Deus ex Machina
Andrew Dawson

October 7, 2017

As the play continues, the drama becomes tied up in its own drama. Each character struggles to overcome the logic of the plot, driving themselves to further conflict. Entrenched in their roles, no-one can see any potential outcome. The audience begins to wonder: will the play continue forever? Will they still be shuffling awkwardly on their marble benches by the time dawn arrives? Is nothing to ever happen again? The plot is unresolvable; at this moment, a figure appears overhead. Swooping over the stage, lighter than air, the masked figure delivers judgment upon the characters, undoing the impasse and changing the story for ever. The figure is God, or a god, and they are delivered to the action by means of the 'mēkhanḗ', a wheeled stage machine that allowed actors to be hoist into the air via ropes and pulleys, swung into a weightless flight over the action.

It's from this piece of ancient Greek stagecraft that we have inherited the term 'deus ex machina', or 'God out of the machine', a plot device by which the unresolvable conflicts of the story are resolved by the sudden and incongruous introduction of a powerful new dramatic element, a revelation, a change from nowhere. Once realised, retreat to the past, the storyline before the interruption, is inconceivable. Established as a key convention of ancient Greek tragedy, the device is still an important device used by authors and playwrights. In 'War of the Worlds', a seemingly inevitable takeover of Earth by alien war machines is halted by the sudden introduction of a bacterial agent that destroys the tin beasts: "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth".

12 decades after H.G. Wells first wrote his sci-fi masterwork, we have done away with gods; the machine itself is what now powers, disrupts and revolutionises our own society, politics and sense of self. This year's Serpentine Marathon Guest, Ghost, Host: Machine! explores automation, transhumanism and artificial intelligence, the deus ex machina of a modern world that had, just 30 years ago, comfortably reached the end of history. Today's speakers, artists, writers and technologists will provide some new plotlines and explain some of the new characters that are shaping the human story from here on out. The day is begun by the artists Gilbert and George, who open the event with a series of maxims and mantras on God: "God will come to get you / God for all / God came up trumps / Exit God."

You can listen along live on Serpentine Radio, follow our live-blogging with the White Pube here, or follow us on Twitter.