The Certainty of Machines: An Interview with Max Dean

In “Prayer for My Daughter,” William Butler Yeats advises his offspring to be “self-delighting, self-affrighting.” By that measure, the Canadian artist Max Dean is his adoptive son. Throughout a career that now covers almost 35 years, Dean has made one thing utterly clear: his impulse in making art has been to entertain risk, and, in the process, he has paid equal attention to both sides of Yeats’s prescription. How we, as viewers, fit into that frame is another of the central issues in his art. That fascinating relationship is immediately apparent in the way gallery goers react to a recent piece, called Table. On the surface, this table is an off-white, unadorned and unremarkable piece of furniture that viewers come across in a room. What they don’t know is that it is a robot and that it will begin to move towards them and respond to how they react to this unexpected relationship.

In one instance, viewers–men, women and children–demonstrate the full range of possible reactions; one perturbed young man seems prepared to engage the table in martial combat before he exiting the room; a family is initially wary and ultimately playful; a woman ends up dancing with the table in an unrehearsed pas de deux. But the most telling encounter comes from a pair of women who display mixed reactions to the table’s movements. When one of them puts her hand on the table, it abruptly moves away. “I don’t think it likes to be touched,” she says. Then her friend places her hand on the table in what comes close to a caress and the edgy piece of furniture doesn’t move. The response of the first woman is heartbreaking, the lament of anyone who has been jilted in love: “Oh, maybe it’s just me,” she whispers. But she’s not through with the table, nor it with them. The early ease that the second woman felt dissipates as the table becomes more aggressive and erratic. The two women decide to leave and the last thing we hear them say before they head out the doorway is “It’s freaking me out.” The women are classic viewers of Max Dean’s work. No one is let off the interactive hook in The World According to Max: you’re not left alone and you’d better be prepared to engage.

It is a standard he set for himself from the beginning. Dean is an aesthetic omnivore, and Vancouver, where he studied art history and began to make art in the early ’70s, was the right city to be in. “I was busy with Duchamp in a major way,” he says, “but I had looked at everything–Robert Irwin, James Turrell, Gary Lee Nova, Michael Morris, Willoughby Sharpe with *Avalanche *magazine. I was just this big sponge. I was looking at everything and I still look at everything.”

His early work showed the influence of Dennis Oppenheim and Marina Abramovic, where struggle, difficulty and the implication of danger were used to comment on the artist’s relationship to both art and the audiences that experienced it. In _____[sic], an event that took place at MontrĂ©al’s Performance Festival in 1978, he was bound, dragged across the floor and winched up in front of an audience like a hapless Houdini, whose escape came about only if the audience volubly intervened. In Prairie Mountain, he perched himself above a landscape of inescapable danger. In Drawing Event, performed at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1977, he attached himself by a rope to another artist, and both of them were dragged back and forth as each tried to execute a drawing on the wall. The performance was a teeter-totter of frustration and endurance that addressed, in physical terms, the difficulty of making art. As Dean says in the following interview, if it’s not intense and not difficult, then it’s not worth doing.

His work gradually shifted from an emphasis on the duress and discomfort he was undergoing, to implicating the viewer in this zone of difficulty. Made to Measure, an installation included in the “Pluralities” exhibition at the National Gallery in 1980, placed the viewer in a position where a phalanx of three, foreshortened Pintos advanced in a way that was altogether unpleasant. A year later in Pass It On, he constructed what he called “an installation for performance” in a MontrĂ©al medical building that engaged the viewer in a delicate game of choosing between degrees of privacy and display.

Nowhere is this question of choice more effective than in As Yet Untitled, 1992-95, one of Dean’s most challenging robotic works. The operation of the piece is simple: an industrial robot is programmed to pick up a family photograph from a box and offer it to the viewer, who can choose to save it–at which point the robotic arm deposits it into an archival box–or not save it–which allows the robot to insert the image into a paper shredder. To save any snapshot, the viewer must make a public intervention in the museum context. It is a vexing problem. Even though the photographs are not of our families, they uniquely carry someone else’s family history, and their fate addresses the value of memory as a civilizing, human function. As Dean says, the unique snapshot is the most “loaded” thing he could turn over to his robot, and to our discernment. In his artist’s statement for Be Me, 2002, an interactive video installation he collaborated on with Toronto artist Kristan Horton, Dean writes that his pieces frequently involve “the dual nature of power,” and the exercise of that power circulates around the issue of choice. It is what makes them, for all their technological sophistication, so profoundly human. Dean calls the robot in *As Yet Untitled *an “anthropomorphic machine” and he is right to do so. Machines are without morality. They are objects of applied function and not beings of ethical determination. What makes his robots so compelling and disturbing is that when we look at them, we see only ourselves. Robots ‘R’ Us.

There is one exception. Since 1985, Dean has been working on a robotic chair that is nearing completion. He continues to regard it as a work in progress; anyone who has seen it regards it as a wonder. In appearance, it is a chair that could sit with his table, undistinguished, humble to the point of being overlooked. That is, until it explodes in front of you and then, piece by mesmerizing piece, it reconstructs itself. I dream about it; I feel it has infiltrated my subconscious in a permanent way. I haven’t figured out why, but I can offer some suggestions. Chair *stands alone among the robots Dean has made in that it doesn’t ask us to choose between one thing and another. It absolves us from responsibility; it is not an extension of our ethical selves. What it does do is “prostheticize” our imaginative selves. *Chair doesn’t do anything other than delight us and, by extension, it excites our imagination. The president of Ars Electronica in Linz (where Dean showed his robot to the most advanced minds in the field of cyber-art), after seeing the chair’s cyclical self-destructive, self-reconstructive performance, put it simply: “The chair makes us believe again in the power of magic.” Delighted and affrighted, W.B. Yeats would agree.

Robert Enright interviewed Max Dean from Toronto on December 19, 2006.

**MAX DEAN: ** As a kid I always tinkered. The classic things, making boats and all that kind of stuff. We lived in West Vancouver a couple of hundred yards from the water, so I spent an inordinate amount of time on the beach, riding my bike. I didn’t really start making things until I was in my teens. I wasn’t the kind of kid who drew.

*BORDER CROSSINGS: ** So you didn’t show any obvious aptitude for art as a kid. You weren’t a Picasso in the making.

*****MD: ** No. But I did have the Jon Gnagy Learn to Draw kit and I did pretty well with that. But my real history with art began in high school. I went to a high school that was actually becoming a senior high, so we were seniors for four years. We were the oldest kids in the school from grade 9 through 12 and we ruled the school. We became a kind of power group. My best friend was this guy called Dave Aldrich and we were the Art Club. We became acutely aware that we could control the whole school through the media. We set up a pr machine and we made posters and handbills. If there was a dance, we’d do these extravaganzas. We did a light show in 1966 for an acid rock band called Moby Dyck that used liquid projections and film-loop projectors. I’d never seen anything like it but we were kicked out of the Art Club as a result of it.***

BC: So early on you were driven out by technology?

*****MD:** Yes. The art situation at school wasn’t very sophisticated, but when I was about 15, I started going to a small, commercial gallery in West Vancouver that was run by a quite eccentric woman. I can remember I was walking down the street on a Sunday afternoon with a girl who was a friend of mine. They were installing a show and we were looking in the window. I guess we stood there for quite a while, because the owner came out and said, “Do you want to come to the opening?” So I went. I remember there were all these people looking at paintings–the show was by a guy called King Anderson, who did quite elegant photograph and coloured paper collages. There was a 1936 Rolls Royce outside and there was champagne and it was eccentric and hip and all very ’60s. So I started hanging out at the gallery and eventually began installing shows for her. Then I started meeting people in the Vancouver art scene because she was connected in a loose way. There was a group called Intermedia and I took a photo class through them. I was hanging out at the Fine Arts Gallery at ubc. Dave and I would take the bus out. The curator was a very overtly gay guy and these two 17-year-old boys would show up at this place where we got the red carpet treatment for about an hour and a half. We were in the community on a very loose level, going to the ballet and symphony. We had an amazing two years, which continued when we went to university. ***
(See Issue 101 to read the full interview.)***