Gaby Peters  
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  James Hutchinson // My Nose Has No Dog

When my dog, Frank, was twelve weeks old, he was finally allowed to leave the boundaries of my apartment and shared back yard to explore the neighbourhood. After his initial excitement, the reality hit home as he stood on the top step at the front of the tenement building and took in his surroundings. It was not as expected. Not only was the world considerably larger and noisier than he thought, there were far too many new smells to filter for what would eventually become a sensitive and discerning nose. He was terrified and he shrunk, trembling, into himself.

Dogs are, of course, ubiquitous within the security, defence and medical industries due to their ability to distinguish between different odours. They can be trained to identify narcotics or explosives amongst more pungent smells and through dense materials, and they can also detect the early signs of lung cancer on a patient’s breath through whatever they’ve been eating or smoking. But dogs being living organisms that require expensive training and daily care, the natural capitalist desire is to replace them with machines as soon as possible. In theory, a device that breaks smell down into its constituent parts should be relatively straightforward – odour is, after all, simply chemicals evaporating as a substance breaks down and should therefore be subject to analysis like anything else. In practice, however, a reliable synthetic device that can perform in real world situations appears to be some way off. Because of what it is designed to replace, such a device remains intrinsically connected to the idea of a dogs nose but, unlike pollution-detecting robot fish, the mechanism itself is disappointingly unlike the replicated organism. It is, in the end, a simple plastic box full of electronics with a simple digital display on the outside that provides coded readings.

It is tempting to think that a synthetic dog’s nose designed by Gaby Peters would look somewhat more eccentric, but in truth I believe that it would not look a whole lot different to the ones designed by scientists in university labs around the world. The difference, however, would be in its behaviour. Rather than gathering cold, hard readings of the chemical components of smells, Peters’ nose would be designed to replicate Frank’s total meltdown on the top step. On picking up the many signals the machine has been built to recognise, the complexity of the task facing it would cause it to panic and react unpredictably, running counter to what its operator expects from it. The paradox, of course, would be that the sense of dread was hardwired in - the machine would live only to fear the world.  It is a paradox that we have seen it before in previous works, most clearly in Peters’ Plate Spinning Machine, presented at the Glue Factory in Glasgow in 2010. This is a machine built specifically to be doing more than it is capable of, and therefore being unhelpfully high maintenance to gallery staff, who are afraid to turn their backs should this be met with the sound of crockery crashing to the floor behind them. It is attention-seeking and demanding in its ridiculousness, and reliably unreliable in its ability to carry out the task for which it appears to have been built.

For me, Peters’ machines seem to be exploring a distinctly Western anxiety that has been heightened by the global economic crisis. They combine within them the inevitable feelings of precariousness that come with an increasingly deregulated and flexible labour market and the demand for technological solutions to every problem.

  The machines do not, however, present solutions to any recognisable problem, they simply offer to share our anxieties and reflect our sense of alienation back to us. They do this not only by displaying alarming behaviour, but also by utilising forms that should offer us a comforting sense of nostalgia. The plate-spinning machine is made using an eclectic ensemble of kitsch early & mid 20th century furniture and tablewear gathered from charity shops and online thrift stores such as e-bay. As viewers we’re asked to balance the warm feelings associated with spending time with elderly relatives as children, when life was apparently simpler and more stable, with the sense of panic we feel in an accelerated and uncertain age. The machines are clear and forceful and yet they are as confused about their role and their sense of time and space as we are, a jumble of memories, ideas and mental states.

A further example can be found in No Milk Today, a machine designed over thirty years too late, but one that would never have found investment for mass production back then either. Unwieldy in scale, the machine’s display shows the phrase “no milk today,” but its design appears to allow us to change the message, presumably to a request for milk. Alas it does not, and after a short time, the display clicks onto its next message automatically, which is, again, “no milk today.” The work is inspired by the 1966 song of the same name by Herman’s Hermits about a relationship break-up in an English working class neighbourhood. The title derives from the note one would leave out on the front step for the milkman when no milk delivery was required, and the song utilises it as a publicly visible sign of an empty household. Peters’ machine references this emptiness as an ongoing situation – time after time, day after day, No Milk Today endlessly displays its lack of need. It also references the mechanisation of the processes that have driven the milkman out of business. Refrigeration being considered a basic need in every English household has reduced the requirement for a daily delivery, as has the ubiquity of the supermarket and the private car. Nowadays, of course, the local shop is under threat for similar reasons but with the added competition of internet grocery shopping – a further example of people once more being replaced by technology and mechanised distribution systems. So again there is a sense of nostalgia, a machine built for an earlier age (it does, in fact, look as if it were built in the 1960s) but where the phrase it displays might have implied an empty household back then, today the emptiness is on the opposite side of the doorway – the outside of the dwelling. It is a message to no one.

Perhaps Peters is passing her anxieties, fears and disappointments about the modern world onto her machines – by constructing objects that exist to be alienated, her own sense of alienation is vanquished. As a flexible worker herself, though, the relief from anxiety that comes with the completion of a work is short-lived, and she remains in a perpetual state of mental displacement. I know how she feels, my work here is coming to an end, and I must move on to the next thing. It’s probably a good time to stop though, Frank is mithering me to take him for a walk – his third of the day. At least some of us get over it…