Artes Mechanicae: some thoughts on a platform of enquiry

The ancient canon of the mechanical arts offers a fruitful platform on which to question from an aesthetic perspective the technological premises in which our human societies are built. Air travel, digital technology and web interfaces have all contributed to a drastic acceleration of time-space compression in the past fifty years. To an ever more mechanically-mediated physical experience of the world, digital interfaces and electronic fluxes have added a surface of virtual layers on which additional and seemingly infinite new connections to reality are made. Design and engineering increasingly cooperate to define the imaginaries of the present, as science provides the tools to establish the aesthetics of the future. In this context, artistic practices can benefit from reversing the terms through which the creative industries have taken hold of our everyday environments. The category of the mechanical arts devised in the medieval period provides a fruitful ground to operate this reversal. First defined by the scholar Johannes Scotus Eriugena in the 9th century and popularised at the turn of the 12th century, the artes mechanicae underlined the contributions of practical arts such as agriculture, metallurgy, but also medicine and architecture to the shaping of the world. In recognising and exploring the practical mechanics of creation, contemporary aesthetics can find a path to unsettle the dominance of remote design agencies. For aesthetic production, a return to the artes mechanicae can unfold a triple interrogative movement: 1 an enquiry into the mechanics of creation, of genesis and the channels through which worlds come to be. To the multiplication of virtual layers and the constant sliding of signifiers from one to the other, a foray into the mechanics of creativity can stabilise, and possibly halt this sliding. 2 an enquiry into the social imaginaries of technological and scientific progress; in the age of the ‘post-human’ and social-robots, the articulation between machine and psyche is shifting from the monstrous visions of the Golem, to everyday banality 3 from a momentary immobilisation of multiple and multiplying fluxes (or a suspension, as a photograph can metaphorically represent), and from an exploration of the complex mechanics of contemporary physical orders, it might be possible to draw and encourage conscious understanding and imaginaries of socio-technological surroundings, beyond the flashing intensity of electronic and virtual realities.

(Gabriel Gee, 01.02.2015)