The Useless Machine by Simon Withers

A black and white image of an outstretched swan on water.

The Useless Machine

In 1992, I produced an artist book, entitled “Free-fall.” (1) The sketchbook consisted of pages of frottage; each page reproduced a section of a long length of climbing rope. The accompanying text listed a recipe for the theory, and practice of free falling...the participant jumps into the void. “Don’t be upset about the parachute, I’ll have my wings soon anyway, big white ones, I hope it hasn’t gone all modern, I’d hate to have a prop instead of wings!” (2)

In the opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death we are thrown into the blue-black vastness of the cosmos on a journey through the void, past exploding stars towards our corner of the the mists of fog we hear the narrator, echoing a line of Caliban’s in The Tempest, “listen to all the noises in the air.”

Perhaps for we countless billions, time and the days breathed could be developing new appraisals as to how we each decide to structure our lives. As we become accustomed to this stir (3) and this looseness, will we begin to view our personal and collective future differently? Do we wish to return to the ‘old normal?” I hope not, and as a gentle aide-mémoire, with any precious gift, let us not make it different kind of tyranny?

...To interpolate on time a while longer...are we not here only the once? I don’t wish to believe we repeat the past...collectively or personally, the nagging feeling is (I fear) that I do... but I hope I don’t! The evidence is overwhelmingly in opposition to me! As I mull over some ancient notes, I wrote in 2013 that, Friedrich Nietzsche regarded hope as the cruellest of human torments...because of the prolonged suffering? Is this is the crux of who we are? When my art once communicated of the darkness I did not allow for hope...and may be what I am acknowledging is the fear of failure…yet, my work and I the contradictory demiurge is the antithesis of failure…might I be delusional? Profoundly we try to remain positive …oh Pandora* where is the hope! I am using light (photography?) to locate and to illuminate the darkness…the light snuffs out the blackness…before I can find my it a quixotic search? (4)

At this juncture, here on earth, the Universe may not look quite as significant and we have begun to turn inwards. Have we only ourselves to call upon? ...Oh for the love of humanity! As millions self isolate, may be time really is less significant, “ After all, what is time? A mere tyranny” (5).

‘Anomie’ prevails…as I withdraw from the self into the self so there is a breakdown of a social contract…the withdrawing process and the possibility of a return to a more natural state of survival…this Dope Bird is more bird than man and less a man than man…and in this state is the absence of a survival instinct.

As I sit perched…there is a state of deep yearning for something or someone...a cavernous sense of longing that may never return...a future loss...a desire for something that is other than the present and for something that possibly cannot exist...a profound sense of melancholia and a yearning for ideal’s desires...a personal search for happiness...the ideal is an error and the cruelty is the imagination.

Am I near? A transformation is part of my isolation a metamorphoses is taking place...the humanity of the spirit, two forces collide, mythology is a likeness of the present, look into the dark mirror and you will see stars! (6)


If you find that my blogs contain an abundance of Ellipsis and to which I have been frequently mauled...people don’t like to be left is a writing trait I hold dear...things fall short, the inadequacy and the prison house of language...I scrounge off Nietzsche. To find the right or the correct word...a feeling of longing...lingering...time to make connections between seemingly disconnected things...think of James Burke’s, acclaimed series Connections...will everything hold together and will it have meaning in the end?

The Useless Machine is something or someone that has a function but no direct purpose. I write of calcification, it could easily have been some form of psychological inertia. May be I’ll explore Freud’s, ‘Death Drive’ or...for we romantics a “Cupio Dissolvi”, a force in which an epic battle between Thanatos and Eros is unleashed...and in this life...I hear the swan song.

1 Free Fall (1992)

The A3 sketchbook duly listed an action. The idea in principle was for the contestant to stand at the top of a high cliff. Tied around the participant’s ankle is a climbing rope of some 120 feet in length. The determined drop would be short of the maximum length of the rope. At the exact point of the cliffs true height a flag would be attached to the rope marking the impact point. A gag is positioned around the participant’s mouth. On the gag are the words “Aghhh” these will have been artfully stitched on using a font... ‘I hate comic sans’ for example.

2 A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Squadron Leader Peter David Carter played by David Niven.

Made by The Arches, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, A Matter of Life and Death is a romantic melodrama hinged between two worlds. It was made at a time of great international turmoil. For me, I have been interested in the peripheries of place and space, the in-between...of things...sentences...sounds and the place where meaning collapses. One could suggest that the film actually unbolts with the ‘Whump’ of an arrow hitting the bulls-eye.

"Bring me my bow of burning gold,
bring me my arrows of desire..."

Jerusalem – William Blake.

I am prompted of ancient myths and fables...the utilising of ancient narratives are parables on the present...I will include more recent narration's, but let me lay a foundation with a work such as Ovid’s epic ‘Metamorphosis’ where forms change into new entities, often through violence or as I prefer traumas. Inflicted upon the prey (rather than victim) it is for we, a journey alone, to be transformed, to become anew and thus part of a natural landscape, the new scenery...a renewed vitality amid art and nature.

Other resent parables of the sublime in which I find the qualities that haunt and seduce me include, The Time Machine by H.G Wells. This reminds me that I am a mere helpless substance, which is pushed around through the course of time. If somewhat idealistically I like the notion that I could take conscious journeys whilst unable to escape the manacle of the present...should I choose to one such journey it would be the one that takes me to the point of absolute entropy, where everything collapses…the time traveler in the novella undertakes just such a journey. In some of my own work I also explored the pantheon to the far must I go to find solace and to reconcile? I have produced a series of drawings called blue prints; these speculate (through the use of diagrams and mathematical factual errors) my failed attempts to present my findings in a physical form…I wonder if this has some bearing on Derrida’s appropriated deconstructed notions of Grammatology? **

** See Ignace Gelb

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein the doctor’s creation (the monster or creature) could be about ascendency of one climbs a mountain or a tower (so to speak) so one is...The Monster (should the poor creature be called such) is not a threat to collective or personal revolution…perhaps this ties in with the notion of the dismantling of the egoic self. Dr. Frankenstein’s creation is the knowledge…compassionate and the alternative.

Kōbō Abe’s Box man is (I suggest) Kafkaesque, and adopts (amongst many themes) the idea of tracing self identity within a defined space, the story presents instincts of self-development as one undertakes individual self –emancipatory expeditions into nothingness and every-thingness. Agate’s*** ‘Ego’, a nine-volume account is discursive, anecdotal, journalistic, autobiographical, causerie and tenders musings and ruminations on the authors health and his times, a Pepys of the Twentieth Century! ...And what on earth am I solving?

What runs crossways within these labors is aggregated (for my drive) with Edward Gibbon and the ‘Decline and Fall...’ it is to some extent the irregular nature as to how each craft writer and shapes their respective works... they are idiosyncratic by I also? My perspective on these endeavours is the diminutive (the personal) and epic (the wider context).

***James Agate – an English diarist and theatre critic who in 1932 decided that he would start a diary to depict his life entire, giving place not only to his thoughts and personal occupations, but also his talk and correspondences with others.

The arrow was pure gold

But somehow missed the target.

Still, as some golden arrow trippers know,

‘tis better to miss Naples than hit Margate.

I first came upon this quotation in a record insert, included as part of the record sampler, London Pavilion Vol.1 (1987). I have on several occasions used this quotation myself when referring to my own errors...I could so easily have seized ‘In Memoriam’ by Tennyson!

Mike Alway’s pop fantasy label, él may never have produced a significant chart hit...however if you are interested in some of the artists who appeared on the label and on LP Vol 1, check out, Marden Hill, the Monochrome Set, The King of Luxembourg, Momus, Anthony Adverse and Louis Philippe.

3 Etymology: 19th century English slang term, the stir in stir-crazy means prison. By the early 20th century, stir had travelled to the United States and I first came upon it through Dylan’s lyric, ‘Hurricane’ from the album, ‘Desire’ (1976)

4 …Art has always held terrible beauty for me…I felt some time ago that I had a mind to go mad with…I wanted to believe that I had some sagacity to stop it from derailing me furthermore…now I am not so certain. There is a real possibility that some form of human ossification has been fashioned within and I have become horribly calcified…this time the surgeons scalpel can not scythe away my chaos…I am afraid, I am eternally malformed…a monster…but at this point I quote from another…it is 59m 27s into, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (59m27s)...

”The boy has a fine mind but it’s taxed...that’s the trouble, it’s a good mind...a weak mind isn’t strong enough to hurt itself...stupidity has saved many a man from going mad” (Doctor Frank Reeves played by actor Roger Livesey).

Demiurge – meaning artisan, craftsman and my case trying to place physical things into the world, as such, the verification that I exist!

*Simon look under the lid of the Jar!

5 Conductor 71 (A Matter of Life and Death) a roll played by Marius Goring whose role in the film is to conduct Peter into the afterlife.

6 Dear readers, you may begin to wonder where this is going! Look deep into your obsidian mirror!

It was by no means intended to be all about me...the selfish ‘I’. As I fell into the abyss I carried only an ignited lantern...diminished of energy from within. I existed...looking for the dark as I stumbled and grasped my way through a labyrinthine tunnel with little to suggest there was a nethermost point. Whilst in the cave the flickering light of my ever-weakening lantern playfully cast dancing shadows of imaginings and of realities...and what of these phantoms; for unquestionably they are not all of my creation?

Darkness falls...I have found it...absolute blackness, the totality of shadow, where all galaxies are compressed...there is no space in-between, shadow upon shadow as human cadaver upon human cadaver is flattened and squashed unto earth...strata’s of subtle density...and what of Seneca’s ‘road to freedom’ am I to descent...away from repression and control...if so then release is to fall upon one’s own sword...truth or delusional, an act of both selfishness and this self-sacrifice?

In my tableau, hot and apologetic, the roles of Apollo and Daphne are self-centric. Ravaged by my own feelings and expressed through intense emotions, my responses to the world are turned inward...

My own plight and exile considers an empathic relationship to the other; in this case it is the flight and plight of Daphne, it is to rearrange my self as to be within both forms at the same be nonaligned, to be complete and to be at odds with.

Outside, a state of grace...With the fall of autumn I began to sever limbs from the tree of life...was the goddess Puta* watching over me? I carousel around the tree...looking for entry to prune and to shape and to form. I cut to create new growth so the tree can be transformed. In this temporal state I began to gather up the sinews, forming two limbs...the arms of Daphne.

Inside: an unhealthy attachment. Holding each other arm-by-arm I take you into the bedchamber. I feel your weight as your limbs become unwieldy and you slip from my grasp.

* Puta = The Roman goddess of agriculture who watched over the proper pruning of vines, trees, and shrubs. Puta (literally means "whore" in Spanish, but depending on the context, it can also function like various English vulgarisms. It is often exclaimed in frustration or surprise.

Image credit: Simon Withers

Photograph taken: 26.03.2020

Post bathing ritual Mute swan

Location: The Ironmongers Ponds

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