Street Automata in France

“La Voyage à Nantes” is a regular summer event designed to promote the currently not very well known city of Nantes, which in 2019 took place from 6th July to 1st Sept. It is very simply organised around a long green line painted on the floor which leads visitors through the streets, passing both temporary and permanent artworks, including the amazing giant elephant which David Soulsby described in the January 2019 edition of the magazine.

The green line also leads you through the rue du Maréchal Joffre. This small, trendy French street includes a baker, hairdresser, bookshop, burger joint, which is no surprise, but if you look up a little you will find that things are on the move. Over the hairdresser’s shop, there is a barber with that curious critical pose which is so typical of his trade, all the while his scissors snipping incessantly. In the base with its transparent cover, a giant comb moves back and forth. Over the vintage clothes shop a woman keeps trying on the same red and white spotted dress, the gearwheels of indecision spinning beneath her feet. All along the street there are a good dozen of these creations, which can be seen during the annual event held in France’s 6th largest city, Nantes which is near to the Atlantic coast and the Bay of Biscay.

The automata were designed by Nantes-based English artist & illustrator Gavin Pryke. He is quoted as saying “I like the idea of making an interactive work that appeals to children and their grandparents alike.” Implementation of the full size automata started in December 2014 with a team of 8 people involved in their production and installation. Installed above shops and restaurants they are quite large so that they can be easily seen and enjoyed from across the street. The bases are reminiscent of the bases of table top automata where turning a handle visibly puts cogs and levers in motion. In rue du Maréchal Joffre the real mechanisms are concealed and the bases have a transparent front revealing mechanisms which are part of the show but do not actually make things move. It’s a hard life as an outdoor automaton, so they are only installed for the duration of the Voyage à Nantes event during July and August. At night the wooden performers are allowed to rest, to get ready for their next action-packed day. After the event they are taken down and moved indoors for some tender loving care to make them fit and ready for the next year.

There is a short film of the street’s automata in action here

Download images of the automata from here