Change in perspective: Between the lines

Justine Giles I wrote this in a language I can't read

Justine Giles, 2014. I wrote this in a language I can’t read. [Cut-out and graphite on vellum, 594 x 841mm]

I was asked once, in my undergrad years, if I only valued work I had laboured over. At the time, without any hesitation, I said “yes”. It seemed so obvious then that hard work = worthiness.

This work came to me all too easily, springing fully formed into my head as if someone had whispered it to me, as if it already existed and just needed me to carry it into the waking world. Although the cutting represents some careful labour, when I think about this work it’s to puzzle over how uncharacteristically quickly it came together.

This is the work that let me trust my instincts.

The hard part of this work has always been in its installation. It is so understated that it can disappear (it’s almost impossible to document).

This is the third time it has been installed.  The first time was at Whitecliffe for the Masters mid degree assessment, the second time as a finalist for the 2015 Glaister Ennor Award at Sanderson Contemporary. Now it is showing as part of Between the Lines at the Wallace Gallery Morrinsville.

I feel like in this install it is finally complete. Positioned on a short end wall, it subtly invites a side view where the tonal shadow gives way to the writing that can be seen traced in light on the wall.  This is how it always should have been shown: all it needed was a different perspective.

Main Catalogue text

There’s a story that Pliny tells about the Corinthian potter Butades, and his daughter Kora. Kora’s lover is about to leave her for a time, and she is compelled to capture his silhouette. This story is used by Pliny to describe the origins of painting and of relief sculpture (Kora’s silhouette is then appropriated by Butades as he presses clay to it and turns it into something else), but it is also, more obviously, a story about drawing. Moreover it is a story about traces, shadows and haunting. What Kora does is depict something that is fleeting and distorted, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. In order to do so she must turn her back on her lover while he is still present, and reduce him to an outline. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. The very act of drawing his shadow is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence.

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Parallel Text (from MFA catalogue)

Having heard, for the first time, that my adventures have been doubted, and looked upon as jokes, I feel bound to come forward and vindicate my character for veracity, by paying three shillings at the Mansion House of this great city for the affidavits hereto appended.  

This I have been forced into in regard of my own honour, although I have retired for many years from public and private life; and I hope that this, my last edition, will place me in a proper light with my readers.

– R. E. Raspe

Singular travels, campaigns and adventures of Baron Munchausen

 

1780

The Marquis de Sade, an infamous French aristocrat, spent just over a decade in the 1780s imprisoned on charges related to his violent sexual fantasies. He was held at the Chateau de Vincennes and the Bastille before finally being transferred to the insane Asylum at Charenton.

While imprisoned de Sade wrote the novella Justine. It tells the story of a girl who is orphaned at the impressionable age of twelve, when she and her older sister Juliette must learn to make their own way in the world. After they part company Juliette is quickly corrupted, but becomes worldly and is ultimately rewarded with riches and happiness. Justine, determined to be virtuous, is subjected to a series of misfortunes, betrayals and assaults. She is briefly reunited with her sister before she is eventually stuck by lightning and dies.

After the French Revolution de Sade enjoyed ten years of freedom, but 1800 would be his last; the following year Napoleon ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and de Sade was returned to Charenton asylum where he died in 1814.

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Pilcrow

When I first excitedly told Julie about my initial investigation into the pilcrow, she smiled, knowingly, and said, “Oh it’s one of your rabbit holes.” In the two years of supervising me in the MFA programme she’s probably quite accustomed to my crazed enthusiasms, certainly enough to recognise them as the rabbit-holes I follow in the hopes of glimpsing that elusive Wonderland.  There’s been many an occasion where I’ve told her that although I don’t know what it means yet, I’ve stumbled upon another morsel, a little something, like a trail of breadcrumbs.

I like things that have a story, or history, but one that points in many directions. I like things that are suggestive, or secret, unknown, or invisible.  The things I collect are things that could just be ordinary, except there is something that makes them not… they glow with an unacknowledged importance, an unrevealed significance; they whisper to me, and ask me to recognise them.

I found the pilcrow by accident, which is to say, it has been there before me, unnoticed, until suddenly it wasn’t.  And if you are unfamiliar with the word ‘pilcrow’ don’t worry, I was completely in the dark too.  It’s a typographical symbol, which you may well recognise even if you don’t know what to call it, as I didn’t initially (it’s an interesting task googling something you don’t know the name of, but the internet will find it for you eventually).

The pilcrow is this:

Yes, it’s that handy little symbol you can find when you’re word-processing and you need to figure out how many spaces you’ve put in and where.  With the click of a button it can appear and disappear.  Now you see it, now you don’t. Hey presto, abracadabra!

I loved it for its beautiful vanishing act, but I loved it even more when I researched further. By far the best source of information I found was Keith Houston’s book Shady Characters: The secret life of punctuation, symbols & other typographical marks (I requested it from the public library and showed so much nerdy excitement about reading it that I completely bewildered the librarian I picked it up from: “Well, I guess if you’re into that sort of thing” she’d said, smiling politely but dubiously).

The pilcrow is not a mere typographic curiosity, useful only for livening up a coffee-table book on graphic design or pointing the way to a paragraph in a mortgage deed, but a living character with its roots in the earliest days of punctuation. Born in ancient Rome, refined in medieval scriptoria, appropriated by England’s most controversial modern typographer, and finally rehabilitated by the personal computer, the pilcrow is intertwined with the evolution of modern writing. It is the quintessential shady character.

(Houston, 2013, p. 3).

From Houston’s book I learned that the pilcrow evolved from a C (which stood for capitulum) that indicated the beginning of a section or chapter. The ornamentation of the C over time slowly turned it into the pilcrow symbol (Houston, 2013, p. 13).

During the Middle Ages, when monastic scribes were reproducing handwritten scriptures, the pilcrow was considered special enough that it was added subsequently by a specialist rubricator (who inked the headings and initial letters and so on in red). So the scribe would ink all the black parts, the main text block, but left spaces where the red characters could be added (p. 14).

Later when the printing press was invented, the pilcrow was still important enough that it was added in by hand, the type-setters would leave a space for it just as the scribes did.  Only this is where the pilcrow began to vanish.  The rubricators just couldn’t keep up with the pace of the press, and so the convention became that a paragraph is indicated with a blank space or an indent… an empty place that was waiting for a never-to-be-added pilcrow (p. 16).

The pilcrow indicates a transition of ideas, so it could be said to be symbolic of a shift in direction, or new thought, perhaps even a revelation. But its function is that of separating paragraphs, so maybe it more aptly symbolises a brief pause, a breath, the heartbeat before the punchline.

From its heyday of being highlighted in red, the pilcrow is now spectral. It has a position, but that position is filled with a blank. It haunts the spaces in-between. It may just be the ultimate rabbit-hole.

September seminar studio work

I like to look back on work with a bit of distance, so here, belatedly, are some images of my studio work critiqued in the September seminar. (With the added benefit of being beautifully photographed by Lea Schlatter).

September was a work-in-progress seminar, and additionally it was the seminar in which the part four students had to deliver Oral Presentations.  In the short period between July and September my main focus was on creating the presentation, but I wanted to experiment with a couple of ideas, and decided to test out a book format.

Trace book 2   Trace book

Justine Giles, 2014. Untitled (Book of traces) [ink, ballpoint, coloured pencil,    graphite on detail paper, 110 x 175mm (closed)]

The first is a little fourteen page book of transparent paper with book inscriptions (or part inscriptions) on each page. The writing can be see through several layers, though not all of them, which means that as you flick through the book the layered images shift with the pages.

I was interested in seeing what would happen if all these pages that had be altered with handwriting were all together in one place, a concatenation of sentiments, built upon each other, and yet still separate.

Indigo a fiction 3Indigo a fiction 2 Indigo a fiction 1

Justine Giles, 2014. Indigo: A Fiction [mixed media, 137 x 205 x 20mm (closed)]

The second book was a different project based on the theme Indigo. I became interested in Isaac Newton’s inclusion of Indigo as a colour in the spectrum and the subsequent controversy over whether it was a unique colour at all.  The suggestion being (as I’ve written about before) that he wanted very much to find seven colours in the spectrum (because seven was a significant number at the time) and finding only six he is said to have invented Indigo (named after a dye).  It interested me in part because my partner is colour blind and one of the things he has difficulty with is shades of blue, and also because I associated the story in my head with Rebecca Solnit’s Field guide to getting lost where she uses the evocative phrases “the blue of longing” and “the blue of distance” to describe how things at a distance (such as mountains) seem blue, but are no longer blue when you reach them.

I loved the idea that Indigo could be the colour that sits between reality and fiction, known, visible, but somehow contested anyway.

—–

The books were a misstep.

I had been so focussed on the subject that I didn’t pay enough heed to either form or content.  The one-to-one relationship (i.e. books about books) was pointed out as being distracting, and in hindsight I absolutely agree.  It is too easy to miss the subject because the form is so dominating.  The book format, because it is familiar, is also very leading.  Viewers want to read the work in a linear way, which closes it down to one prescribed interaction.

Where other work has been more successful is where they have suggested books while being present as something else. This is a better way of addressing the concept of trace because trace is a transformation not a reiteration. My work is not necessarily about books in a literal sense, but these works made that really unclear.

Sometimes the most useful lessons are learned in walking down the wrong path for a while, because at the very least it helps in identifying what the right path might look like. Understanding what went wrong and why is critical for being able to pick up and progress further.  Mistakes aren’t failures.

Untangling Drawing Part Two: Cheating Time

Mark making is almost always about cheating time and challenging physical space. Think about it. Even the act of signing your name on a document is making a mark that represents your endorsement of something, so you don’t have to continually tell someone you agree, or take the time to travel distances to approve something in person. Writing is about communicating ideas across distance (either in time or space) writing enables people to communicate without having to be present. Similarly making images is also about communication but in a more abstracted or ambiguous way.

In the early days humans drew on cave walls, traced their hands: I was here, like the anticipation of future haunting. Those early renderings were literal traces (of hands) as well as figurative ones, the evidence of existence. There is certainly a strong link between the process of drawing and the concept of trace: “If drawing is the art of the trace, this would mean that it has a privileged relation to the non-visible” (Newman, 2003, p. 96). Drawing is perhaps the simplest expression of mark making and as such the formative example of expression.

Whatever else art is about, the impulse to create is also the impulse to mark the world, to sign it as you might a school desk “Justine waz here”, to prove you are present in the world, and to assure yourself that one day, long after you have gone, long after you have bled out of living memory, somewhere there will be proof you once existed.

Drawing is a temporal activity on numerous levels. Usually it is created for a future audience who are not present at the time of its making. But additionally, drawing holds within it the passage of time that consitutes its own making… drawing is the trace of time spent with a surface, inherent in the mark is the deliberate touch of the artist. It would seem that the immediacy of drawing, as the most pared back form of mark making, is able to hint at the intangible and the ephemeral “… drawing is closer to the movement of time, to lived temporality” (Newman, 2003, p. 96). John Berger also notes the connection of drawing to time: “Isn’t the act of drawing, as well as the drawing itself, about becoming rather than being. Isn’t a drawing the polar opposite of a photo? The latter stops time, arrests it; whereas a drawing flows with it” (Berger, 2008, p. 124).

The process of drawing operates on different time streams. When I draw I am present in the moment, this moment, right now as my pencil touches the paper, but I am also present in the moment before and the moment after, because of the direction of movement, and at the same time I am somewhere else, somewhere internal, looking backward, looking forward, seeing the beginning and anticipating the end.

Untangling Drawing. Part One: Tracing shadows.

An investigation into the language of drawing is a hairy endeavour. At the heart of it are two main questions: What is drawing? And what does it do?

Tracing Shadows

In Michael Newman’s essay for the book The stage of drawing: Gesture and act (2003), he starts by exploring Pliny’s story about the potter’s daughter who traces the outline of her beloved’s shadow on the wall in order to preserve a memory of him when he goes away. The focus of Pliny’s story is that her father then presses clay to this outline in order to create relief portrait, but Newman draws attention to the daughter’s original act as being the primary representation.

What the daughter does is depict something that is fleeting, a shadow, and does so in the most immediate way she can. Her impetus is not to create a portrait of her lover, but to capture a silhouette he has temporarily cast on the wall. Newman suggests that she may use this as memento and therefore as a substitute, but I disagree with this statement, a shadow is not a person (Newman refers to Pierce’s “indexical” sign – that is a sign that refers to what it signifies by virtue of being related to it), when she drew it on the wall the daughter would have already been turned away from her lover. In the act of copying his shadow she holds on to her lover in a way she already realises is tenuous. It is an imperfect double, even before she draws it, and so is a recognition of her understanding of the implication of absence. “Drawing, with each stroke, re-enacts desire and loss” (Newman, 2003, p. 95). There is no substitute, only a trace.

So what is a trace exactly? Tim Ingold, author of Lines: A brief history (2007) defines it in this way: “In our terms the trace is any enduring mark left on a solid surface by a continuous movement” (p. 43), Newman however struggles with the definition, questioning whether traces and marks are the same thing or not:

Is the mark itself a trace? Or the trace of a trace?  Or a mark from which the trace withdraws?  Or the effacement of the trace? At stake in these questions is the relation of the drawn mark to the one who leaves it and the one who receives it. (Newman, 2003, p. 94)

Newman goes on to suggest that the mark is a prescise gesture that obliterates the trace (2003, p. 95) but perhaps that is a subtle difference, could it be that the mark is the lasting visual manifestation of the trace, and therefore related very closely and almost indistinguiable from it?

To me the trace is a haunting, it is a copy, but not a substitute. In the act of re-presentation, the subject is re-created (translated) and becomes something other. It refers to what is absent, at the same time as being present as something different. The trace is irrevocably linked to drawing because both operate within a liminal space, the knife-edge between presence and absense.

The alchemy of transformation.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

-Heraclitus.

Simon Starling is an artist adept in weaving an intricate web of concurrence that is as rewarding as it is provocative.  His work operates within a fluctuation of time and space and deals with a multiplicity of meanings.  Starling appreciates the way workmanship adds to understanding of the story of an object, and displays mental dexterity pulling together ideas to sit alongside one another.

Starling’s success as an artist lies in his acute ability to identify connections and turn them into a narrative that defies linearity and plays deftly with our understanding of time and location. In a sense the work also offers an understanding of both movement and stasis: “His artworks tend to operate as both narrative (velocity) and objects (position)” (Rappolt, 2013, p. 75), due to the shifting territory within which his concepts reside.

What typifies the experience of Starling’s work is a sense of wonder in the encounter as the audience relives the physical or mental journey of the artist, and delights in the seemingly propitious relationship between his ideas. In an interview with Christiane Rekade for the Journal Art History Starling explains his process and how he makes discoveries:

Sometimes you just go looking, you take a journey, keep your head down and your eyes and ears open and look for that connection, that overlap of an idea and an object to occur.  Sometimes if feels like the objects find you – you just have to be aware of it when they do.  And on very rare occasions you have the feeling that the object is only there to be found because you wanted it to be – your imagination somehow forced it into the world.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 642)

These connections require that the story, or documentary writing to be very much a part of the work, both in the text that accompanies the work (which explains the complexities) as well as the titling which serves to represent the idea as simply as possible.  For example Shedboatshed (2005), cleverly distills the artwork (and its journey) even without the backstory.

 Shedboatshed

Despite the ambitious scale of some of Starling’s projects craftsmanship is an important element in the work.  The evidence of the process of making is contained within the work as part of the story and its traces of the past.  So that the scarring of the wood in Shedboatshed is a document of its life as shed and a boat before it became a shed once again.

I’m really interested in what it means to make something in a culture in which our connections with making and manufacture are increasingly distant – we have become estranged from the things we use every day.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 648).

The history of the artwork inherent in the making of the work becomes another layer to its temporal expedition: it references backward and forwards simultaneously. In addition the concepts usually employ a circular logic which creates a story that loops easily back to the beginning.  As a result the work avoids being tied to a particular timeframe, and so occupies a shifting territory between past, present and future: “Time constantly folds back on itself, is conflated or confused – so the future is always set in the present and is always misremembered” (Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 650).

This understanding of time as a fluid and non-linear entity was the premise behind the show Starling curated for the Camden Arts Centre in London, Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts) (2010). Starling chose a number of artworks previously shown at the centre from various exhibitions and displayed them in the same spot they originally occupied, according to a combination of research into documentation, as well as relying on memory, rumour and speculation (Starling, 2010, p. 33).

Never the same river 2

The result of this process was a series of artworks connected over time and space and the strange juxtapositions they create through their mutual haunting of the gallery.  Starling’s strength in identifying relationships is showcased in the selection of the works displayed.

Never the same river 1

Thus the show operates to highlight strange commonalities of forms and ideas, but breathes unexpected new life into the work by altering the context with which they are read.

Context is everything, and the history and provenance of an object is as important to Starling as the object itself, perhaps sometimes more important as seen in the paired works A Charles Eames ‘Alumunium Group’ chair remade using the metal from a ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle/ A ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle remade using the metal from a Charles Eames ‘Aluminuim Group’ chair (1997).

Simon Starling chair bike

Here Starling plays with the relationship between two objects which at first seem very different.  However the title illuminates the fact that each started out as the other and have undergone a transformation so that over the course of their making they switch places.  Each object is convincing, and yet, they both bear the invisible history through the title, and subsequently become more fascinating.  The transformative nature of their existence, though past, compels the viewer to consider the similarities of the objects.  Both are designed to hold stationary and moving bodies (Rappolt, 2013, p. 73).

Starling’s work is as embedded with histories as it is with transformation and temporal shiftiness. The traces of past lives haunt within their new contemporary contexts. Starling is not only a storyteller, but an alchemist.

The copy and authenticity

Integral to the notion of the copy are concerns about authenticity. There are fine lines in the understanding between homage and plagiarism. When does illusion (or allusion even) become deception? Copies call up the notion of ‘originality,’ which has always been a tricky debate in the art world especially since the idea of appropriation has long been legitimised (if not always wholly agreed on).

Anthony Downey’s chapter in the book Art and Authenticity (2012) discusses recently deceased artist Elaine Sturtevant (1924 – 2014), who recreated artworks by such well-known figures as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Marcel Duchamp among others. Sturtevant’s work has been highly controversial and often misunderstood. She is widely thought of as being a progenitor of appropriation art, but this was a term she herself detested preferring instead to call her works ‘repetitions’. To society what Sturtevant was doing seemed like forgery, but in fact her works were never meant to pass for the originals and were “deliberately inexact” (Fox, 2014). Sturtevant reproduced the images from memory, and titled them with the original artist’s name and title, the act of signing them herself also rendered them useless as fakes; there was no subterfuge beyond the initial jolt of (mis)recognition.

Sturtevant Warhol

Elaine Sturtevant, 2004, Warhol black Marilyn. [Silksceen and acrylic on canvas, 350 x 400mm] Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London, England.

In Hillel Schwartz’s 1994 book The culture of the copy: Striking likenesses, unreasonable facsimiles he posits that a copy can be created as a re-enactment or as an appropriation: defining these as when a copy is created stroke by stroke versus when it is re created in entirety, such as when it is photographed or photocopied (p.223). Sturtevant’s art was produced as a re-enactment. But in the re-enactment a subtle transformation in meaning occurs: “This is not so much about producing objects as it is about understanding how they circulate and come into being as objects; or, more specifically, how they are produced, received and understood as art” (Downey, 2012, p. 102). The image itself was trivial compared to the true meaning of the work, which was its conceptual concerns, the questions she had: What makes an artwork? What is truth? Authenticity? Originality? Authorship? When copying someone like Warhol, what did it mean that her work was in fact a copy of a copy?

Repetition was Sturtevant’s way of thinking. The slippage in the work is not only in the inexact copy, but also in the meaning. “My work is the immediacy of the apparent content being denied” (Downey, 2012, p. 105). When Sturtevant produces her copy she is not only creating meaning (her true artwork is the thinking), but she is inevitably challenging, and perhaps irrevocably changing the perception of the meaning of the original work.

This is what copying does: it alters.

What sets apart a copy is not its similarities but its differences. Where better to examine difference than with trompe l’oeil (translated as ‘fool the eye’) as covered by Jonathan Clancy’s chapter in Art and Authenticity (2012) which analyses nineteenth century American painters William Michael Harnett (1848 – 1892) and John Haberle (1856 – 1933) whose paintings of American currency excited a debate about the possibility of counterfeiting, as well as questions around what constituted art.

Clancy explains how these paintings were linked to deception: whether it was the object itself (one critic insisted this was real currency simply given a thin top coat of paint to appear as though it were a painting), or the idea that such convincing likenesses could encourage forged bank notes. Viewers often dislike feeling fooled, however the true success of trompe l’oeil depends on the revelation of the deception, so its trickery must necessarily be short lived. Clancy describes it as a three-part behaviour on the part of the viewer:

First, one must believe (even if fleetingly) that the image is real. Second, there must be a moment of revelation, typically in which the viewer must disengage from the illusion, come to one’s senses and realise the illusion. Third, the viewer must navigate the tensions that exists in the fine line that separates the real from the represented, which ultimately leads to a heightened awareness of the artists ability.” (Clancy, 2012, p. 156)

So the copy in this instance serves to question the real versus the representational. For the viewer it means an adjustment to the initial deception: the viewer must pass from being fooled by it, to being complicit in it. Ironically, the triumph of trompe l’oeil is in the failure of the trick, but only after its initial momentary success. “It must simultaneously fool viewers while reminding them they are being fooled” (Clancy, 2012, p. 157).

John Haberle

John Haberle, c. 1889, U.S.A [Oil on Canvas, 216 x 305mm] Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN.

Ultimately, these works brought up questions of whether this was art or mechanical skill (Clancy, 2012, p. 158). There was an interesting twinning in the idea of value, through the debate about paper currency as a representation of wealth, and whether to value these painstakingly detailed images as artworks and their creators as artists. Habberle himself played on this debate by including a clipping of a critique of his painting Imitation (1887), calling it a clever artistic mechanism, in a number of his subsequent paintings. The idea of a clever copy being equated to “mechanical skill” is an interesting one that somewhat denies the authorship of the painter by comparing their skill to that of a machine. Does this mean that a copy that is too close is no longer art?

Schwartz suggests that copying underwrites everything that we do, right down to the biology of how we are created, and further to language as the reproduction of particular sounds, and how culture is propagated and passed on. Perhaps it could be said that it is in our DNA to copy. But inherent in all forms of copying is slippage: “Copying is ultimately imperfect, our errors eventually our heirs” (Schwartz, 1996, p. 212). Can two things ever be perfectly alike?

Extinction (disappearance) threatens anything that is one of a kind, and our panic at the risk of losing things propels us towards copies (think replicas of artifacts shown in museums, notarised copies of original documents, prints of original artworks, photographs of precious memories). To copy is to keep. Conversely: “An object uncopied is under perpetual siege, valued less for itself than for the struggle to prevent its being copied” (Schwartz, 1996, p. 212). Copying could be seen, paradoxically, to both dilute the original AND preserve it. A copy is a powerful thing, because it unsettles meaning, it threatens and protects the original in equal measures. The existence of a copy draws attention to the original, but it also opens up questions in our understanding of value and representation.

The easiest mistake to make with the copy is to see it as an inferior substitute for the original, or to assume that its purpose is to somehow be or replace the original. Repetition is not backward looking but a linear and resolute marching into the future. Copying is not a perfect art; it doesn’t pretend to be. The beauty in a copy is not that it is mistaken for the original, but that it refers to it while becoming something else.

Circular logic… or something to do with drawing circles.

In 2009, on a brief trip to London I visited the Science Museum where two things made a lasting impression on me: Charles Babbage’s brain (or half of it), and a pantograph.

C Babbage brain

Charles Babbage (1791 – 1871) is largely credited as being the father of computers, due to his invention of the Difference Engine, which was basically an enormous mechanical calculator, and the Analytical Engine, which was a more refined machine that was programmable. He never actually completed a machine, but subsequent engines built from his plans, using technology that would have been available to him were made and work! (Science Museum, 2014). When Babbage died his brain was removed in an attempt to sate Victorian curiosity about what made him so smart, and half of it sits in a jar in the Science museum. It was my first encounter with a preserved brain.

Also on display at that time was a Pantograph, and it fascinated me with its ingenious simplicity. Struck with enthusiasm I was determined to come home and make my own, but as it happened it got stored for later in my own brain and largely forgotten. It was only recently through a deeper research into drawing and reproduction that I got to thinking of drawing machines and I revisited the pantograph idea.

Through my research into the pantograph I discovered references to The Turk, a chess-playing automaton invented in 1770 by Wolfgang Von Kempelen (1734 – 1804), because part of the armature of the automaton uses the scissoring mechanism of a pantograph (Buchanan, 2013, p. 21).

Mechanical Turk

Built to impress Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, this mechanical player was a source of fascination for over 80 years before it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. During that time many people tried to discover how it worked, most concluding that there had to be a human chess player cunningly concealed within. The Turk famously bested Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte -when he tried to cheat, the automaton responded by sweeping the pieces off the board (Standage, 2004).

Charles Babbage played it twice, and though he was positive it was a hoax, the Turk inspired him to work on his computing machines, convinced that a machine capable of calculating could, in fact, be done (Standage, 2004).

One of the tricks the Turk performed was the Knight’s tour, a mathematical problem in which the knight (moving in its characteristic diagonal moves) must travel to every square on the chessboard just once. It turns out that there are endless solutions to this problem (although it is difficult), however there are a limited number in which the tour ends in a way that a final move would place it on the square on which it began, a ‘closed’ tour, and this is the performance the Turk was known for.

Knight's tour

Currently on my reading list is Georges Perec’s Life a Users Manual, which I was delighted to discover follows the format of a Knight’s tour (Gidley, 2000). Using the tour as a literary device, Perec builds the story by investigating, chapter-by-chapter, the rooms of characters living in an apartment building – a ten by ten block.

Life a user's manual

When I was growing up my dad was always trying to teach one of us to play chess. Arguably the most patient of our pack, he must have torn his hair out to discover that I had no interest in learning what seemed like endless rules. I remember he had an electronic chessboard that was designed so you could play chess alone. What a melancholy thought! I could just barely remember what it looked like, but with a little research and the help of two siblings I discovered it was called the Chess Challenger 7.

I want to call it the Turk of its day (1970s rather than 1770s), but that’s problematic of course, as it owes more to Charles Babbage than it does to Baron Von Kempelen, being more about technology and less about misdirection and illusionism. Writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clark as cited by Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, 2014). A chess playing machine from the 70s is very old hat when you consider the technology of, say, a smart phone, and yet, I couldn’t even build you a chess machine, let alone tell you how a smart phone actually works on a technological level. So despite the fact we take these things for granted a little, particularly now that chess games like this are obsolete, they really do represent magic to people like me.  Even though the Turk was just an elaborate disguise for an uncomfortable chess master, the mechanics of the hoax seem far more magical to the modern eye than the electronics of the Chess Challenger 7… in fact I find my memory wants to make it more magical than it was: “I can’t remember, did it talk?” I asked my sister.  In retrospect we’re fairly certain it didn’t, but somehow I can almost hear it say “Check Mate!” in robotic tones.

Chess Challenger 7

The Chess Challenger 7: was it possible Mum still had it tucked away in storage? When I asked, my mum was confident it was long gone, probably to a school fair, but as a consolation she offered me a smart leather folder belonging to my dad that housed a note pad and a calculator.

I’ve been thinking a lot about truth and fiction, hoaxes, copies and substitutes, and the serendipitous connections that link this to that. With all that in mind it seems fitting that I should go home to find the Chess Challenger 7 and come back with Dad’s old calculator.