The year is 1936. The film, Modern
Times. It begins in a factory, on an
assembly line, with Charlie Chaplin trying
to tighten bolts. It isn’t going well.
In 1958, Thomas Bayrle worked
as an apprentice in a textile factory in
Göppingen, near Stuttgart. The noise
and repetition of factory life was slowly
driving him crazy—until he started to sing
to himself. He matched his own murmur
to the rhythm of the loom, sinking into
the machine. Bayrle stopped fighting the
machines but synched his body to them,
like one clutch disk that approaches
another, enabling the gears to shift. In that
moment, he remembers hearing the rosary
from his childhood: the tender voices of
nuns, dressed in black, reciting the Ave
Maria in long strings of repetitive chants,
breathing in, breathing out.
This early experience was both
traumatic and ecstatic, but it made one
thing very clear: meditation and machines
belong together. Both are made of pure
After studying at the Arts and Crafts
school in Offenbach, Bayrle started
making books with his friend Bernhard
Jäger, and they founded Gulliver Press in
1962. Using hot-metal typesetting, they
made small editions of concrete poetry: a
single letter goes next to other letters to
form a word, words make a sentence, a
book, and end up as an entire library. And
then back to the single letter, made of lead.
Bayrle soon began building his own
kinetic sculptures—Joseph Beuys referred
to him as “the guy with the machines.”
He has made prints, collages, silkscreens,
and developed what he calls
superforms, images made of many smaller
images of themselves. In the 1980s, he
began printing images on fragile latex, and
asked friends to help him distort them on
photocopy machines—each person held
a corner and pulled in different directions
as he photocopied thousands of stretched
images. These modules came together as
collages, animations, and films.
His cardboard models of roads are
warped into infinite interlocking strips.
It’s as if millions of bodies in millions
of cars were using millions of tanks of
gas to travel across millions of miles on
millions of roads built with millions of
tons of concrete.
It’s what Bayrle calls the quality of
quantity, or the process of making pure
quantity into a quality. Quality is merely
the distribution aspect of quantity, as
Vladimir Nabakov once put it.
The context matters here: 1960s
Germany lived through its so-called
economic miracle, when, a few short
years after a devastating war, everyone
was buying shiny new toasters and
washing machines. This contradiction
involved a mixture of gratitude and
skepticism. Capitalism was a savior and
a monster—fascinating and repulsive.
During that period, Bayrle read Mao
Zedong’s On the Correct Handling
of Contradictions Among the People
(1957). He saw the Chinese “permanent
revolution” as a commitment to
continuous motor activity—a form of
weaving—and liked Mao’s dialectics
between unity and struggle.
But communism still looked pretty
much like capitalism. Both talk about
giving power to the powerless, but end
up absorbing and transforming them into
statistics. They both turn cars into traffic.
Traffic. For Bayrle, the world is made
of traffic: everything is always moving
and always stuck in place at the same
time. We work, buy, use, pray, fuck, drive,
make, cook, break, choose, decide—it’s all
traffic, moving at the rate of a trillion yes’s
and a trillion no’s per second. My work is
always 50-50, he says.
Traffic doesn’t care. It is indifferent. It
doesn’t discriminate, it only accumulates.
It isn’t extraordinary or terrifying, it’s
just mediocre. Grey. Like a sticky jelly
or a thick porridge, it spreads itself over
a collective of repeated individual units
and organizes them, fixing them into a
temporary configuration. Most people hate
traffic, but there is a certain intelligence to
its stupidity—it bends, swerves, and moves
in a rhythm that no single one of its units
can control. Call it the power of crowds
(Elias Canetti) or the mass ornament
(Siegfried Kracauer), but it reveals the
tendency for mechanized repetition to take
on generative and aesthetic properties.
People say we’ve shifted from an age of
production to one of consumption. At this
point, it’s become an age of accumulation,
of all of the above. We don’t choose
between objects or ideas as much as
we accumulate them, holding on to all
options. We don’t agree or disagree, we
filibuster and save for later.
Thomas Bayrle asks what is micro
about the macro and what is macro about
the micro. His work tries to locate where
the individual stops and the ornament
begins: cells and bodies, people and icons,
threads and woven fabric, cars and traffic,
prayers and religion, image and pattern,
sex and porn. The world is constantly busy
moving one into the other, with all of the
distortions this might involve or require.
The question becomes what to do about
it. From his time as a weaver, Bayrle
knows that straightforward rebellion or
didactic critique don’t go far. Best to
swim with the current. So instead, he
sinks into the machine, stays elastic, and
tries to match its rhythm: he distorts the
distortions, normalizes the normalizations,
compresses the compressions, standardizes
the standardizations, mediocritizes the
mediocrities, and repeats the repetitions.
I want to take consistency to the point
where it becomes inconsistent.
Society is organized in refrains, with
recurring patterns we learn to recognize
and rely on. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi
describes art and poetry as an attempt to
move language so that it deploys a new
refrain. This is what Bayrle does—he
perverts mass culture’s refrains.
His perversions are laced with politics
and jest—a bit like caricature. Whereas
most caricaturists exaggerate what’s
abnormal, Bayrle builds on what’s
normal—to such an extent that it becomes
disfigured and grotesque.
Christine Mehring calls it a
comedic clash of scale, tautology, and
Sherrie Levine once described her habit
of taking a photograph of a photograph
in terms of playing the same note on
two different pianos at the same time—
it sounds the same, but it also sounds
different. There is a vibration inside the
That vibration can be explosive. It can
agitate. It can be extreme. It can lubricate.
It can burn. It can force an error. It can
cause trouble. It can make bodies go soft
and go sideways. It can revitalize touch.
It can move anxiety into laughter. It can
make things change. It can stop making
sense. It can move it move it. It can