alexandtheweb / blog

Machines and the music of making

I spent yesterday evening learning about the Happenstance project at the Lighthouse. The agency’s two resident technologists spoke about their efforts to integrate aspects of digital culture into the arts community.

As part of the project, and in an attempt to make the invisible practice of coding visible, the Lighthouse reception area was transformed by James into a “workshop”, complete with printouts and projections of code as it was being written, compiled and committed. “This is a working shop” tried to turn the almost furtive act of writing software into a spectacle of craftsmanship.

But on the way home Jane and I pondered if we – a generation of screen slaves – weren’t romanticising the idea of a workshop. Places of skilled craft were and still are filled with noise, pollutants and dangers. I still remember the gruesome tales of lost limbs, told with relish by the machinists I worked with in a biomedical engineering lab. And I remember the missing fingernails of our neighbour in Poland, who worked long hours in a seamstress shop.

That being said, James’ project made me think back to one of the highlight’s from the Ampersand conference I attended on Friday: the screening of Linotype the Film and what it said about the visible – or audible – aspects of the making process.

The film traced the linotype machine ‘s journey from its invention to its fate on the scrapheap, as told by its “operators”, past and present. Two things struck me during the screening. Firstly, the operators recalled working on the linotype with a fond respect born not only from a lengthy relationship with the machine, but also from the bodily dangers it posed and its intimidating learning curve. For anyone interested in usability this is a bizarre revelation. We no longer form such deep bonds with our making machines. Secondly, the distinct, visceral, mechanical racket of a machine built by a clockmaker made itself known almost from the film’s opening credits. Each of its sounds acted as a direct representation of some aspect of the line casting process. At one point during their story, the linotypists began to wax poetic about the “brass against brass” music of the “linotype symphony”, as if it had been the sweetest, most reassuring melody. It fine tuned them to the machine’s inner workings. It made them feel like an extension of it.

Linotype machine
Image source: Flickr

Perhaps they, too, were romanticising a dreary and dangerous toil. But after last week, I find the silence of my modern “making” gadgets deafening. I want them to sing to me of my efforts.