Ode to the Appliance: Against Convergence Culture And The Speed of Technology

PSFK talks to Tom Richards, a sculptor working with sound and archaic electronics.

Two principles rule digital culture: speed and convergence (ease of utility). Simultaneously, we often find ourselves frustrated by the most mundane errors in technology because they thwart efficiency — the very reason we use them. Tom Richards is a sculptor working with sound and technology. His latest show Ode to the Appliance, opening at The Pigeon Wing in London this Friday, focuses on the errors that are inherent in technology to expose the inadequacy of our reliance on machines.

How long have you been an artist? How did you come to work with technology and sound?

I have always loved art and technology and music – but I had an epiphany in an electronics lesson once where I realised i could combine all three. That was when I was 18, so I decided to go to art school.

Your sculptures are framed as the opposite of convergent devices. Why are you working with technologies that go against the zeitgeist of speed and convergence? What makes this culturally relevant?

I make badly designed, over-styled, clunky and aimless machines with old technology. They are simultaneously an homage to those amazing times of sturdy over-engineered single purpose machines (think of a record player that looks like a sideboard and lasts for 30 years), at the same time as being a reminder of how inadequate machines are in comparison to ourselves. Therefore, they question how much trust we place in technology. It’s all beautiful, glorious and amazing — at the same time as being isolating and potentially an Orwellian nightmare.

I am amazed at how much people live their lives in a state of utter dependancy on gadgets. I am also often amazed at how unimaginative and ultimately pointless many ‘must have’ gadgets are. How much human and environmental damage is wrought by our artificially accelerated (programmed?) desire for technology. Where does it all come from and where does it all go?

In person, your sculptures appear quite playful and often even seem to be talking to each other. What is so relevant about the relationships you build between the different machine sculptures?

Jean Tinguely perhaps made the first mechanical sculpture which emulated love making (chariot series 1964-66). Like people, my works are both stand alone and inter-dependant. The randomness inherent in my works is amplified by their combination and interaction; I want them to have personalities — they might be lonely by themselves.

A lot of the interaction is based around a sound interface? Why have you gravitated towards such an interface?

I like the idea of a machine attempting music – not facilitating it or reproducing it, but attempting it. I also like how bad they are at it, and how they never improve with practice. They are all stuck in a rut which is the result of my design ineptitude. Its like giving someone a lobotomy and expecting them to become a genius composer.

So, how do you balance the sound aesthetic with the visual aesthetic?

I try and get the sound/functionality down, then decide what package to put it in. Sometimes they have to be anonymous and ignorable on a visual level and sometimes more imposing. I use both domestic and industrial casings for my electronic works, but in every case the nonsensical functionality belies the functional aesthetic.

While your subject matter can be dense and complex, your titles are quite funny and provocative. Can you explain your choice?

I am terrible at titles. I never know what to call anything. I deliberate and deliberate and usually go for the stupidest option.

Tom Richards

The Pigeon Wing

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