Arie Altena

Machines of Entanglement

Interview with Bernie Lubell

Arie Altena


This interview from 2009 was published on the website of V2_:

The interview with Bernie Lubell took place on Tuesday morning October 20th 2009, a few days after the opening of the exhibition The Origins of Innocence at V2_. Bernie Lubell and myself were moving from installation to installation while Jan Sprij was making photographs to document the exhibition. As all the installations are interactive and need the participation of the audience, I found myself rocking back and forth on benches or cycling together with Bernie Lubell on wooden contraptions while he was answering my questions and explaining how the installations function. We started the 'tour' with one of the larger works: The Theory of Entanglement, a piece that requires two people to pedal on wooden bicycles, while others sit on a sofa in the center of the exhibition space. We first sat down on the sofa, and as there was no one there to cycle, nothing was happening.

Bernie Lubell: When people are riding the bike, but no-one is sitting here on the sofa, no knitting happens. Only if someone sits down on the sofa, the power of the bikes is allowed to go all the way trough to the knitting machine. You need people sitting on the bench doing nothing. They are the capitalists. The labor force is there on the bikes. I had the idea to hook up a couch to have someone doing nothing to make something happen. Then a friend of mine said, that what I had made was a perfect metaphor for capitalism. I hadn't thought about that, but I liked it and added wood labels to the parts and it adds another dimension to the installation. In the exhibitions it works out quite well, when people know about it they start acting out and shout at each other: "Heya, you there, laborer, start working!"

At FACT, where this piece was installed before, the couch was actually in the coffee shop. People visiting were not aware that it was connected to the rest of the installation. They only could feel that the couch was a bit funny. In FACT everything stood further away. The people on the bikes could not see the bench and vice versa. But they must have got it somehow, because they did a lot of knitting at FACT. Of course there the installation was in a public space, with a lot of people passing. I think here at V2_ we will have to speed up the knitting a bit, in order to see the threads coming down. Here we have only the visitors who come especially for the exhibition. We'll switch the pulleys to speed it up, because I do want to see the knitting coming down, as it is the community effort that becomes visible. The reference is also to people who become entangled in the process of their histories, and carrying that entanglement into the future. The knitting signifies that entanglement; knitting is a tangle of thread. Of course I don't know if people will stay connected. It's a wishful metaphor, maybe a little connection is born here, that is carried forward into the future.

Arie Altena: All your installation seem to refer to a mechanical universe, they have the feel of eighteenth century machines, like giant knitting machines, or the Jacquard looms. So I was kind of surprised to read the read the reference to quantum physics in the description of The Theory of Entanglement: "Entanglement alludes to an aspect of quantum physics whereby particles such as electrons, which share common histories, will always act in synchrony even if they are later separated and have no means of combination.

BL: Well, it's just like the electrons in quantum physics who do not know that they are entangled (well they do not know of course, we presume that), yet are.

While we move on to the next installation, I tell Bernie Lubell that the word 'entanglement' in combination with science, made me expect rather a reference to the sociology of science of Bruno Latour. Explaining what entanglement means in Latour's work, we discuss shortly how in society we are entangled in all kind of political issues. We sit down on the bench of Conservation of Intimacy, and Bernie Lubell goes on to explain.

BL: We are moving on the bench, and this makes balls move on a screen in front of us. It looks to me as if we make the balls jump into the air. They seem somehow to defy gravity, because they fall too slowly and not in a straight line. It was my idea to make something that looks like that but that would not make complete sense. It seems as if the balls on the screen have to be in a liquid to move like this. Actually they are little balls that are on a flat grey surface at the back of the screen.

AA: Or they are on a different planet with a different force of gravity which makes them behave like this.

BL: The timing and the forward motion of the bench is very important here – we have to move quite forcefully. Conservation of Intimacy is a Marey-inspired piece. It has the pneumatics that Étienne-Jules Marey used in his simulations of the human body. It is an investigation into intimacy, as if you could investigate intimacy the same way as you can investigate matter and energy. There are laws for the conservation of matter and for energy (although that is a little bit trickier nowadays, but in the Newtonian universe there was conservation of energy too), so why should we not have laws for the conservation of intimacy in the social realm? Well, that is another wishful metaphor, I guess. The video came about in a really circuitous fashion. Michael McMillen, a fabulous artist, and I were scheduled to exhibit together and we decided to collaborate on a portion of the show. I already wanted to work with this little grey tray, and he came with the idea of simulating an earthquake to happen in that tableau. But he became really ill, kidney stones, so I was stuck with the tray and had to figure what to do by myself. So these three balls are Michael McMillen’s kidney stones [laughs]. This is the only piece with video; it is a completely new thing for me.

Also in this piece there is a third person riding a bike. It makes a little air come out of a tube that makes the couple sitting on the bench feel connected to the person on the bike. When the two people on the bench are moving they also make pens move up on the wall. And more importantly, by riding the bike the paper comes down which registers the movements made by the couple on the bench. I added the paper train more or less as a joke on scientific writing: it's the 'scientific' record of their movements. But in fact you can tell something about the movements of the couple from the registration. You can see if they are cautious or not, f they are moving with force, if they are having a fight. You can read more from it than I would have expected.

AA: The aspect of communication and of registration comes back in a lot of your work. It's also present in the labels that are hanging on the pieces.

BL: Every single piece has a function. Sometimes the labels are there to provoke you to think, but in the case of Conservation of Intimacy they are here because the machine has become so complicated that I cannot assemble it unless I label the parts. Without it I would not know which tambour (drum) to hook to which hose. I need it for troubleshooting as well, when it has broken down, which sometimes happens during the course of an exhibition.

AA: What made you feel inspired so much by the works of Étienne-Jules Marey?

BL: I am very interested in the whole late nineteenth century research into the human motor, the mechanics of the human body. Marey's work is the culmination of that. Carl Ludwig and Hermann von Helmholtz were also phenomenal inventors and physicist, but Marey for me is the culmination. They were trying to mix these two realms and tried to come up with a mechanical model for the human body, Marey actually succeeded in a way. If you look at the equipment that he made, it has a subtlety and sensitivity and it is very nuanced because he was really an engineer and a machine builder. He was personally able to build these things, and that makes a difference. Later of course he had people who build the machines for him. He was able to get at the exact point of what is important and what isn't. You can always see that he was right at the cusp of discovery in how he designed these little apparatuses. He actually built quite a few. His work just really sums up that scientific gesture and that whole period, and it is the culmination of so many other peoples work as well. I don't think anyone else was doing these mechanical simulations in quite the same way as he did.

While cycling on the bikes of A Theory of Entanglement something seems not to work exactly how it should. Maybe a connection has become loose. Actually at the exhibition there is always someone around who could do a repair if necessary.

BL: All these pieces have leaks, because if they do not have leaks they do not work right. I'm not sure why, and I'm sure I have not found he perfect leak. Actually that is another metaphor. All these systems are leaking, they are not completely autonomous and on their own. They are leaking to other systems, however self-contained they seem to be. It is a mechanical requirement. They are also little mechanical metaphors for the way we are as humans. They creep in for me in a different way than they creep in to Marey's work. In his work the leaks crept in because his simulation turned out to be not accurate enough, and he tried to make them more accurate. Somehow the simulations always worked differently from real humans or horses. So Marey was trying to perfect that.

My simulations are more open-ended; they are more about the human condition than about the human motor. They are a homage to the non-perfection of the human being. The leakage is a metaphor for this non-perfectness. I am a firm believer in the mechanical metaphor. If you take the mechanical metaphor for the human being, most people think you are talking about an ideal, perfect machine, a machine that never breaks down as a metaphor for the human motor. But there are no machines like that. The real machine is always a bit broken, it leaks, it has all sorts of problems. So the real machine is a good metaphor for the human being. The ideal machine is not. For Marey it was about the ideal machine. He was working on the basic principles of physics and he was trying to find simple laws. Over time – I am guessing – he was feeling that the pneumatics that he used were not working well enough. When he discovered photography, he could shift to a completely external view. He went for that. Well, he went to photography for many reasons. He was failing to get what he wanted from the pneumatics because he couldn't get it to not leak.

We move on to Etiology of Innocence.

BL: This is actually a copy of one of Marey's heart simulations. All of Marey's endeavors have this combination of sophistication and wonder. The title Etiology of Innocence refers to this sense of wonder. It is a study of what causes innocence, as if innocence were a disease. For Marey it was, he wanted to get rid of innocence. But he was smart enough to understand that if he did not know things he needed to keep working until he knew.

There is no actual heartbeat here, it all sounds too mechanical, and that is why I added a heartbeat sound at the other side. There is also again a little semi-scientific writing instrument over there, connected to the clock. The writing machine is also in the tradition of Marey's work.

AA: Did you know about Dick Raaijmakers work when you were building these installations?

BL: No, I did not. Alex Adriaansen gave me this fascinating book about Raaijmakers, the Monograph. Some of his pieces were about Marey, like mine, and about the scientific gesture as well. Yet his work seems to be completely different from mine, as well as his working method. He is incredibly cerebral and conceptual. I just start working on a piece, and I don't know what it is about until later. He worked way more conceptually. He is able to see the main point from the beginning. I am only beginning to see it way after I started working on a piece. Often only in retrospect. I don't know what the concept is from the start, I end up there, stumbling.

AA: How long does it take you to develop a piece?

: That is hard to say. I had been thinking for years about doing a piece that required persons to work together, that would create an entanglement between people. Then when FACT approached me to make a new piece and V2_ became involved; I started to actually build it. I started looking for a machine that would be able to make a knot. That turned out to be very hard, so I ended up with a knitting machine instead. It actually took me three and a half months to build it, which is actually quite short. But these were 12 hour-days, 7 days a week. I promised myself never to do that again. It was way more than I could handle, I'm too old for that.

AA: Did you do a lot of research into eighteenth century machinery before you started building this?

: I hoped to, but because of the time frame it was hardly possible. I also planned to build a scale model first, but there was no time for that either. I just had to go ahead and build this installation. I did not thoroughly understand how knitting machines worked until I actually made this one. I was copying components and mixed a few different design of knitting machines into my design. I was not even sure if I grabbed the right components from one design to combine with components of another. Well, in all these years of making machines I have been lucky. I turned out to be right in the end. I did pick the right parts of the one and combined them with the right parts of another one, left out the unnecessary bits and it worked. I was looking at different patent drawings of course, and saw all the varieties and the different ways in which engineers in the past had designed knitting machines. Often the different designs have only with slight variations – so they could get their patents. I only used the parts that were always there, in all the designs.

AA: How much of this is made of wood in The Theory of Entanglement?

: Well, there's a couple of screws and there are a few wood fasteners, but everything that is not of wood is hidden very well. The choice for wood is now a conscious one but it started because I am a carpenter. I had the tools for it and the materials. Wood is also quite easy to work with, I can keep changing things.

AA: Somehow the machines have a feel of a history to it, but it's a history that did not happen, as if they are from a parallel historical universe.

BL: I quite like that. A lot of things fed into my thinking, one of them is the sets for Fellini's movies. Someone described them as science fiction of the past. It's a made up universe of the past, especially in Satyricon, all this stuff, it's crazy, fabulous imagery. It has a sense of the improbable that I like.

AA: It's as if this is the very sophisticated mechanical culture of a people who have failed to find out how to work with metal, failed to find a way to work with electricity, but had found out how to make machines.

: Exactly! Somehow they managed to get television without metal! There is that, but these are all the wonderful side effects of the fact that wood is easy to work with, it was cheap, it is fast. You can make a machine out of wood much faster than out of metal. Metal fabrication is quite time consuming and requires more precision. With wood it is easier to shift things a bit, and it is so much more friendly. Of course these installation are really machines but they also look like a cartoon of a machine. They look like a cartoon, because in wood all the parts have to be bigger in order to work well. So that's why we get this Flinstone-feel.

At the end of the interview we move to Cheek to Cheek, in which the visitor sits on a stool that moves and wears a kind of earphones for the cheeks that make a massaging movement.

BL: In this installation you, as visitor, are most in the spotlight. And you are made to look ridiculous. But here it feels so good that you don't mind to feel ridiculous at all. I think of this piece as my icon, although it wasn't thought of that in the first place. It seems to sum up everything in one compact unit: it is about touch, about participation, the senses and enjoyment. You have to partake in it in order to feel the enjoyment. It is probably my sexiest piece too; there's a bit of sexiness in every piece. Also it fits in one box and I can ship it easily, so it has been in more exhibitions that any of my other pieces.

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Arie Altena