XXL Comfort Machine

NI crowds are keen on Jennifer Baumeister's comfort machine

Your family are too busy. Your friends too hungover to care. God never seems to answer, so where do you turn for those essential words of comfort? In 2007 we have machines that massage our aching muscles. We have machines that brush our teeth. And now, courtesy of German artist Jennifer Baumeister, we have a machine to comfort us in times of need – our new inanimate confidente, the XXL Comfort Machine.

XxL Comfort MachineBuilt like an ATM or a 1980s arcade game, the XXL Comfort Machine offers the user three different options: man, woman or child. Having chosen the type of person that you want, a close-up image of the person appears onscreen, followed by that persons entry.

Baumeister has already collated the majority of entries needed for the English version of the machine. One female entry goes as follows: 'I just want to say it's going be OK. Everything happens for a reason. You're going to be fine.' Another entry, this time from a Belfast man, is short but sweet: 'Sit down, put your feet up and de-stress. Think about the good things in life.'

Baumeister has worked on a number of video installations in her career as a visual artist, including one project entitled 'Hotel'. Here, Baumeister filmed various people cutting their toenails or checking themselves in the mirror in a room at the Hotel am Griebnitzsee. The resulting footage was then looped on the in-house television service, where vistors might stumble across it as they channel surf, setting themselves up as unwitting voyeurs in Baumeister's tongue-in-cheek take on CCTV society.

The XXL Comfort Machine is infinitely more ambitious. Frustrated with the generic administration of comfort through language and physical contact alone, Baumeister set out to devise a new medium through which comfort could be dispersed.

Having worked with video art and digital media in past projects, Baumeister decided to record the comforting words of strangers and thereafter to distribute them using video. Her resulting video art installation has been shown in art galleries and public places – including train stations and doctors' surgeries – throughout Germany and Hungary.

‘I try to get as many different people as possible, to see how they react on the topic of comfort. I always ask the same question in the beginning – "what would you say to a person who is very dear to you who in is in distress? You don’t know why the person is in distress, but the only way to comfort him is through the camera." So you get all sorts of different responses. Cheryl Bleakley

‘Some people talk about their own experiences, while some people just recite poems or sing a song. I’ve had people who didn’t talk at all, just try to be comforting by looking at people. Users wear headphones so they feel close to the person.’ 

German and Hungarian versions of the Comfort Machine exist, and Baumeister is putting the final touches to the English version before collating the 120 entries needed for her new Gaelic version. She is confident that the people of Northern Ireland – whom she has been recording for her English and Gaelic versions – will be able to use the Comfort Machine itself some time in springtime 2008, when she returns to participate in the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

'First I made one where you can change the language. You have German and Hungarian, and now I’m here working on the English and Irish ones. I’ll probably be here next May in Belfast and I’ll put it out in public spaces so people can use it.’ 

Baumeister held recording sessions in Holywood, Comber and Belfast, one location being Musgrave Park Hospital. Cheryl Bleakley is the hospital's artist-in-residence.

'I saw an advertisement that Jennifer had sent out for participants to take part in an installation about comfort. I thought it would be really relevant in this context.

'The comfort machine could benefit the people who are taking part in it through exploring the notion of comfort and where it’s most needed, in places where people are having to deal with a lot of difficult issues such as physical and mental pain. When you’re asked to sit down and comfort somebody in a generic way it can be quite difficult, but the machine makes us recognise our own individual comfort styles. That’s why it’s so important.'

In the long run Baumeister's aim is to have XXL Comfort Machines permanently installed in public places throughout Europe, such as shopping centres and airports, where stress levels are often high and where the public might benefit from their aid. In 2007 devices like mobile phones and Blackberries have brought us closer together than we could have imagined 20 ago. But what happens if the batteries go dead? Let's hope Baumeister is successful in her bid to bring the comfort machine to the people, so that comfort is available to all at the touch of button.