The influencing machine in art and psychosis

The ever-excellent Fortean Times has an article about an exhibition that showed some of the most important works in the history of visionary and psychiatric art which depict the mysterious ‘influencing machine’.

The term was coined by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk who noted that the delusions of people with schizophrenia often involved them being influenced by a ‘diabolical machine’, just outside the technical understanding of the victim, that influenced them from afar and is operated by a shadowy group of the person’s enemies.

The exhibition is partly drawn from the Prinzhorn Collection, which was started by the German psychiatrist Hans Prinzhorn who collected art work by asylum inpatients.

Unlike his contemporaries, he didn’t assume the interest was solely that the work reflected the mental state of the patient, but collected them for their aesthetic value and, in the process, discovered some amazingly creative artists.

His subsequent book, Artistry of the Mentally, was hugely influential and was an inspiration to Jean Dubuffet, who wanted to capture art as it appears ‘in the raw’, away from the influence of art schools and the art world.

Dubuffet began to collect what he called ‘art brut’ (raw art) and suggested that people who worked outside the art world were ‘outsider artists‘ – to which now whole galleries, magazines and academic conferences are devoted.

The Prinzhorn Collection and the Collection de l’Art Brut are now two of the most important collections in the world.

The Fortean Times article discusses a recent Prinzhorn exhibition that focused purely on the ‘influencing machine’, with some truly spectacular pieces from both mainstream and ‘outsider’ artists.

The exhibition is, appropriately, dominated by the Air Loom, the first known example of an influencing machine, which was detailed in eerily precise technical drawings between 1800 and 1810 by a Welsh tea-merchant named James Tilly Matthews, at that time confined in Bedlam (Bethlem) as an incurable lunatic.

Matthews’s plans showed a machine fuelled by barrels of magnetised gas and ‘putrid effluvia’, and powered by Leyden jars and windmill sails, that wove invisible mesmeric currents which, beamed at a human target by its sinister operators, filled the mind with alien voices and nightmarish visions and could be programmed to convulse, torture and even kill.

In an inspired and classically fortean move, the installation artist and crop circle pioneer Rod Dickinson has turned Matthews’s hallucinatory blueprints into reality. The result is an inscrutable piece that fills the main exhibition floor, towering ominously over the spectator. On one level, it’s a sober and ‘authentic’ assemblage of 18th-century technology, with oak panelling, brass fittings, hooped barrels and tanned leather tubes: a period piece, yet also brand new, as if fresh off the assembly line and poised to hiss and rumble into life.

As an aside, I was inspired by Tausk in a couple of papers I wrote on the interaction between psychosis and the net, where I discussed the appearance of the internet in paranoid delusions as the modern day incarnation of the influencing machine [pdf1, pdf2].

Link to Fortean Times article ‘Shadow of the Air Loom’.

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