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Michael Oatman and company took audiences forward into the past with The Machine Starts at EMPAC

by Jeff Nania on March 6, 2013


When the exhibition-performance was ready to begin, the humans in attendance were herded into a line as recordings played over the house loudspeaker from “the machine.” Instructions like “you can help by not helping” were sexily sold to you by a calm omnipotent voice as a group of faux “agents of the machine” took down “a bystander.” True to form, the humans in the room did nothing as this act was carried out. (He was part of the project, don’t be too alarmed). The voice over the loud speaker was classically authoritative, sneakily taking command as in the Milgram experiment.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s own a capella group The Rusty Pipes played a major part during this performance, as they doubled as the attendants of the Airship and performed two pieces for the event. One was sung in the cafe lobby area of EMPAC before entering Studio 2, and served as a kind of introduction to the “airship.” “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?” they sang as other members of the group beatboxed.

As people were herded through the doors of Studio 2, they found themselves in the actual Airship. There were two clusters of 50 chairs facing a screen. As we prepared for “take off” we were reminded that if the “Airship should lose heliostatic pressure, euthanasia will be made available at the rear of the craft.”

We’re the bugs under the microscope: The Machine Starts at EMPAC

The lights dimmed and the screen focused on a large hexagonal porthole, and we saw the captain of the ship who welcomed us aboard. “I take great pride in greeting you personally, via the medium of our wondrous machine. Praise the Machine,” He said.

The following lectures presented through the same porthole were seemingly random and touched on topics like the Australian Music Movement, the Great Rebellion, and Drosophilia Melanogaster (the fruit fly). The fruit-fly lecturer’s face was obscured by a pair of glasses that protruded from his face in an unusual way, and he ended the lecture by asking “are we really that different from a fly?”

The singing attendants again took center stage as the screen lifted, and they performed their second number which was about the omniscience of the machine. The repeated chorus went “We’re the Human Resources, We need to know what your every choice is, What you like to drink, fight, fuck, and your voices, We are the Human Resources.”

The Airship’s journey came to a halt and we were again herded by the attendants, this time into the hallway where we heard lectures from poets, and their leader (choreographer-guest artist Joanna Haigood).

By the time we were herded back into Studio 2, the entire scenery had changed, and we were greeted by the Steward of the Machine—a man dressed in a white lab coat who greeted us by saying “Praise the Machine. And welcome. This is an historic day. Look around you.”

All around us were walls with digital projections of geometric patterns and pixilated images of the faces of all of us guests. We had arrived at the core of the machine.

The Machine Starts, which was presented in EMPAC’s Studio 2 on Feb. 28-March 2, was based on the 1909 novella The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster. It occupies the same space on the conceptual sci-fi bookshelf as classics like 1984, Player Piano, and Brave New World. This exhibition-performance was an excellent physical rendering of the dystopia that this brand of Sci-Fi predicts, and it also reminds us that “the machine is reliant on human will.”