It’s hard to know how to categorise Novelty Automation in Holborn, an area of London known for its weird and wonderful exhibitions (see the Hunterian for instance). Is it an arcade? Well, there are arcade cabinets, of a sort. Is it an art exhibition? Er… no, yes, maybe. We’ll open that particular can of worms later. Is it an experience, like an escape room or a piece of promenade theatre? It certainly shares many characteristics, but the sheer physicality of the machines on display seem to jar with the ephemeral nature of those forms of entertainment. It’s probably best to think of it as the shed of an eccentric and brilliant engineer, who has thrown open his doors to a frequently delighted and bemused public.
That man is Tim Hunkin, famed for his Under the Pier Show at Southwold, which has served as a kind of parody of the seaside arcade since 2001 (and given the decline of the arcade into endless penny falls and one-armed-bandits, has arguably outlasted them). Novelty Automation opened its doors in 2015 to provide the denizens of our great metropolis a chance to glimpse the inner workings of Hunkin’s mind, and the results are fantastic.
Like stepping off the lift at floor 7 and a half and entering John Malkovich’s mind (platform 9 and three quarters for those of you of the Hogwarts generation), you immediately know you’ve entered a magical place where the normal rules don’t apply. Like the bizarre sideshow booths of a nineteenth century circus, full of strange fancies like zoetropes and fortune telling machines, like the one immortalised by Tom Hanks in Big, the modestly sized room is packed to the ceiling with strange gizmos, the air filled with the sound of whirring gears and clanking mechanical parts.
Each of the machines on show is a meticulously crafted and ingenious thought experiment. The kind of thing an engineer down a deep rabbit hole of conversation might come up with in the pub after too many absinthes, only this particular engineer has invested the hundreds of hours to construct each of these one of a kind machines. Each machine has the equivalent of a spoiler, a kind of pay off (sometimes several) that will make you grin from ear to ear. Hunkin is an arch trickster, who, just as you feel you’ve reached the end of the experience, throws another sucker punch at you. Without wanting to spoil too many of the 18 machines on show, I do want to introduce you to one or two so you can get a sense of the level of eccentricity we are dealing with.
The first standout is a garish 1970s sofa, attached to a flying carpet and set in front of an old TV monitor, the kind you’d have to bang to find the reception. This is Microbreaks, an inexpensive holiday for the armchair traveler, both a jab at vacuous reality TV shows like A Place in the Sun and English parochialism. Seat yourself in the chair and it will rock back and forth to simulate a flight and a harrowing bus experience on crowded French roads, all while an animation in the ramshackle style of A Town Called Panic (the ingenious French animation that also featured in a line of Cravendale milk adverts a decade ago) plays out on the monitor to really immerse you in the experience. When you finally arrive at the beach the chair tips back and the innocuous lamp on top of the TV opens to reveal a heat lamp (why go on holiday, after all, when you can turn yourself an unhealthy shade of orange in the comfort of your own tanning salon?), before the video runs in reverse and you find yourself back in reality.
Other machines see you loading nuclear reactors, simulating a divorce (see the below video), playing a paparazzi navigating a drone around a scale model of a Hollywood mansion, getting frisked, and attempting to steer a crane magnet full of cash past the noses of financial regulators. As might be obvious by now Hunkin’s machines are brilliantly satirical, playfully mocking the outrageous excesses of celebrity culture, political and economic policy and modern life. The latest machine, i-Zombie even throws what feels like a futile punch at the Goliath of mobile phone addiction, and confiscates your phone at the end! Hunkins machines are unafraid to violate your private space (the frisking cabinet is particularly good for this), steal your possessions (temporarily at least), and poke fun at your insecurities, but, like any theme park, you willingly submit to this ordeal when you step through the doors (or stick your unshoed foot into the dark hole of the chiropodist machine).
Another thing that is apparent everywhere you look is just how unrelentingly analogue everything is. Although the machines are fundamentally driven by computer controlled timers and motors, every other element is produced, as laboriously as possible, using mechanical methods. Gears mesh and turn, hydraulics clunk and flywheels whir. Even the animations are painstakingly produced with stop motion techniques. The Small Hadron Collider perfectly sums up this approach. Playing like a traditional pachinko machine if the ball bearing enters specific slots, scientific discoveries are made. The player can take the won bearings to the desk and exchange them for a Nobel prize, embossed on a foil sticker – even here Hunkin can’t resist a subversive history lesson, reminding us that Alfred Nobel, the scientist for whom the peace prize is named, was himself famed for the creation of dynamite. Rather than take them back to the machine, situated a mere five feet away, the proprietor then pours them into a contraption on his desk where they are spat one by one up a pneumatic tube, where you can watch them cross the ceiling, like so many industrious ants in the insect house of Colchester zoo, back into the cabinet.
Its such eccentricities that analogue technology lends itself to. Digital technology knows only binary operations – ones and zeros, ons and offs – but with analogue technology there is a huge shading of states in between that can be employed for humorous effect or serious reflection (and Hunkins machines masterfully mix the two, as is apparent in his irreverent photoshopping of world leaders seated at his various machines attest). This is why, I feel, videogames struggle with humour so much. Because the core affordances of the medium struggle with the nuances required to create a good joke, with its multiple layers of meaning. Hunkin’s machines suffer no such limitations.
But is it art? I hear you ask, remembering my opening statement. Well, Hunkin has a machine that nips that particular question in the bud whilst mocking the art establishment in the process. Any object can be placed in the slot at the bottom of the ‘Is It Art?’ booth for the automated art critic to examine and give a categorical answer, like some kind of cultural ‘magic 8-Ball’. Given the level of craft and the complex social reflection on offer at Novelty Automation, it’s tempting to try and turn the machine on itself and proclaim Hunkin as a true artist, in a world in which that term gets sorely abused (as much by the art world as the internet).
But through this machine Hunkin, who surely thinks of himself more as a playful tinkerer than an artist, has rendered the question moot. Art is what the art establishment wants it to be, essentially whatever is framed within the context of a gallery. By extension it is what powerful cultural gatekeepers believe art to be, and it is quite tempting here as a gamer to see the art critic caged and made to perform for money by Hunkin’s devilish contraption as none other than Roger Ebert himself (its actually former Tate manager Sir Nicholas Serota), who so famously reignited the ‘are games art?’ debate (debacle? Imbroglio?) a few short years ago. Fundamentally it doesn’t matter whether these are art, because Hunkin’s machines, taking their cues from the eighteenth century satirists he admires so much, have blown a very large raspberry at the establishment of which the artworld is a part.