Spaghetti by Samuel St-Aubin
“I like rice. Rice is great if you’re hungry, and you want to eat two thousand of something.” – Mitch Hedberg
Samuel St-Aubin is an auto didactic artist, who makes what I can only describe as machines that perform utterly useless tasks with persistence and precision.
Neurosis and art are not new bedfellows; although I am not an art historian, I can easily trace its origins as far back as the paintings and etchings de Goya, and Franz Xavier Messerschmidt’s “character head” (self) portrait busts in the late 18th and early 19th Century; a growing appreciation for the art of the insane, and outsider art more generally, as talismans to an emotional world of human complexity and variation, in the earlier half of the 20th Century; and machines, that if their functions are personified, display what could be interpreted as confusion and disappointing fulfilment of their assigned tasks, within our own era. (I think of examples like David Rokeby’s The Giver Of Names, which bestows “poetic” but purposeless computer-generated descriptions of everyday objects put in front of its camera lenses, which highlight the discrepancies between human vision, which we take to be attached to a myriad of social and psychological conditions, and machine vision and algorithms, which do not suppose to have emotional investment in the results that they generate.)
Samuel’s works do not quite embody disappointment or confusion (the machines he creates do the tasks they do very well), and for all I can guess at looking at what they do, they may very well be performing experiments that may have benefits that I cannot know (I’m reminded too, of Larry Sultan’s and Mark Mandel’s 1977 book, Evidence, which put the strange and mysterious looking technical and instructional photographs from institutions, research facilities, and government offices, in the decontextualized realm of pure looking, if not seeing). They do not for me, solely manifest dream visions or hallucinations of an interior human world, made concrete through images created in conventional pictorial materials and ends. His machines look like machines, they act like machines; they perform motions that we expect machines to do, like measuring things, moving things, sorting and counting goods and materials in quantifiable and repeatable ways. Yet his works consistently do things that we cannot comprehend the purpose or rationally predicted outcomes for doing. One could imagine that they are the archeological remnants of an extinct civilization that grew increasingly dysfunctional, alongside its growing technological sophistication; machines that keep clicking and whirring, and performing fruitless tasks because there is no one left to turn them off, once and for good.
But we are in the here and now, and removed from the industrial and commercial realms in which we would expect to find robotic workers, and located as they are, in the context of silent observation and contemplation that art typically demands of us, we are perhaps, left with the irresistible temptation of ascribing human psychological traits to Samuel’s devices. (Is it a requirement to understanding art, that we personify what we see and experience?).To my mind and seen from that point of view, they demonstrate tendencies best described as, and perhaps simply are, obsessive compulsive and more generally neurotic, in the extreme. Like any obsessive behaviour that I am aware of (or have engaged with), the actions that are performed, are intended to exorcise and expel the very impulse that drives the action in the first place; the repetition of actions, its slightest variations demanding that the whole sequence be started over again to ensure the exact result sought, the relief from or abandonment of the goal, once exhaustion sets in, or something finally breaks – they are all there for me, one way or another, in Samuel’s ballet of troubled machines.
Prosperity by Samuel St-Aubin
Take, for instance, Prosperity, in which an automated tweezer (a kind of stand in for a human hand), patiently moves one grain of rice from a seemingly disordered pile, and places it into a neatly ordered grid or other grains, seemingly to no practical purpose or much fanfare.
(I could just as well cite Spaghetti, which consists of a device for “measuring” the tensile strength of spaghetti strands, or Table Spoons, another instrument created for the seeming purpose of making eggs do things they aren’t supposed to do… ..)
Much like helplessly looking on at a person you’ve begun to care about run through their dysfunctional routines, to stand in front of the Prosperity machine (like I did recently at the 5th Elektra BIAN, the biennial of digital and electronic arts in Montréal) and watch it slowly doing its meticulous busywork, made me want to scream at it, first out of confusion, then out of a kind of despair and frustration, then finally out of the pain of recognition for my own incoherent and self-defeating behaviours. Even though nothing in the machine’s actions changes, you may feel, as I do, that watching on as it performs the somewhat inexplicable actions it has been tasked with doing over and over and over, feels transformative, something like going through the passage of a story alongside its characters – your outlook changes, perhaps you start to see parts of yourself in the characters, perhaps you start to relate to them, and you change your mind about both what you think of them and how you see yourself.
Tablespoons by Samuel St-Aubin
I grew up with two tales that have haunted me since childhood: Pinocchio and Frankenstein. It wasn’t until later adulthood that I realized they are the essentially the same story; a shitty little wooden puppet who wants more than anything to be loved as a real boy, and a completely dysfunctional monster who wants nothing more as an adult than to find love. Neither subject created himself, but both are cast into the world alone, to stumble through the lonely task of how to manage rejection and disappointment, and crucially, to keep working, literally, for the amusement and enrichment of the creators of their conditions. Samuel’s creations, for me, enact the likely outcomes of these two fables, should their protagonists have escaped the flames or a last minute magical transformation, and had to live the rest of their lives as everyday schmucks. Neurosis creates the conditions for sustaining illusions (something that goes well in art): namely, that an unacceptable action can function indefinitely as a passable substitute for something that is missing, but that can neither really be found, nor really manufactured. Until the illusion can’t hold, and the action can’t pass for substitution anymore. The spaghetti stick eventually breaks, the egg sometimes falls off the spoon, the tweezer will one day drop the rice grain in the wrong place and fuck everything up, and people one day or one way surrender in resignation from their dreams and struggles.
As I think about my own regrets (something that I, like many people these days living in relative isolation because of the pandemic, do even more of these days), about the next rent cheque coming due, about my defeats and missed chances, and about a broken heart, it appears vividly and explicitly to me, that Samuel St-Aubin’s machines don’t really talk about machines. They talk a lot about people, as they render explicit the neurotic tics and twitches that life’s sorrows, failures, and day-to-day obligations, funnel its casualties into performing as coping and survival mechanisms.
Samuel St-Aubin est présent dans le paysage des arts électroniques depuis 2002. Il a collaboré à la production du travail de plusieurs artistes et de collectifs au Québec. Depuis quelques années, il met de l’avant sa propre démarche de création. Ce technicien en électronique investit les objets du quotidien d’une réalité nouvelle. Il insuffle à ses créations une autre dimension qui va au-delà du réalisme utilitaire de l’objet, en les détournant de leur utilisation première, bouleversant ainsi radicalement notre relation à l’objet. D’une précision sans équivoque, ses œuvres nous mettent directement en relation avec la poésie du quotidien qui se découvre dans la simplicité de l’existence.
Samuel St-Aubin has been part of the electronic arts world since 2002. He has helped produce the work of a number of Quebec artists and collectives. For the past few years, he has been focusing on his own creative efforts. The electronics technician reinvents everyday objects. He injects another dimension into his creations that goes beyond the utilitarian reality of the object, by diverting them from their primary purpose, radically disrupting our relationship with the object. With unflinching precision, his works let us tap into the poetry of the everyday, discovered in the simplicity of existence.