Mark Dery on 25 Jan 2001 22:23:27 -0000

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<nettime> BLADE RUNNER: Obituary for Just Merrit

<Andreas Broeckmann scooped me. Nonetheless, here's my coda to Andreas'
heartfelt eulogy to Just.>


According to the San Francisco-based mechanical-sound artist Matt Heckert,
the Austrian machine artist Just Merrit died Tuesday, January 23, from
cancer-related complications. 

Just was the raffish, real-life embodiment of the William Gibson-ian
techno-bricoleur---a wheelchair-bound machine artist who reanimated the
scavenged detritus of industrial culture to savagely funny, often
subversive, effect. According to an Ars Electronica 1996 catalogue bio
(badly in need of linguistic debugging), "Merrit's work deals with the
boundaries between human behavioral patterns and driving compulsion. Using
tools of noise [with the group Kruppelschlag] and mechanical sculpture
(Gyroscope), and fanning conceptual sparks to catch fire, he attempts to
track down the traces of human bio-mechanical dependencies." In an online
essay <>, Johannes Domisch observed
that Just's "hodgepodge/museum," Contained, "resembles a replacement-parts
depot of modernism, a genetic data bank of a post-constructivism never
consistently carried out. He administers fragments whose charm lies in
their lack of function..." 

Located in Linz, Austria, in the moribund Voest Alpine steelworks (formerly
the Hermann Goering Ironworks, a major producer of armaments for the Third
Reich), Contained was, in the artist's own words, "a conglomeration of
adventurous ideas, carved out with passionate obsession in the heart of a
steelworks, mostly due to me but never borne forward by me alone. For 54
months, this construction of man and material (with considerable wear and
tear on both) grew rampant like a malignant tumor at a location which I,
bourgeois junior high school boy that I was, took to be at a maximum
distance from my family home and my origins." In short, Contained was "the
place where life could be felt most directly," wrote Merrit.

In the mid-'90s, Merrit moved his base of operations from the Voest
ironworks to its current location on the Danube, near the Linz harbor.
There, he and Tim Boykett founded Time's Up <>, a
"laboratory for the creation of experimental situations." The
organization's modus operandi, pithily stated on its website, is the short,
sharp shock intended to spark "mindshaping discourse," in pursuit of which
Time's Up will not stop "at charging the barriers of brain damage." Art as
electroconvulsive therapy for unsuspecting bobos. 

I spent an inspiring evening with Just at Ars Electronica '96, in Linz. He,
like Jim Whiting, Chip Flynn, Liz Young, and the rest of the all-star cast
of amok tinkerers at that year's Ars, had been ghettoized in the suitably
gothic ruins of Voest---for fear, presumably, that their grease-monkey art
would soil the Armaniwear of the artistocracy, not to mention the
prospective corporate underwriters power-lunching at the festival's main
hall. Lit by the welding torches of other artists working out the
last-minute kinks in their contraptions, Just held forth from his
wheelchair, effusing about the works-in-progress and surveying the infernal
machines around him with something like paternal pride. 

Just's contribution (with the help of collaborators Sam Auinger and Rudolf
Heidebrecht) to Ars '96 was a propeller equipped with an electric motor and
two antique loudspeakers. The motors' struggles against the wind spinning
the propeller were converted into acoustic signals and transmitted through
the old loudspeakers, artifacts of propaganda campaigns. Located on the
site that was slated, in Hitler's dreams, for a future Museum of German
Electrical Engineering, Just's installation was, in the words of the Ars
catalogue, "a kind of anti-propaganda." It was also a gloriously noisy
monument to the slacker hacker ethos---the post-industrial article of faith
that work sucks, play rules, and what the world needs now is more
pointless, profitless basement tinkering that flips an index finger at
revenue streams and return-on-investment.

Heckert, who participated in Ars '96, remembers, "I've never met anyone
like Just. We first came into contact in 1988. He came over to my place [in
San Francisco], we talked for a while, and the next day he asked me if I
would make some aluminum wing/blades that would spring out from the wheels
on his chair, 'Ya know, like the ones on the chariots in BEN HUR.' At that
moment, I realized I was with a different sort of person." 

Heckert made the blades, mounting them on spring hinges so that Merrit
"could pull a lever and they would spring into position." In another,
equally BLADE RUNNER customization, Heckert attached blades from a small
hedge-trimmer to one side of Merrit's wheelchair and grafted a frame from 
an automatic pistol onto the other side. "He was very put off by people
pushing his chair without asking him first, which frequently happened in
public places such as airports," notes Heckert. "He wanted them to have to
think about what they were doing." 

Merrit's visit to Heckert's workshop turned into a one-stop shopping spree.
He rounded out his order with the purchase of one of Heckert's hand-held
flame-throwers. "Why would anyone want a hand-held flame-thrower?," wonders
Heckert. "I only asked him to assure me he wouldn't maim anyone with it and
that that wasn't his intention. He did end up using it on stage when
performing with Kruppelschlag." 

A wry critic of our born-again faith in technology, Merrit celebrated
breakdowns and runaways, uselessness and obsolescence. In so doing, he held
a lit match to the overblown gas-bag of cyberhype, reminding us that even
machines fail, ail, and ultimately grow old and die. Even so, he was no
nihilist: His was an iconoclasm with heart---a kinder, gentler irony, in
the spirit of Bruno Munari's useless gadgets or Jean Tinguely's suicidal
devices. A poet of the Rust-Belt Sublime, he made us see that dead machines
and decaying steelworks are the perfumed ruins of our age.

He found his own uses for things. 

- Mark Dery 

(Note: If anyone would like to publish this as an obit, let me know; I'd be
happy to revise it for publication.)

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