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Notes on M1 (1969)
David Bainbridge

Consider an alien being from another galaxy invited by a gallery entrepreneur to “show some work.” His culture knows no art to speak of and he therefore seeks the brocards operative for earth-artists. Thus he visits the National Gallery, Louvre, Prado, Guggenheim, etc., in an attempt to clarify what is expected of him (having previously found theses and letters of various artists of no avail). His observations perplex him and are of little use for he has encountered innumerable morphological1 kinds from which he is unable to adduce any parameter or isogeny of motivation. Upon reflection, however, it occurs to him that a fundamental condition operative in all the galleries he visited was the laissez aller manner in which the visitors were allowed to make their encounters of the artworks. Hence he decides he is required to manufacture a piece capable of generating this transient interest, and although it seems virtually any object so located in such an establishment would achieve this end, he is conscious that perhaps something more is required (a not unreasonable assumption on his part if only in the sense that his presence on earth and having established some communication attests to a high order of technical sophistication).

Thus he might formulate the following posit. – “It would appear that earth folk obtain some measure of gratification from the manumission of their locomotor activity, yet aimless meandering they seem to anathematize. So if I construct a system allowing unfettered locomotion and having some meaningful aspect as a product of these locomotions, I would violate neither condition. By using capacity switches to initiate some form of display I would have just such a system and would also gain some purchase on morphological contingency in that the sensors would be sculpture, their form, in part at least, being determined by the switch-gear.”

Before considering the details of this device there are perhaps two points to raise. One is the supposition that he would see the thing in terms of what is required or expected of him, the other is the manner in which he obtained his posit. These are obviously not unconnected since if one were not seeking requirements, one would hardly be obliged to adopt any particularly systematic method. On the first point, it is unlikely any earth-artist would see it in this manner, the suggestion that his activities are, or might be, so inclined as to meet other people’s expectations he would doubtless cavil. However, an alien might well see as a requirement the necessity for his work to exist within the range of tunable human perception. That the earth-artist has no choice other than to operate in this range makes it unnecessary for him to formulate such a notion since it is inconceivable that he might produce anything subject to a different thermodynamics from that governing him. Yet for an alien, it is possible to apprehend this as a concept, and in doing so there could occur at least one new aspect.

The second point concerns the alien’s proclivity for percept rather than inference. This, what might be called ultra-empirical method, comes about simply because that of all the powers one might conveniently assign to a fictitious alien, it serves to contribute little to the discourse to make them unreasonably magical2 and I have consequently simply subsumed a technical orientation. The alien’s notion that an observer’s locomotion is an integrant “issue” is similar to his idea of a sensory requisite only so far as he is starting with nothing so to speak. These issues are quite dissimilar if one considers that, whereas art may occur (albeit probably not as sculpture) despite the vitiation of the first point, and locomotor constraint apply. Not so were he to disregard the second point and fail to meet the sensory requisite. He would not proffer the first point as a statement seeking to uniquely define sculpture (though he might reasonably insist on its inclusion in one which did), anymore than he would accept its validity being certified by its acceptance by sculptors. Moore might or might not, Caro might or might not, two telephone calls would probably supply the answer, but what of Brancusi, Michaelangelo, Rodin, Smith, et al.? Rather it serves merely as a propaedeutic framework reminding him of his purpose.

He has said that he sees as necessary, “some meaningful aspect as a product of locomotion.” The implication here is that whatever form this meaningful aspect might take, it must be as an attribute of the system and not ordained. Accrediting qualities by ordination would be nonsensical in this case for, apart from having subsumed a technical orientation, we know nothing about this alien. We are in much the same position we would be on encountering work by Gabor’s Mozartian Man.3


The capacity switch-gear incorporates a silicon-controlled switch arranged to permit a flow of current when the capacity of a sensing plate is increased by the proximity of a person. Varying proximities are obtained by increasing or decreasing the size of the sensing plate, generally the greater the area of this plate, the less close a person need be for switching to occur. Fine tuning is achieved by means of a trimmer. When such a device is connected to some external circuit supplying a “display,” this will be switched on/off according to the human trafficking at, or in, the sensing threshold. Thus the behavior of this display is an attribute of the visitor-sensor (sculpture) system.

Sculpture: Technically, the sensing plate cannot be less than about 24 sq. in. and the proximity required for such an area would be about 2". Now the prospect of having a visitor approach to within 2" of a metal plate 6" x 6" is quite inconsistent with the alien’s observations. He had observed that a majority of sculpture was a good deal larger than this, and visiting traffic occurred at distances considerably greater than 2". Thus he either endeavors to find a mean between the sculptural Brobdingnagian and the sculptural minuscule and engineer the proximity via the fine tune (trimmer). Or, alternatively, he may begin with a positive notion of the kind of proximity he thinks consistent with his observations and calculate the requisite size from the visual angle he thinks it reasonable it could subtend. A somewhat lengthy, dubious, and in its own way, no less arbitrary process.

Display: The display consists of a turning/not-turning disc, the transform occurring on impingement at the threshold causing it either to start or stop, since he is not interested in gestural anthropomorphics it matters not which. A capacity switch would not normally be employed proportionately as its reliability would be difficult to guarantee. A light display might equally be used.

Software: Thus were this system to be used, on entering the gallery you would see two objects. One a metal plate 27" x 27", suitably supported in the vertical plane, its center about three feet from the floor and the second object some distance away consisting of a small box, a disc on the frontal face, supported about the same height. On approaching the plate, at about three feet, you might notice the disc begin to turn (or stop turning) and continue as you circumnavigate the plate and move off (to investigate the display nidus?), on crossing the threshold again the display reverts to its former state and, assuming no one else is within proximity, remains at this condition.

So far this might be the alien’s idea of a solution, it seems, however, not quite enough since there occurs a feature of an endiectic of this kind which is problematic and apparently a little unusual. The problem lies in the unimportance of the visual form of these objects and how some aspect of the system might positively attest to this fact, a point not so unusual provided the empirical origins are not forgotten.

Thus the hardware he might now install in the gallery might consist of two such plates and two discs upon the single nidus. These additions allow a choice of couplings (6) but in particular one with the requisite aspect through which visual criteria are rendered perfunctory. This is a cross-coupling employing an AND operation switch having display contingent upon the simultaneous encounter of both plates (sculptures), and the implication is strong that these sculptures have no per se meaningful attributes (within the system). Another (dubious) factor is the axiomatic banality, in the percept sense, of in excess of 730 sq. ins. of unrelentingly homogenous “galvanizing.” Consider also that, although all physical attributes of this complex are so to contribute to some function, in having a variety of 6 couplings, at any one time 5 are redundant and cannot be accounted for in these terms at that time. Thus what visual evidence there is of these couplings and that they appear to contribute nothing means either, they are dismissed as indulging whimsy and are superfluous, or as further evidence that no purpose is served by assigning visual predicates, or rather, a perfunctory ratiocinate results since no cognizance of that aspect on which the labor occurred is taken.

That the alien has prodromally articulated a desiderate to “operate within the tunable range of perception” yet seems to intimate that the visual capacity need not, indeed should not, be employed does not conflict provided a broad interpretation of tunable is allowed. In the broader sense it may be taken to mean the treatment of the visual capacity as a gross function, capable only of such statements as “something there and something behind and to the left of it.” Or as a course-tuner dealing with spatial resolutions. The acumination of properties, detail, pageant, and complex, would (in this sense) require fine-tuning. The posit suggests in this broader interpretation that the solution should be sensile, whereas the alien’s remarks on the unimportance of the visual form refer to the requisite abnegation of fine-tuning vis-à-vis his system.

So, in his one-man show, this alien from another galaxy presents some work, which perhaps, contrary to implication, is different in an important way from preceding art shows. If we regard the implication of these a posteriori methods as an attempt to establish a situation wholly concordant with previous exhibitions of sculpture, he would appear to have failed. In antecedent exhibitions, the number of people in the gallery (opening night apart), had little effect on an individual making whatever “readings” he might of the exhibits. In the alien’s case, however, not only has he endeavored to reduce meaningful “readings” to one, but the potential for making that reading is threatened the moment a second visitor enters the gallery, and thwarted should this second visitor maintain proximity. That the whole affair is rendered meaningless by a plurality of visitors is a departure from precedent. Such originality may be forgiven only if we accept the possibility that such were the conditions he observed, that is, he never observed more than one person at a time in any gallery he visited. However, having subsumed a technical orientation, such negligent induction, it might be objected, is difficult to explain.


* Reprinted from Art-Language, Vol. 1, No. 1(1969).
1 See Terry Atkinson, “Notes on M1.”

2 See Marvin Minsky, “Minds, Matter and Models.”

3 See Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future.