The house of mechanical animals

The new film Convento documents work by Christiaan Zwanikken, an artist who preserves and literally reanimates dead animals using recycled motor parts and pumps rescued from scrapyards. He then “breeds these new species in a 400-year old monastery in Portugal,” which his family has been restoring for the past 25 years.

[Image: A still from Convento].

As Film Threat describes the process, dead creatures found around the grounds are “turned into new beings” by Zwanikken—for instance, the film shows “a chattering bird skull extended on a metal rotating pole,” and later there are “rabbit skulls on the end of two servos that twist and turn and then unexpectedly bash together, as if they were fighting in the afterlife.” Elsewhere, a “metallic ant sits in an outdoor walkway, head twisting and listening for its next prey,” and all of this is amidst “some of the most beautiful backgrounds you can imagine,” with the monastery perched on a cliffside over a nearby river.

In fact, the film is made unusually compelling precisely by its setting: a monastery (where everyday life was once run like clockwork), a site of moral and religious significance now repurposed to house monstrous animals resurrected as machines.

Not all of the creatures just stand there, however, demonstrating their own ingenuity: Zwanikken has also built an elaborate mechanical donkey that walks around in circles, hauling up buckets of water from the monastery’s well. Indeed, the film’s director, Jarred Alterman, explains why the donkey was his favorite thing to film:

Hundreds of years ago, donkeys were essential creatures for farming. The donkey had to be blindfolded, and it walked in a circle for 12 hours a day, pulling up water from a 15-meter-deep well, probably exhausted from heat. It’s incredible that Christiaan was able to understand the sensitivity and the history and create a mechanical animal that made reference to the importance of the animal, and create an artwork at the same time. It’s more about the animals than it is about robots.

Zwanikken himself elaborates on how these creatures are made:

I like the idea of recycling, so I collect a lot of materials from dumps. But the crucial parts—motors, gears and bearings—I try to buy new so they can be easily replaced. I use servo motors, hydraulics, pneumatics, stepper motors, electromagnetic devices, propellers, water pumps, combustion engines—basically anything that can be used to create movement. To control them, I use microcontrollers, tons of basic stamps, animatronic software, PCs, remote control and custom-built electronics. I salvage a lot of electronic parts from other machines. Most of the creations are stand-alone and have their own little brain that I program. The more complex pieces are interactive and have motion sensors, radar or ultrasonic sensors.

They are part of what Popular Science calls, in an unrelated context, a “new robotic phylogenesis.”

In some ways, I’m reminded of Liam Young’s Specimens of Unnatural History.

[Image: From Specimens of Unnatural History by Liam Young].

Young has written that, “as we stalk the strange and unfamiliar landscapes of robotics, biotechnology and ubiquitous computing, we are beginning to encounter a new form of engineered nature that we are not yet able to categorize.” His taxidermied hybrids thus populate these landscapes, arriving somewhere between technical objects—invented not evolved—and wondrous new organisms, monstrous yet beautiful in their singularity.

Perhaps this is the next nature we all face: reclusive inventors releasing newly assembled drone-animals into forests, lakes, and hunting grounds around the world—as spectacular as they are unearthly—and your children’s children will wake each morning to the dawn chorus of precisely engineered winged machines, exquisite mockeries of birds our generation will be the last to know.

(Liam Young’s Specimens of Unnatural History will be on display as part of “Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions” at the Nevada Museum of Art, opening 13 August 2011. For a thinly related old post, see The House of Memory and Automata. Convento spotted via Filmmaker Magazine).

2 thoughts on “The house of mechanical animals”

  1. What an amazing idea…

    I work in Biomedical research currently (we don't do much biomedical engineering, but still), and it's amazing to see the progress and processes used today compared to yesteryear. We have indeed come a long way as a species.

    I think it's always fascinating how every endeavor that humans undertake begins with discovery first but almost always ends and is perpetuated in creation, not simple discovery. It's like we're just…aching to create.

    Of course, the thought of someday going to hunt for venison and then coming home with what in fact turns out to be a robot deer is also rather funny in a twisted sci-fi way.

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