban living.