Nostalgia for Cogs, Gears and Terabytes - a celebration of the fantastic in Nantes.
Slowly, to the whirr and hiss of the hydraulics, the head of the heron begins move. The noise silences the audience. Siting on either side of the bird, two operators pull levers and gracefully, the great heron rises, hoisted up by the overhead gantry. Beneath the large wooden wingspan, two panniers hang on either side in which a volunteer from the audience sits. The wings extend to their full length as the flight begins and for three minutes or so, the mechanical heron glides overhead.
This isn’t a passage from Nantes’ famous son, Jules Verne, but one of the many fantastic creations of the imagination at La Galerie des Machines - http://www.lesmachines-nantes.fr/. Situated by the banks of the Loire in the city’s industrial area, the museum can be found by following the richly detailed and colourful murals to the former shipyards of the once-thriving docks. The museum is split over two buildings, the first offers a Steampunk world of fantastic creations and Da Vinci-type designs, and the other allows the visitor to see the workshops where these fantasy animals are created. The visit ends at the very end of the building with the twisted metal tentacles of the Heron’s nest, a series of inter-connected gangways with intricately bedded plants and shrubs.
Photography is strictly prohibited in the workshops, though visitors are treated to a presentation on the highlight of the museum: the Grand Elephant. At seventy feet long and forty feet high, this mechanical pachyderm has seating for the visitors, but it is best to book early as the places go fast. It has scheduled departures (dependent on weather conditions) and travels at a leisurely pace to and past The Carrousel des Mondes Marins, a three-tiered carousel with more of these amazing mechanical creations. Each tier has every kind of sea life operated by gears, ropes and levers, the top tier, (the surface of the sea), offers views of the city and La Galerie des Machines, the middle tier, (the sea beds), offering a view of the bottom tier, (The abyss) all manner of mechanical crabs, sea horses and mechanical crustaceans gyrate and spin beneath. As the hurdy-gurdy music plays, each creation in this mechanical aquarium dips and grinds to the regular blasts of steam.
Across the bridge and beside Nantes train station, the ‘Ultima’ exposition at Le Lieu Unique http://www.lelieuunique.com/site/2015/06/26/ultima/ offers another kind of fantasy, though virtual and yet a natural evolution to the cogs and gears. In the cavernous hall, that was once a biscuit factory, huge sleek flat screens hang from the overhead beams with the story of the computer and the gaming industry jump-cut to a pulsing soundtrack. The walls of the room are one continual screen that flashes up detailed graphics, charts and statistics about the boom of this industry. Large, angled wooden benches on the floor allow the visitor to sit in and inter-act with games, fed by enormous cables that snake down from overhead. On one screen, a documentary plays in a loop about the industry’s huge conventions attended by fans adorned in cosplay of their favourite game characters. Along the far wall, enclosed in glass, is the progression of the computer game – from its earliest punch-card beginnings in 1972 to Pong, Atari, Gameboy and Nintendo to the present day X-Box and Wii consoles. Names like Sega, Playstation and Gamecube already as antique as the works of Verne. Yet looking at both the museum and the exposition on the same day, you can see how his works, inspired by the industrial revolution, have echoed down into the subcultures of Steampunk and gaming. Whether it’s the Grand Elephant or an inter-active experience, each fantastic creation is a result of an engineering principal meeting a vision.