Sunday, 30 September 2018

Automata Lab

Maria and Georg Kroshniewitz lived in a small flat

in North London with their three children. Ever since

she was a small girl, Maria had made small moving

toys. Using parts of old construction kit games, she

would make windmills and cranes and trucks. When

she first met Georg, she kept this skill secret, not

wanting him to know that she had this deep interest,

deep longing to make moving objects. He was

visiting her one time and while they were talking of

an old movie they had both seen, a sound

came from the cupboard behind them, a whirring

noise that stopped, started, and stopped again. It

sounded like a kettle beginning to boil. Curious,

Georg asked Maria and though she tried to laugh

it off, Georg persisted and in the end opened the

cupboard and showed him dozens of automata.

He could hardly believe that Maria had made them

herself but it wasn’t long before she showed him

just how she could and told him how she had spent

years at it. He was intrigued and then bit by bit

became obsessed with it himself. They became

a couple and had three children and all the while

they made their little automata, moving now on to

little robots and more lifelike forms that walked

and danced. And all the time it was something

private and domestic and their children grew up

amazed and delighted by them but ultimately

taking them for granted. It was what they all did,

invent, make and play with automata. One time

the middle child took one to school for an open

day and it so happened that one of the parents

who came, worked in television and it wasn’t

long before Maria and Georg and the children

were showing their models and robots on a

TV show. In the modern way, one short sequence

from the show - where the robot danced beautifully

to a joyful samba song and then appeared to

slap the show’s host, went viral. Maria and Georg

were in demand all over the world. I say, ‘Maria

and Georg’ because the children didn’t want

to be part of it. No amount of pressure from

TV moguls, hosts of shows, and PR people would

convince them that they should take part in the

demonstrations and spectacles that were devised

by the TV companies. But, Maria and Georg pressed

on, using their old automata, making new ones,

devising new shows while the children, growing up

now into older teenagers, kept their distance. They

were supervised mostly by various au pairs, live-in

nannies, and cooks enabling Maria and Georg to tour

the world. The children had their own ambitions:

one wanted to be an archaeologist, one a jazz

guitarist and one an accountant. With their new-

found wealth, Maria and Georg created an

automata lab and started to push the technology

to its limits. Some of it was top secret as it

involved workmanship at a micro level. The point

of it all was the marriage between the old and

the new. And this was the charm. It was all a

fantastic success, until disaster struck and the

automata lab was burnt to the ground. At first it

was assumed that it was an accident. It had

a terrible effect on both Maria and Georg who

found that mentally and physically they couldn’t

pick it up and start again. They began to argue

and fight and bit by bit they each started to

suspect that the other had been responsible for

the fire. They each started to find motives as to

why they might each have started it, Maria

accusing Georg of envy, Georg accusing Maria

of greed and resentment - both claiming that this

went back to the beginning of their relationship.

In the end, they couldn’t bear each other’s

company any more and split. There was hardly

any wealth left, because the automata lab

company was over-capitalised and some kind

of dodgy financing structure landed them in

debt. At the same time, the child who wanted

to be an archaeologist showed symptoms of

a fatal illness. The separated parents were

desperately obsessed with the whys and

wherefores of their own destruction to be

terribly concerned with their dying child. She

eventually died at the age of 22 and following

her death, the jazz guitarist child came to

Georg and told him that the archaeologist

had confessed that she had caused the

automata lab to burn down. How was that

possible, said Georg? And the guitarist

reminded him of one of the automata that

the archaeologist had made in the time when

they were still doing shows together: a wonderful,

spluttering, jerking, stumbling, flying dragon that

breathed fire when controlled from a mobile

phone. She had waited her moment, and, in

effect phoned the dragon, and the result was the

conflagration. Georg asked the guitarist if he

knew whether Maria knew. ‘Of course, she

does,’ he said, ‘she always knew,’ he said.