History, Notebook, Reviews

Review: The Machinery

I first heard about Sarah Angliss and Caroline Radcliffe’s performance piece The Machinery whilst I was working full-time at the University of Birmingham. A colleague was lucky enough to attend an installation at the Blists Hill Museum in Ironbridge Gorge and came back saying “I think you’d really like it. It’s inspired by the history and culture of the industrial revolution, work, and Marxism”.

So, slightly over three years and a global pandemic later, when I heard that a video of the piece would be shown at a couple of the Derwent Valley Mill sites, I reckoned that I’d go along.

The Machinery begins with a quote from the liberal – yet occasionally insightful – political economist John Stuart Mill who wrote in the auspicious year 1848 

“It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet have lightened the day’s toil of any human being”.

This quote reoccurs at several stages during the performance, which consists of Caroline Radliffe, who appears dressed in a generic and timeless woman worker’s costume of a long dark coloured apron, black shirt, and tied back hair, dancing steps from a traditional Lancashire clog dance reinterpreted for the performance. Behind her as she dances is projected a film sequence created by Sarah Angliss which initially consists of a moving steam regulator, before shifting to shots of the gears and other moving parts of factory machinery. Over the course of the performance the number of cogs and other moving parts projected increases giving the impression of an expanding system, indeed universe of production. 

The soundtrack to the performance – also created by Sarah Angliss – draws heavily upon the tap, tap, tap of the shoes that Caroline Radcliffe wears as she dances. The juddering motion of the dance, coupled with the inhumanly cold, rhythmic sound of machines and the cogs, gears and the tap, tap, tap of the shoes engenders a sense of alienation in the viewer. This is reinforced by the steady revolutions of the machinery projected behind Caroline Radcliffe and the blank, yet at times also fretful, expression on her face as she dances. Taken together as an observer it is clear that the dancer’s movements are not her own, she is buffeted to and fro by the mechanical whims and cold logic of the machine.

Towards the end of the performance the images projected change and the soundtrack shifts. Gear wheels, cogs and steam regulators are replaced by lines of computer code, pages of bank details and photographs of lines of office workers hunched over old fashion cathode ray monitors. All while the hum and whir of machinery and the tap, tap, tap of the shoes is augmented by recordings from a call centre. Presently the opening clip of the steam regulator appears again like a phantom, and the dancer partially collapses as if exhausted, or like a marionette whose operator has departed, ending the performance.

In a set of notes on the University of Birmingham website (the institution at which Caroline Radcliffe is a Reader in Drama) I was interested to read more about the connections between clog dancing as a form of expression and the industrial revolution. It is argued – convincingly – that cog dancing and the rhythmic, clipped, uncanny movements it’s practitioners make, stem from dancers during the period it emerged in early industrial England copying, enacting and playing with the unnatural rhythms and movements required to manage and work with machinery in early factory production.

The notes suggest this makes clog dancing “the earliest form of industrial music”. As a longstanding fan of industrial and industrial metal music, I can certainly see the resemblance in terms of it’s clipped, rattling sound like heavy machinery and the simple, straight disciplined way the dancers move, I can certainly see a kinship between the contemporary subculture and the traditional dances.

This raises questions about why workers in mills and other early factories developed clog dancing. Was it a means for them to process the unnatural way in which the disciplinary regime required to enable industrial production drastically altered their way of life, bent and tore at their bodies and wormed its way deep into their consciousness? 

There is a tradition within Marxism and post-Marxism represented by strands of Italian workerism for instance, which observes that change under capitalism is often driven by the resistance of workers to the demands placed upon them by capitalist production. Maybe cog dancing represents not a strand of this resistance in of itself, but rather a necessary step towards workers’ understanding of themselves and their situation which provides a necessary foundation for building workers’ resistance in the future? 

On entering the factory workers have to fit themselves into a cybernetic system in which they are required to work with automated machinery that they do not themselves control. Through creating dances which represent the rhythm and process of industrial work, workers are able to think through, conceptually grasp and process the experience of industrial labour. These cultural processes – as argued by the social historian E.P. Thompson – enables workers to begin to understand their individual situation and the situation of their class as a whole under industrial capitalism. This new self knowledge and understanding of their situation, expressed, comprehended and transmitted through cultural expression provided the basis for the development of workers’ organisations like co-operatives, trade unions and eventually political parties that had the means to take power whether through the ballot box or by other popular means.

Putting this optimistic reading aside, what the performance of The Machinery vividly shows is the effect work, production and having to enter an environment that you do not control to sell your time, strength and mind in exchange for a wage, has upon people. This is expressed in the unnatural erriness of the grinding gears that comprise the projection and the uncanny, trance-like figure of the dancer who is trapped in their realm and moves to their beat. Here the performance taps into the most primordial and primeval roots of Marxism. These are vividly expressed in the gothic aspects of Karl Marx’s Capital, where all of the ways in which capitalism engenders unnatural relationships between people and things are explored in great depth. In the field of artistic endeavour, the ramifications of this state of affairs was wonderfully and insightfully explored by Walter Benjamin when he explored how the nature of art changes in industrial society because the photographic process allows for infinite copies to be created. This is unnatural, and could be uncanny, but it is also liberating in terms of how it levels old hierarchies and structures enabling new freer forms of expression appropriate to a more liberated society to come into being. In this way, Walter Benjamin’s work points back to Karl Marx and Frederich Engels’ assertion in The Communist Manifesto that capitalism itself will tear apart the older forms in society. Unleashing in the process forces that will destroy capitalism and it’s attendant system of social relations along the way.

Within this strand of Marxist thought in mind it is possible to see the potential for emancipatory readings of The Machinery and the response it provokes in viewers. It has been over four decades since Eric Hobsbawm published the essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted” in Marxism Today. Just as in the earliest days of the factory system and industrial capitalism workers expressed themselves culturally and came to understand themselves and their situation through forms and practices of cultural expression like clog dancing, today workers and other marginalised and exploited people need means through which to highlight and explore their situation. By reviving and interrogating the early culture of capitalism and vividly linking it to the experience of work today, Sarah Angliss and Caroline Radliffe in The Machinery are making a contribution to this process.

By linking the entire arch of industrial capitalism’s development from the 18th Century when the first factories were built in Derbyshire’s Derwent Valley up to the data wrangling and affective labour which underpins the financialised often post-industrial capitalism of today, they highlight the essentially unchanging aspects of the system. This could engender hopelessness in the viewer who might wonder whether anything can be changed. However, as discussed earlier in this review, workers have always found ways through dance and other art forms to create a foundation upon which to build a shared culture and platform for effective resistance. In this way workers today can, should, and sometimes are, following the example of the early clog dancers before them and processing and reckoning with the experiences they suffer at work and what they have in common. Sarah Angliss and Caroline Radliffe’s work is a part of this, drawing attention as it does to the – often gendered – physical, mental and emotional toll work exerts upon people. Showing the video of their performance in the places where the factory system and industrial capitalism was born leads us to question this long standing state of affairs. Then to go back home to our everyday lives, everyday consumption and our workplaces to think about how we can create connections and solidarity so as to challenge the inhuman mechanisms and structures that constrain our lives.       

I Saw The Machinery at Strutt’s North Mill Museum in Belper where it is on until 31st October 2021. You can also see it at Arkwright’s Mill Museum in Cromford between 27th October and 31st October 2021.