The Joey Machine

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In the summer of 2011, Australian artist Ian Haig collaborated with Kotoe Ishii, who holds an MFA from the Victorian College of the Arts, to create an installation piece inspired by the well known case of Joey, the “Mechanical Boy” treated for autism by Bruno Bettelheim at the Sonya Shankman Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago during the 1950s.

The Joey Machine is a recreation of Joey’s bed machine apparatus built to ‘live him’. The drawings, too, are a recreation of those produced by Joey while in the care of Bettelheim, which point to extended machine and bodily fixations. The Joey Machine, is not an exact replica, more a fusion of Joey’s fantasy world of machines, bodily fluids, shit and vacuum tubes.

The Joey Machine is a complex and precise technological apparatus as dreamt up by the mind of a six-year-old autistic child. The complexity of the machine and its variety of functions were partly unknown, however the primary function of the machine seemed to be designed to isolate Joey from being human. For Joey, his bed machine, and the other machines he created and imagined in his drawings, were his reality and anything outside of it were less than reality.

Joey’s condition was diagnosed as a product of infantile autism, brought on – it was believed in 1959 – by improper parenting. Autism often motivates those inflicted with it to isolate themselves from the world, from human emotions and socialisation. In Joey’s case this took on the extreme manifestation of literally becoming a crude cyborg incarnation of the body as an other, a primitive self-regulating human-machine system. His body connected to an imaginary electrical current assisting his digestive system while eating; his bowels evacuated with the use of vacuum machines; his sleeping enabled by his bed machine.

Made out of materials at hand – masking tape, cardboard, rope – such materials take on almost psychic possibilities, a crude collection of autonomy for the body. Steering wheels, radios, controllers, speakers and engine parts to drive Joey’s fantasy as he slips off into the very human state of sleep, with a fear that, without such contraptions, Joey would emerge awake as a human boy.

Haig’s full description of the project can be found here.

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