The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops is a speculative fiction parable about the end of the world with a story adapted from E. M. Forster and decor by Le Corbusier, shot in Chandigarh, India. A narrative collision between a story written in 1909 (The Machine Stops) and a utopian city constructed in 1960s post-partition India (Chandigarh) becomes a reflection on an imaginary opposition of designed world and nature. This design vs. nature struggle is part of a contemporary sense of crisis about the survival of our human-made world. In E. M. Forster's humanist pessimism resistance to the machine is a heroic venture where a cultured ideal of nature and the body is a coherent surround or source, or comfort. In this new work, Forster's nostalgia for an arcadian state of nature morphs into a contemporary conundrum where there is no longer an outside 'nature' to escape to, or a coherent 'body' to claim as primal. A single character (played by Ameer Fawaz Hamsa) walks restlessly through the interior and exterior spaces of an empty modernist landscape. He is the carrier of the narrative. A voice-over is composed of an amalgamation of texts from E.M. Forster and Le Corbusier. The Machine Stops has three versions: 1) a two-screen video-installation with surround-sound and a sculptural element reproducing Le Corbusier's podium in the Trench of Consideration at Chandigarh; 2) a temporary multi-episode covid-web version released during 2020; 3) a 40min feature video.

© 2020/21 Andrew Forster

La machine s'arrête, video 40min.

production: La compagnie andré forestier, Montréal

text adapted from:
The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster (1909) & Mis au point by Le Corbusier (1965)
recorded in Chandigarh, India, 2017

performed by Fawas Ameer Hamsa

voice of Le Corbusier - Ingrid Vallus
voice of Vashti (Eng.) - K. Handysides
voice of Vashti (Fr.)- Magali Stoll

sound of the machine - Nik Forrest

Excerpts from The Machine Stops used with the kind permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop on behalf of The Estate of E. M. Forster. French translation by Magali Stoll. Andrew Forster thanks Seema Gera, Deputy Curator at the Government Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh and the Tourist Office of Chandigarh for access to the Capitol Complex. Also thanks to Monique Romeiko and Suzanne Miller for creative support.

Andrew Forster web: --- contact: info(a)


In 1909, ten years before the Bauhaus was founded, integrating modernist aesthetic experiment into the designed world as the hopeful catalyst for social progress, E. M. Forster published a dystopian science fiction story entitled The Machine Stops. The Machine Stops creates a fictional world that might seem very contemporary to us. People live in isolation with their only tangible connection being through electronic devices. The surface of the earth is no longer habitable. The air is poisonous. Humanity has gone into a high-tech underground and lives in a massive network of individual habitation pods connected to a central machine, which provides for all human needs, both biological and social. A communication network allows the inhabitants to fulfill their intellectual imaginations (to attend and give lectures, listen to music, etc.), all without the necessity of actual physical proximity or contact. Hand-held screens transmit murky but adequate images and listening tubes distribute sound. Should real travel be desirable, consultation via the screen and the keyboard with The Machine allows the scheduling of voyages within the city by train or between the underground cities via a network of airships travelling high above the devastated surface of this re-imagined earth.

Kuno, the protagonist, makes contact with his mother, Vashti. He has broken the rules. He has gone to the surface of the earth on a quest for an authentic life, outside, beyond The Machine. He has been condemned by the authorities. Kuno is desperate to connect through direct experience. He has been caught and now must pay the cost. Vashti understands only that this transgression has ruined her son’s possibility for fulfillment. Later in the story the machine that makes this world possible slowly begins to fail. The air becomes noxious. Food lacks texture. Machines behave erratically. The automated schedules break down. Kuno's struggle for authentic life seems prophetic. The world is collapsing. Everything is collapsing. For a twenty-first century reader Forster’s romantic theme of spiritual and visceral connection is a humanism ("man is the measure of man" says Kuno) that is the most anachronistic element in the story. The evasion of the machine, through a re-connection to the bodily and the sensual, is the antidote to this crisis. In our own era of Junkspace (a term invented by Rem Koolhaas) and Junktime (as adapted from Koolhaas by Hito Steyerl) what could possibly replace it as a more articulate representation of embodiment within a post-humanist trope of crisis (where body and machine are one world)?

The Machine is stopping. The Machine Stops is a speculative fiction in the form of a video installation. It takes E. M. Forster's apocalyptic story and sets it in the Modernist monument of Le Corbusier's celebrated Capitol Complex in Chandigarh, India. Chandigarh is a city 'invented' in the 1950s as the embodiment of an ideal of art and design as socially transformational event. At independence the Punjab was split by British decree and shared between two new states. The city of Lahore, previously the capital of Punjab, became part of Pakistan. India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru envisioned a new and symbolically modern and internationalist (and non-colonial) city to replace it as capital of the Indian state of Punjab. Indian and western architects, most famously Le Corbusier, came together to design a utopian city, with residential areas for all levels of workers and functionaries, government and public buildings (schools, museums, universities), and an administrative complex consisting of the Assembly, High Court and Secretariat buildings, all from scratch. The Capitol Complex is considered a landmark of modern architecture and design (it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

This video installation, The Machine Stops uses the Capitol Complex as the location for a performance-video that is an exploration of the conceptual and aesthetic space of postcolonial modernism and proto-globalization in design. The main choreographic or performance element of the work is a single actor walking purposefully through the plaza spaces, ramps of the Capitol Complex and the interiors of Chandigarh's museums, articulating architectural space through movement. This character never stops moving through this designed-form as landscape, linking the architectural space and a narrated element of the piece (a voice-over). This moving human body is the narrative thread of the work. This cinematic convention of a perambulatory journey as narrative device is central to The Machine Stops, and bends the rigidity of E. M. Forster's linear narrative. The site of this perambulation is both a real space, and also an iconic image or artefact in the cannon of modern art and architecture history (images of Le Corbusier’s complex are present in most academic survey texts on modern architecture and art).

The narrated element juxtaposed to this choreographically activated site includes texts written by A. F. , excerpts from Le Corbusier’s Mis au point, and a large part of the short story by E. M. Forster. In his Futurist enthusiasm, Le Corbusier called the modernist dwelling a "machine for living" in his foundational architectural polemics published in L'Esprit nouveau beginning in 1921. The title The Machine Stops is taken from Forster's science fiction story, which describes a world where people live underground in technologically supported isolation. For this video work the setting for this story is like an abandoned city, at once familiar and strange. The work becomes a meditation on techno-utopias of the 1950s and 60s (Brasilia, Chandigarh, or Expo '67 in Montreal) and a reflection on our designed world as a ubiquitous culture of framed 'outcomes' in which we live. Le Corbusier's can be seen as a tabula rasa approach to design. He is a 'choreographer of form,' a set-designer of modern living. We now live in new era of the 'choreographers of information,' our data-trails algorithmically parsed for purposes unknown. The machine for living is a structure for behaviour: empty out the space; build the concept; re-admit the people – and new forms of behaviour, of dwelling, will result. Design invents the idea of a 'problem' as a challenge to be solved in a single gesture of conceptualization or building on a temporal and spatial background conceived as a blank, tabula rasa.

Le Corbusier's celebrated utopia becomes the setting for a dystopian speculative fiction told in non-linear fragments of language, image and movement. This isn't a BBC-style production; the video itself is a somewhat thrown-together digital landscape. It is relatively badly recorded – it is like a poor Merchant-Ivory production colliding with a nostalgic Hito Steyerl. If part of art practice in the designed world entails the fictive reproduction or re-making of real spaces, images and narratives, reproducing them in such a way that unseen layers of 'the real' come to the surface, or unseen possibilities become real, then this new The Machine Stops opens up spaces in all its component narratives, drawn as they are, both intentionally and inadvertently, from many sources. 'Creative disruption' and the creative economy, the distorted offspring of the culture industry, wrecks the horizon of common understanding. From the left-over junk space and junk time, we make a reassuring montage of image and hyper-layered information (reassuring because it is the texture of how we know). It is a junktime characterized by "a lack of duration, lack of attention, things going on simultaneously all the time" (Hito Steyerl). In this newly recovered space, do we now merely repeat, "Only connect … and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect..." (E. M. Forster, Howard's End)? Or is there something else to say?

This is one question posed by this new The Machine Stops. A related question is how we should re-speak or re-articulate the idea of outside or nature that we have so long imagined as an ideal other space to be recovered or returned to. Nature seems always to be framed as the outside of the artificial, the human-made world, by design. Technology, as the machine, is also personified as an outside malevolent force (a corollary for nature?), destined to control us – a familiar science fiction trope in which technology is alien and external to authentic being. Le Corbusier's pre-planned archaeological ruin (if we accept that this is the fate of his Radiant City) is part of this same story, not an alternative ending. It was built this way, all the way up from the designer's tabula rasa drawing-table surface. The Machine Stops plays on such surfaces, as the threshold where what disappears as the object appears (as Blanchot mysteriously suggests), as what is at stake as language reinvents world. The epic journey of this walking narrator is towards the threshold where designed world and imagined 'nature' meet. Can the nature that the narrator (and the narrative) may encounter at this threshold be returned as a reinvented language? (Andrew Forster)