New York

Matt Heckert

Germans Van Eck

Matt Heckert’s Mechanical Sound Orchestra, 1989-92, bears about the same relation to music as the shrieks emitted from the Brazen Bull, an ancient torture device in which a victim was roasted alive. (The screams emitted from this brass effigy of a bull were meant to approximate the beast’s bellowing.) Heckert’s two-hour performance was not necessarily unenjoyable, though by the end of it I found myself grinding my teeth.

Heckert—a former member of Survival Research Laboratories, the techno-terrorist art gang that staged war-game spectacles of killer automata—controls his “instruments” from the console of a Macintosh computer. The collection of machines in this ensemble includes Oscillating Rings, 1989, large gyroscopes whirling perilously on a steel tabletop that produce a sound something like a railroad engine (their pitch, moreover, ascends or descends with the speed of their motors). There is also the Rotolyn, 1990, a piano wire that screeches across a rotating cylinder and sounds like metal fingernails scraping a metal blackboard. Each of three Resonatos, 1989, old water heaters in envelopes of rubber, roars like a lion when its rubber membrane is punched in and out by pistons. An amplification system intensifies the bone-scraping effects of this ensemble. But is it music or is it torture?

During Heckert’s performance, clusters of people gathered around the machines to watch them work. A fascination with moving parts, no doubt, has long caused people to stare at automata, toys, clocks, and Vaucanson’s Duck. However, Heckert is careful to differentiate himself from other machine artists like Jean Tinguely. In a recent interview, he said, “There’s a fundamental difference between what I do. . . [and kinetic art]. Kinetic just implies it moves, and generally it’s a representation or caricature of an existing real world situation or group of mechanisms. My mechanisms exist for a reason—to make the sound they make and move the way they do. They function. They do a job.” Heckert’s machines look like what they do. However, is it not precisely by appropriating this functionalist logic that they come to resemble—and perhaps to parody—the no-frills efficiency of industrial machinery? Is it really such a “job” to produce sound? Machines may work, but isn’t music played?

The Mechanical Sound Orchestra represents a détournement (as the Situationists used to say), a redirection of the machine’s potential away from simple commodity production and toward something else. After all, for industrial machinery, sound is merely a waste product. Consequently, much as Heckert builds his machines out of scavenged parts, so too he salvages industrial noise from the scrap heap of the sound spectrum. Of course, he is not the first to find music in aural waste—in 1913, the futurist Luigi Russolo published The Art of Noises and gave performances using such shrill-sounding devices that audiences begged him to stop playing. No doubt, the beauty of such noise is subjective. To some, Heckert’s machines may be as torturous as the Brazen Bull. Could these machines be possessed by a diabolus ex machina? Perhaps, but the demon in Heckert’s machinery could be no more evil than whatever malignant spirit propels technological “progress.” Heckert’s achievement is precisely to make machines that do not work; let The Mechanical Sound Orchestra play!

Keith Seward