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The Influence Machine is a multimedia installation which is staged outdoors. The work is comprised of seven video projections, each with its own audio track. The videos are projected onto a building and the trees that surround it. In addition, smoke machines are used to create a mass of smoke, onto which a video of a medium is projected. This medium speaks a garbled set of sentences in which it attempts to contact the technological pioneers Edward Gaspard Robertson and John Logie Baird. The other video projections include a talking light, a chorus singing and a technician’s hand. A further video projects intimate and cryptic texts vertically along the trunk of a tree, while the audio channels include sections of radio feedback and the sound of Morse code being transmitted. The installation fuses the work with the urban environment in which it is staged, spilling out into the city as the smoke diffuses. These deliberately blurred parameters encourage the viewer to move through the work, experiencing its different elements, and encountering the built environment in a different way.
Made in 2000 and first staged in New York’s Madison Square Park and London’s Soho Square, The Influence Machine was Oursler’s first outdoor video installation and included a specially commissioned score by experimental composer Tony Conrad. Inspired in its form by son-et-lumiere animations of historic sights and historical phantasmagoria, Oursler’s work explores the moment immediately after an invention in which the use of a given technology has not yet been codified by society. The Influence Machine also examines the psychological effects of what Oursler calls ‘mimetic’ technology. As he has explained:
I borrowed the term ‘mimetic’ from pharmacology, where it is used to describe that class of drugs which mimics psychological states or provokes heightened states of consciousness. In the same way, or perhaps even more effectively, technology creates a dream space that mimics reality.
(Quoted in Artangel 2000, p.56.)
The technological inventions explored in The Influence Machine range from discoveries made in the eighteenth century to those made in the twenty-first. The work derives its title from one of the earliest inventions referenced: Francis Hauksbee’s 1706 ‘Influencing Machine’ in which a hand-crank would spin a glass vacuum glove half full of air. This created a mysterious luminosity that had no practical application, but became popular as people associated it with talismanic powers. The work is also named The Influence Machine after a psychological condition of the same name identified by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk in 1919, in which the patient sees their body as an ever changing machine.
The Influence Machine also explores the viewer’s interaction with contemporary inventions. The audio for the talking light video channel is connected to a dedicated website, on which people can feed messages. In the Soho Square presentation this resulted in ‘declarations of love, imperatives, hellos, laments. Some kids typed in their messages then came to the park to hear it broadcast’ (quoted in Artangel 2000, p.60). In this way, the viewer of the work becomes further immersed in the machine of the installation.
Oursler has been interested in unconscious influence since early in his practice. This is apparent in other works by the artist in Tate’s collection, such as the installations Autochthonous AAAAHHHH 1995 (Tate T07056) and The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Never Seen 1995 (Tate T06989). As the writer Marina Warner observed, Oursler’s creation of large-scale immersive environments absorbs the viewer and reveals the influences to which they are unwittingly subjected:
Oursler isn’t claiming to be a magus. He’s a child of the Seventies, of the television age, the same age as systems such as cable and satellite and the web. The polyphonic aural universe fascinates Oursler ... In his art, he listens in and collects evidence of the senses in the altered conditions of consciousness that now prevail.
(Marina Warner ‘“Ourself Behind Ourself”: Ethereal Whispers from the Dark Side’, in Artangel 2000, p.72.)
Tony Oursler: The Influence Machine, exhibition catalogue, Artangel, London 2000.
James Lingwood and Michael Morris (eds.), Off Limits: 40 Artangel Projects, London 2002.
Denis Gielen (ed.) Tony Oursler/Vox Vernacular, New Haven 2014.