Working with sound and video, Oursler conceived The Influence Machine as a kind of ‘psycho-landscape' in the centre of London's media industry. Soho Square is located very close to the house where television pioneer John Logie Baird first demonstrated his prototype for the television in the 1920s, and Oursler's title for the work refers to early descriptions of television as an "influencing machine".
Stream-of consciousness monologues scripted by Oursler were spoken by different figures appearing and disappearing as video projections on on trees and smoke. A chorus of young men chanted from an old hospital overlooking the square; a fist hammered repetitively on the wall of another building. A figure appearing in the smoke was “the medium”. Her monologue made reference to key names from the history of disembodied communication including Etienne Gaspard Robertson, pioneer of phantasmagoria, who founded the first moving image theatre in a Paris crypt in 1763, Samuel Morse, one of the inventors of the electric telegraph in the 1830s, and John Logie Baird.
From the telephone to the television to the internet, the ‘inﬂuence machines’ of the modern media have been one of the primary tools of communication and information - of sounds and images being transmitted from one place to another in, or close to, real time. Oursler's work delved into "the dark side of the light", offering a haunting take on the ghosts which have always lurked in the machine of the media.
Following its first presentations in London and New York in October/November 1999, The Influence Machine has been presented in a number of different cities around the world, most recently in Manchester in 2011 and Adelaide in 2013.
This video excerpt documenting The Influence Machine as presented at the Whitworth, The University of Manchester is available to watch on Vimeo. Image: Installation shot of The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
Shamans and priests, doctors and healers, scientists and seers, alchemists and astronauts, artists and tricksters all: each with their different agendas, all after the same old riddles, conjuring the unknowable as manifest with the consensual authority, chicanery and conceit of their esoteric crafts. For this post-evolutionary ape's first protocultural gestures, be it looking to the skies for the face of god or painting in the caves to visualize the magic of a successful hunt, the need for answers is of the same root as our capacity to make up our truths as we go along. And when you're wielding generalities, speculations, superstitions, and methodologies that are at best myopically reductionist, as the validating proof of some transsubstantial cosmological certainty, well, you best have some skills in the sleight of hand and work in gestures that are grander than the practicalities of life itself.
Image: Bystanders explore the projections within Soho Square during The Influence Machine, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
A conversation between Tony Oursler and Louise Neri
New York City, May-August 2001
Louise Neri: A few years ago, you embarked on two ambitious projects simultaneously: Timestreams, a mapping of the origins of technological imagination and its discoveries, which was realized as a project for the web. And The Influence Machine, an outdoor son-et-Iumiere which was presented in New York's Madison Square Park and London's Soho Square last Fall. How did they both come about and how have they informed each other?
Tony Oursler: I compiled a timeline entitled I hate the dark, I love the light for my Williams College retrospective in 1998 because I was fascinated by how technologies like electric light, film, optics, radio, and the codification of the rainbow interrelated over time. I found myself being lured back into the historical labyrinth by a number of interests - the invention of television in particular - and then I had to keep investigating. My general theme was mimetic technology, that is, technology that could be perceived as a direct extension of psychological states.
LN: What do you mean by "mimetic technology"?
TO: 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.
Images: Two young children stand in front of a smoky apparition during The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
Ethereal Whispers from the Dark Side
In the spring of 2001, an American scientist, in London for a conference, made a startling claim on the Today programme of the BBC: transplanted organs could transfer memories from one person to another. He knew a little girl who had received the heart of a murder victim, and was thereafter able to recall the circumstances of her donor's death. She had even identified the murderer. The programme's presenter was incredulous, and challenged the guest with all the considerable forensic skills he could muster. But the scientist stuck fast to his vision of transferred consciousness, which he called 'cellular memory'; he was standing by it, against the views of almost all transplant doctors and patients, none of whom have reported any such possibility. What was more revealing, however, was the interest in 'cellular memory' by a self-consciously balanced, highly esteemed serious programme; that this alternative thinker wasn't penned up in the pages of Bizarre or the Fortean Times, but was being given prime time. His appearance showed how deeply our ideas of person and self have altered since the unique, individual body-soul integrity that I for one was brought up to believe in my Catholic girlhood.
Image: The Chorus projected onto a building during The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
A free publication looking at the evolution of virtual technologies and their relationship to what Oursler calls the spirit world.
Available to read online via Issuu or download for free below.
Images: The text 'Spirit' projected onto a tree during The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
Stream-of consciousness monologues scripted by Oursler were spoken by different figures appearing and disappearing as video projections on trees and smoke. A chorus of young men chanted from an old hospital overlooking the square; a fist hammered repetitively on the wall of another building. A figure appearing in the smoke was The Medium. Her monologue made reference to key names from the history of disembodied communication including Etienne Gaspard Robertson, pioneer of phantasmagoria, who founded the first moving image theatre in a Paris crypt in 1763, Samuel Morse, one of the inventors of the electric telegraph in the 1830s, and John Logie Baird.
Image: The Medium projected onto a smoke during The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
In this conversation Artangel Co-Director James Lingwood and Whitechapel Gallery Director Iwona Blazwick discuss The Influence Machine alongside Tony Oursler's visual language; from his characteristically low-tech set designs, inventively assembled from brightly painted cardboard and household objects, to the use of long fixed-camera shots and claustrophobic close-ups reminiscent of his projected doll pieces.
You can listen to the talk on Soundcloud.
Installation shot of The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000. Photograph: Dennis Cowley
Blurring the boundaries between the organic and the artificial, the work of renowned New York artist Tony Oursler has awed and unsettled spectators in cities around the world.
He's perhaps best known for his use of video footage of human faces projected onto spheres, dolls and other three-dimensional surfaces. The results are riveting: sculptural objects that seem to be alive, returning your startled gaze as they mutter, twitch and scream. Psychological disorder, the relationship between mass media and the human mind, youth culture and wireless communication are among the themes evoked and explored in Oursler's vividly surreal imaginings.
Images: Installation shot of The Influence Machine in Soho Square, 2000 (left) and portrait of the artist Tony Oursler (above). Photographs: Dennis Cowley
There are strange forces at work in our technology. Progress hasn’t made us immune to weirdness; it’s just changed the scenery. — Simon Grant, The Evening Standard, 25 October 2000
The Influence Machine is concerned with essence rather than solidity. Over on the west side of the garden. illuminated chemical smoke pours out of machines accompanied by the voice of a medium. ‘Oh, the noise, the noise, the noise is killing me,’ he cries, before pleading: ‘Mommy, Mommy, I’m here. Don’t leave me. — Richard Cork, The Times, 10 November 2000
Large human heads hover in the air, disembodied and pale. They appear in the trees, in balls of smoke and on the buildings like lost souls looking for an exit. One face pulls out ectoplasm from his mouth. A giant fist looms out of the darkness and starts knocking on the side of a building... This is not a nightmare. It is The Influence Machine. — Simon Grant, The Evening Standard, 25 October 2000
Though Oursler’s piece is heavily influenced by son-et-lumiere works, there is no logical narrative progression. Instead he will confront us with video and sound fragments, all dotted around the square simultaneously. Rather than dolls, it’s the trees, buildings, and – as was suggested at the time of going to press – clouds that will act as screens for Oursler’s disquieting projected faces. — DF, Contemporary Visual Arts, Issue 31, November 2000
The Influence Machine is part of The Artangel Collection. Since its initial presentation in 2000, the work has been re-presented multiple times, including at the Whitworth, The University of Manchester in 2011, George Square Gardens, The University of Edinburgh in 2016 and Birmingham Cathedral in 2017.
Who made this possible?
It was developed with the Public Art Fund in New York and originally installed in Madison Square park (October 2000) and then Soho Square, London (November 2000). The work was co-commissioned by Becks and supported by London Arts, the City of Westminster, The Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation, The Henry Moore Foundation, The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and with the special help of Tom Bendhem and Anita and Poju Zabludowicz. The Influence Machine is included in The Artangel Collection, a national initiative to commission and present new film and video work, supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Presented in London with the support of London Arts Board.