Jeff Koons‘ “Apollo Kithara” (2023) was one of my highlights of the exhibition “Machine Room of the Gods” at Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt am Main. This colorful and more than two meters tall statue depicts Apollo playing the kithara with an animatronic snake right next to him. The snake moves to the simultaneously playing sounds of a kithara and modern pop songs. I already wrote about some aspects of the exhibition in my last blog post and will focus on one – the interrelatedness between technology and art – here.
I personally like art that combines seemingly conflicting elements, and Apollo Kithara does so in several ways. Despite knowing that most Ancient Greek statues were probably painted, I found it somewhat surprising to see such a statue in vibrant colors. The sounds of the kithara in the background, which fit with the instrument Apollo is holding, simultaneously harmonize and clash with the pop songs. I also found it thrilling to see the tension between the replica of an ancient statue which I connect with millennia-long immobility and the mesmerizing movements of the animatronic snake.
The conceptual separation of technology from art we know today has only been made in the 20th century (Brinkmann 2023, 15), and the exhibition clearly demonstrates that the technological ingenuity of certain objects has astonished people throughout time. Insights from my research project on humanoid robots show that this astonishment remains a crucial aspect of currently used technologies. The fascination these objects evoke can be incredibly productive when it serves as a source of inspiration for artistic engagement or further technological development. At the same time, I argue that it is important not to confuse our imaginations with the material reality of these objects. Demystifying technological objects that astonish people is an important goal of my work on robotics and AI, and it often surprises people to hear that it is not a particularly new one. One of my predecessors, so to speak, was Henri Decremps who described the functioning of several well-known automata of his days in the book “The Conjurer Unmasked” in 1788.
I could, unfortunately, not find any information on how the movements of Apollo Kithara’s snake are technically implemented, which I would have found very interesting to know. Personally, I would also have loved an element of interaction with the snake – maybe based on sensors that measure the visitors’ movements or other aspects of the environment, similar to, for example, bleeptrack’s “Plant Human Interface” project. At the same time, it was a great experience to just stand there and watch the snake’s majestic movements, to be an unseen and unnoticed visitor to this statue as it simultaneously danced and stood immobile.
Brinkmann, Vinzenz. 2023. “Wie unsere Zukunft erfunden wurde: Eine Einführung in die Frankfurter Ausstellung Maschinenraum der Götter.” In Maschinenraum der Götter - Wie unsere Zukunft erfunden wurde: Eine Ausstellung der Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 8. März bis 10. September 2023, edited by Vinzenz Brinkmann, 14–23. Berlin, München: Deutscher Kunstverlag.
I recently visited the exhibition “Machine Room of the Gods - How Our Future Was Invented” at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt am Main. The museum specializes in sculptures, and there were three aspects I found particularly noteworthy in the exhibition: that a Eurocentric science history is insufficient if we want to describe humanity’s technological progress, that humans have imagined future technologies since (at least) antiquity, and that technology and art are often interlinked (Brinkmann 2023b, 17).
In relation to my PhD project, I especially found the exhibition’s discussion of the last two points fascinating. Seeing exhibits that show that myths from, for example, Ancient Greece already included imaginaries of technologies we still encounter in modern science fiction was definitely a highlight for me. For example, you can see a depiction of Prometheus tied to a mountain with an eagle eating his liver every day as punishment for giving humans the technology of fire. According to the Argonautika, the eagle was crafted by Hephaistos, the God of metalworking, and was machine-like with the feathers on its wings resembling the oars of a ship (Mayor 2023: 66). In other words, this myth is about an eagle-shaped autonomous drone which flies to and from a mountain in regular intervals to terrorize poor Prometheus.
I also found it intriguing to see how some ancient technological objects aimed at predicting aspects of humans’ physical surroundings also referred to the cultural context in which they were made. The Antikythera, for example, not only quite accurately computed and predicted the position of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets known in Ancient Greece in the first century BC (Pinotsis 2007, 217–18) but also when the Olympic games would take place (K. Efstathiou and M. Efstathiou 2018, 31). This object is, by the way, also the artifact that Indiana Jones is looking for in the latest movie (Mangold 2023). If this motivates you to try and find the Antikythera as well: The original is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, but if Frankfurt is closer to you, the exhibition in Liebieghaus shows a fascinating video detailing the different parts that were revealed in scans of the object.
Throughout the exhibition, it is hard not to compare the depictions of imaginaries and the technological objects on exhibit with the technologies we currently imagine and live with. For example, the replica of al-Jazerî’s goblet clepsydra from the 12th century (Brinkmann 2023a, 212) is a stunning stopwatch functioning on a hydraulic mechanism. While I very much appreciated the ingenuity of the mechanism, I also couldn’t help but notice how much more convenient it is to use my smartphone for that task. Jeff Koons’ work “Apollo Kithara,” one of my definite highlights of the exhibition, also combines aspects of the past with our present. But enough for now, I will write a separate blog post on Apollo Kithara, including some thoughts on the interlinkage between technology and art. So come back soon for that!
Brinkmann, Vinzenz, ed. 2023a. Maschinenraum der Götter - Wie unsere Zukunft erfunden wurde: Eine Ausstellung der Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 8. März bis 10. September 2023. Berlin, München: Deutscher Kunstverlag.
Brinkmann, Vinzenz. 2023b. “Wie unsere Zukunft erfunden wurde: Eine Einführung in die Frankfurter Ausstellung Maschinenraum der Götter.” In Brinkmann 2023a, 14–23.
Efstathiou, Kyriakos, and Marianna Efstathiou. 2018. “Celestial Gearbox.” Mechanical Engineering 140 (09): 31–35.
Mangold, James. 2023. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.
Mayor, Adrienne. 2023. “Das Imaginieren von Automaten in der Antike: Mythische Vordenker.” In Brinkmann 2023a, 63–76.
Pinotsis, Antonios. 2007. “The Antikythera Mechanism: Who Was Its Creator and What Was Its Use and Purpose?” Astronomical & Astrophysical Transactions 26 (4-5): 211–26.
As co-leader of The Safer Fieldwork Project, I will be moderating a roundtable on risks and well-being in fieldwork at the Conference of the German Anthropological Association this Thursday (July 27th). Together with the speakers, we wrote an article with first impressions of what we want to discuss there, so have a look at our publication on boasblogs if you are interested to learn more.
Raising awareness of the importance of fieldwork safety is incredibly meaningful to me. At The Safer Fieldwork Project, we argue that researcher safety should be considered an integral part of research preparation and practice throughout the project (see the position paper of The Safer Fieldwork Project, forthcoming). We argue that this is beneficial for the researcher themselves, as well as for their project.
In recent years, more and more academics have started to make the personal consequences of traumatic experiences during fieldwork a topic. These accounts show that such incidents are not isolated and that the negative impact on the person’s physical and/or emotional well-being can outlive the research project for years.
Carrying out fieldwork in situations that entail risks for the researcher beyond a level that is reconcilable with their individual physical and/or emotional well-being also hampers their abilities to conduct research. This is true for their capacities to actively and openly engage with their research field, and to use the insights they gained in the writing phase of the project. I am convinced that we gain more thorough insights and write better papers and theses if we consider our own well-being as an important part of our research.