Art in the Age of Technology

When thrashing out this display of archive and special books material for the Keiller Library in summer 2019, my colleague Fiona Menzies and I may have bitten off more than we could chew with Machine Gods: Art in the Age of Technology. How could we cram the history of artists’ interaction with machines and technology over the 20th and 21st centuries into only eleven small cases?  

So, we didn’t. Instead of a historical overview, we decided to pick out particular themes. If you came to see the display, you’d have found examples of artists working with and adapting new technologies – Fernand Léger’s experiments with film in the early years of the 20th century through to Man Ray’s adaptation of the commercial technique of airbrushing, or Marcel Duchamp’s use of newly-created plastics.

There were 1920s prints by Agnes Miller Parker and William McCance who adapted the visual vocabulary of the machine age – the cylinder, piston and crankshaft – to depict natural forms.

Agnes Miller Parker Pigsty 1926 © The Artist's Estate
William McCance Study for a Colossal Steel Head Dated 1926 © Margaret McCance

We also included examples of contemporary artists such as Betye Saar who use actual machine and computer components in their work to explore the connections between technology and faith.


Eduardo Paolozzi Man holds the key 1950 © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation. Licensed by DACS, London 2023
Eduardo Paolozzi Maternity 1946

Around the same time artists such as Martha Boto, Liliane Lijn and Jean Tinguely were experimenting with kinetic art, in which movement becomes a central component of the artwork: we’ve included footage of Tinguely’s 1960 ‘Homage to New York’, in which he created a noisy, brutish and explosive ‘self-constructing and self-destructing’ 27 feet high machine made from found objects scavenged from junkyards and skips.

But we were also keen to include contemporary artists who draw on their technological expertise to create artworks, such as Dave Murray-Rust (a Lecturer in Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh): the display includes the footage below of his and Rocio von Jungenfeld’s 2017 installation Lichtsuchsende, in which members of the public can interact with cybernetic flower-like creatures.

Patrick Tresset also kindly allowed us to use footage of his robots, programmed to create portraits of human sitters. You can view the astonishing footage below.

Keiller Library displays are supported by Players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

By Kirstie Meehan, 15 March 2019