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Guilhem Vellut – Creative Commons

Machines of the Island: A Bestiary of the Impossible


A group of artists and engineers created a fantastic world of machines worthy of the imaginations of Da Vinci or Jules Verne.

On the banks of the Loire River, in the former shipyards of the French port of Nantes, Les Machines de l’île (The machines of the island), is an ambitious and colossal project by Francoise Delaroziére and Pierre Orifice. A surreal space, it’s at once fanciful and monumental.

The project consisted of the design, construction, and animation of machines and enormous mechanical sculptures that move thanks to their complex constructions. Each was created by a team of experts in engineering, carpentry, blacksmithing, programming, scenography, and the arts. An intricate world, it might well have been born from Leonardo da Vinci’s designs or Jules Verne’s novels. The latter, in fact, was born in Nantes and has had an immense historical influence on the local imagination.

Such fantastic machines couldn’t have been born elsewhere. Nantes, in addition to being Verne’s hometown, is also considered the birthplace of steampunk. This was broadly a retro-futuristic sci-fi literary subgenre, which emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The stories that form part of the literary current are usually unfolded in a context where steam technology predominates and are often placed in Victorian-era England, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Evidently, the subgenre took Jules Verne, as well as H.G. Wells, as starting points. Even today, it echoes in Verne’s hometown. 

The machines of the island

The project’s creators, Delaroziare and Orifice, founded the space more than a decade ago with government support, having carried out other urban planning projects in Nantes. Both come from the performing arts world, and have been involved in all its levels, from administration, to management, and stage design. Their colossal designs, machines that are also mechanical beasts, include a mammoth that loads a house onto its back, giant spiders, birds carrying baskets into which people can climb, among many others. Each of these amazing artifacts is operated by a human machinist, who brings the machine to life.
The idea was beautifully implausible: an old shipyard (open to the general public), home to these impossible machines. Moreover, visitors can attest to the process of building these mechanical beings, something which allows a glimpse into the amount of work and talent required for them to come to be. In a world where immediacy surrounds us, the project is a reminder, a vibrant fantasy, that collaboration and imagination can only lead to a magical outcome.

Images: 1) Guilhem Vellut – Creative Commons 2) Nantes Culture & Patrimoine – Creative Commons 

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